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Sectarianism within Buddhism

Alexander Berzin
Berlin, Germany, March 2011

Unedited Transcript
Listen to the audio version of this page (1:35 hours)

This evening I’ve been asked to speak about the issue of sectarianism and nonsectarianism within Buddhism itself. This is quite difficult topic if one starts to look at it in greater depth, not just superficially that all the teachings are the teachings of the Buddha and they’re all great – not just on that level – and to just think that one is better than the others is being sectarian. But rather than that type of superficial way of treating the topic, if we look more deeply we see that actually it’s a very complicated issue.

Approaches to Comparative Religion

In a previous lecture here, we discussed sectarianism in terms of interreligious sectarianism, specifically between Buddhism and Islam. And tonight the issue is concerning, within Buddhism, all the various forms of Buddhism, and more specifically the different traditions within Tibetan Buddhism. And to understand what sectarianism is, let me just review the three approaches that I’ve introduced in our discussion about Buddhism and Islam, these three approaches to comparative religion: we had the exclusivist, the inclusivist, and the pluralist approaches.

[See: Elaboration of “Is There a Common Ground between Buddhism and Islam” with Discussion.]

The Exclusivist Approach

The exclusivist approach is that only one religion – in our case, only one Buddhist tradition – has the true path to liberation and enlightenment, and all the others are wrong. This could take the form of denying that some teachings are actually the teachings of the Buddha. For instance, we find this among some followers of Hinayana, saying that Mahayana is not the teachings of the Buddha.

Or it could be the attitude that we find among some followers of the Sarma traditions, those of the new translation period traditions in Tibet – Gelug, Kagyu, and Sakya – toward the termas (gter-ma), these hidden treasure texts that we find mostly in Nyingma (we do find a little bit of that in Kagyu as well).

Or another form of this exclusivist approach would be the attitude that although other Buddhist traditions may treat the same topics in common with us, nevertheless their positions are false: they don’t actually lead to liberation or enlightenment.

So that’s the exclusivist approach, and we would of course call that a sectarian approach.

The Inclusivist Approach

The second approach – inclusivist – is the attitude that there are many paths to liberation and enlightenment, Buddha taught them all, but one is superior; in other words, ours is the best. This also, like exclusivism, would count as a sectarian attitude.

The Pluralist Approach

According to pluralism, the third approach, there many paths to liberation and enlightenment and none of them is superior. So this pluralist approach just presents the various positions of different Buddhist traditions concerning topics in common, but with no ranking of them. And of course this could be done either in terms of a, let’s say, an academic approach – scholarly approach – just presenting the various forms of Buddhism. Or it could be in the approach of a practitioner. And again within a practitioner, that category, a practitioner who practices only one tradition or a practitioner who practices a few traditions. But this approach is just, basically, dealing with correct information about the different Buddhist traditions, what we would traditionally call a nonsectarian approach.

Forms of Sectarianism

But the question really is, how do these distinctions fit in the context of the Buddhist traditions? And I think that we need to distinguish between two forms of sectarianism here. One is the innate sectarianism within the assertions of a Buddhist tradition itself – in other words, are there sectarian aspects that are part of various Buddhist traditions within the teachings of that tradition? – and sectarianism of a follower of a specific Buddhist tradition, regardless of what that tradition actually says.

So let’s look first at this innate form. And there are many aspects to this.

Is there an Innate Sectarianism in Buddha’s Teachings on the Three Purified States?

Buddha himself ranked three… the Sanskrit term is bodhi (byang-chub). Bodhi is a purified state, and this would be the state of a shravaka (nyan-thos) arhat, a pratyekabuddha (rang-rgyal) arhat, or a bodhisattva (byang-chub sems-dpa’) arhat (which is a Buddha). Arhat (dgra-bcom-pa) is a liberated being. The shravakas are those who, basically, listen to the teachings when the Buddha is around or the Buddhas’ teachings are around and then practice accordingly toward liberation. Pratyekabuddhas are those who live during the dark ages between Buddhas being present in the world or their teachings being present in the world, and they practice based on instincts that come from previous lifetimes; and they’re also working toward liberation for themselves. And then the bodhisattvas are those who work toward the liberation and enlightenment of everyone.

Now in terms of these three bodhis, Buddha himself spoke about these three different goals and that they have different realizations and different amounts of positive force (bsod-nams, Skt. punya) that are necessary for attaining each of them – or merit – that’s built up over different lengths of time, whether it’s three lifetimes or seven lifetimes or three countless eons or a zillion eons, etc. Buddha also spoke about – and the Indian teachers spoke about – a difference in the amount of what they have stopped (or gotten rid of forever) from their mental continuums for those who achieve each of these goals. And even within aiming for one goal, let’s say liberation or enlightenment, Buddha taught different tenet systems with skillful means for different persons for attaining these various goals.

So conventionally I think we would have to say that there are differences, and there are these different goals and one is more complete than another. This is not a sectarian issue. There’s no dispute in any Buddhist school that Buddha taught methods that lead to these three goals. But sometimes you could have, on top of that, a value judgment that one of these purified states is the best – for example, enlightenment – and just aiming for our own liberation is selfish. So you have this, and then that starts to get into a bit of a sectarian mode.

You have this attitude often in the various versions of the lam-rim (graded stages of the path), where we have three graded spiritual aims with three levels of motivation (kun-slong) for attaining them: higher rebirth, liberation, and enlightenment. And although there can be very positive motivations that would move us toward achieving each of these three spiritual goals that are ranked in terms of being more complete in terms of what one has gotten rid of from one’s mental continuum and what one has attained… These motivations for achieving that can be positive – like for instance, for achieving liberation, renunciation would be the motivation (this is the determination to be free from all forms of suffering) – but there can also be a negative aspect that is overlaid onto that, which is that this is selfish and self-cherishing. Obviously not at the final goal when you have achieved liberation, because then you’ve gotten rid of grasping for a truly existent self, but along the way it would be motivated by self-cherishing, just thinking of ourselves. So it is quite possible within the fact that Buddha taught these three goals and that they are, in a sense, graded, one could add on top of that quite a sectarian view.

There’s also big discussions between these three goals, these three purified states, being whether they are final, ultimate goals – three different final, ultimate goals – or there’s just one ultimate goal. So for instance, when we say that there are three final, ultimate goals – and you find this in some of Buddha’s sutras – then this assertion is that once we’ve gained the liberation of an arhat, you can’t go on to become a Buddha. And this is not necessarily an exclusivist point of view, because shravaka and pratyekabuddha vehicles don’t claim that following them will lead to enlightenment. It is only if they claim that following the shravaka teachings you could achieve enlightenment and then they say, “But you can’t achieve that enlightenment,” that you could say that this would be sectarian. But they don’t claim that they can lead to enlightenment; they just claim they lead to liberation.

So we have the presentation of these three goals, these three ultimate goals. But also there’s an inclusivist point of view, which is that everybody can achieve enlightenment, though they won’t necessarily have to become a Buddha – even if they become an arhat. So here we can have that you can go in the general direction of liberation but, before you get there, switch to enlightenment, working for enlightenment. That’s sort of the lam-rim type of approach; you don’t go all the way to achieving arhatship before you become a bodhisattva. Or we also have the assertion that after achieving liberation as an arhat, you could at that point also switch to work toward enlightenment.

So there’s a variety of ways of regarding these three purified states (these three different levels of arhats) and the three spiritual goals of the three levels of motivation, some of them sectarian, some of them nonsectarian, and so on, but based on just the fact that Buddha taught these three different goals. So you start to appreciate that this can be quite confusing and quite complex. Is there an innate sectarianism built into the system already by having three spiritual goals? Or is there our attitude toward them, or the traditional attitude toward them, that has been overlaid on that? And has it been overlaid by a tradition that then asserts it – so it’s innate within that tradition – that says, for instance, that if you work toward liberation that this is a self-cherishing selfish motivation? So that’s quite sectarian, I think, if you look at it objectively. Or is there just a presentation that there are these three goals and not necessarily accusing one goal of being selfish? One could of course, in a more skillful way, say that there’s the danger of it being selfish and self-cherishing, but that’s quite different from saying that it necessarily is selfish. So there we see the difference between a sectarian and a nonsectarian type of approach there.

Now let’s look a little bit at how these various schools that developed after Buddha came about and what their positions have been.

Sectarianism in the Eighteen Hinayana Schools

In the early stages, we get what’s known as the eighteen schools of Hinayana. (Although Hinayana is a derogatory term that’s given by Mahayana – so it’s a rather sectarian term – there isn’t another convenient term that could be used for these eighteen schools which are not Mahayana.)

[See: The Terms Hinayana and Mahayana.]

And how do they differ? They differ primarily in vinaya interpretation; that’s interpretation of the monks’ and nuns’ vows. They’re disputing what did Buddha actually mean by this vow or that vow. So they’re not really saying that one is best or that Buddha didn’t teach this vow, or things like that; it’s an argument on quite a different level.

And they also have different views concerning the actual attainments of an arhat and the actual attainments of a Buddha. They accept that these are on different levels, but how they are different – how does an arhat differ from a Buddha? – this they also dispute. That’s not really a sectarian issue; that’s more an issue of interpretation. Everybody accepts that Buddhas are superior to arhats and Buddhas have more abilities and a greater understanding than arhats.

So just because we have these eighteen schools with different assertions doesn’t necessarily mean that innate within them is a sectarian attitude or view.

These eighteen schools spread and were dominant in different parts of India, so in one part of India you had Theravada more prominent, and in another one you had Sarvastivada more prominent, etc. And different ones spread to other parts of Asia, to Central Asia and onto China, Japan, Korea, Vietnam. The whole movement went down to Sri Lanka and to Southeast Asia, and also… Well, that’s where they went. These early schools didn’t spread into Tibet.

And over history they developed different abhidharmas; abhidharmas are the teachings of general topics of knowledge. So they have slightly different lists of the mental factors, slightly different descriptions of many different aspects of the path. And also they developed slightly different versions of some of the sutras as well. It’s hard to say why they developed. Remember, nothing was written down in this early period, so it could be different people remembered things differently. It could have been that different people themselves… I mean, there’s one view that abhidharma was not actually taught by the Buddha, that it was taught by various arhats who followed, so there could be different views in terms of what they taught, or different ones taught different things, and so on.

Just because there are these differences doesn’t necessarily mean that we have sectarianism here. Sectarianism I think, from these definitions or explanations of exclusivism, inclusivism, and pluralism, has to deal with more the issue of reaching the goals: liberation and enlightenment. Because of course within any two systems there’s going to be differences.

Now over time, these different eighteen traditions developed different views of the two truths, for instance. But in these Hinayana schools, the two truths are a way of dividing all phenomena. So one school – let’s say within Sarvastivada, the Vaibhashikas – will divide all phenomena into two types of true phenomena: conventional and ultimate (or deepest) true phenomena. And the way that Sautrantika will divide it will be different. Well, both of them, however, assert that a Buddha’s omniscience includes both. So again this isn’t really an issue of sectarianism about how they assert the two truths.

But for the most part, all these eighteen schools keep the same view of a lack of a true identity or true soul of persons, the so-called selflessness of persons. They all assert the same thing, except for one very, very minor branch of one of them. And they all assert that this leads to liberation and enlightenment – that this is all you need. They usually say that a Buddha just needs to build up much more positive force or merit than an arhat, for a longer time. And the eighteen schools didn’t really dispute the methods that lead to these goals, but undoubtedly there was, on an individual level, favoritism – that “My school is better than the others.” And you did have the tradition of one school breaking off from another because of the differences that they had, particularly about vinaya, the monks’ discipline. So after the second council, the Mahasanghika group split off from the Theravadins.

Okay. So enough of these eighteen Hinayana schools. As we can see, there’s not so much innate sectarianism within them, although individual sectarianism could certainly be overlaid on them.

Sectarianism in the Mahayana Schools

Now within Mahayana schools it starts to become a little bit more complicated. The various Mahayana schools… We’re talking about Chittamatra and Madhyamaka. And within Madhyamaka there are many different ways of dividing Madhyamaka according to different authors and different Tibetan traditions; let’s just speak in terms of Svatantrika and Prasangika. They all of them say that the Chittamatra… I mean, all of them are speaking about different various views of the voidness of phenomena and they all speak about different levels of the voidness of persons, but in slightly different ways.

The Chittamatrins and the Svatantrika-Madhyamikas assert different levels of understanding for gaining liberation and enlightenment. So to gain liberation, you need to just understand the voidness of persons. Voidness, remember, means an absence of impossible ways of existing. And so there’s a certain impossible way of existing of persons, and you have to understand that that doesn’t refer to anything real: a person that is like a soul, something static that is not affected by anything, and although of course it goes on forever, but that it never ever changes, that it is a monad (in other words, an indivisible type of thing either tiny like an atom, like a spark of life, or the size of the universe), and that it can exist separately from any aggregates, from a body or a mind. So this is impossible, they say. So all of them agree that if you understand that that’s not referring to anything real then you gain liberation. Well, actually that’s just part, because there’s two levels – there’s a deeper level of understanding – but this is not the place to go into that.

So they say that – they agree – that Chittamatra and Madhyamaka lead to liberation, with that same view, with the same view. But the Svatantrika-Madhyamaka says that the Chittamatra view itself doesn’t lead to enlightenment – that you have to have the Svatantrika or Prasangika point of view, the Madhyamaka point of view.

And according to the non-Gelugpas… they say that Prasangika agrees with the Svatantrika on this point. And so they say that you need a different view in order to attain enlightenment. That’s the voidness of all phenomena. And what’s not referring to anything real there is an impossible way of existing which is a different impossible way of existing from that of persons (although it would include persons). So it gets complicated. This again is not the place for teaching on voidness, but the point being that they assert that, with a Chittamatra point of view and a Svatantrika-Madhyamaka point of view, you can gain liberation, but with the Chittamatra view you can’t attain enlightenment, according to the Svatantrika-Madhyamikas. Or according to non-Gelugpa, all Madhyamikas say that.

According to the Gelugpas… Gelugpas have their own point of view here. They agree that this is what the Chittamatrins and the Svatantrika-Madhyamikas say, but they say the Prasangikas say that you need the same view for liberation and enlightenment, just different amounts of positive force. So according to the Gelugpa… they say that Prasangikas say that the other Indian traditions don’t actually lead to, even, liberation.

Non-Gelugpas are saying that – according to the Madhyamikas – that the teachings that everybody gives will lead to liberation, but these lower teachings, so-called lower teachings, won’t lead to enlightenment. And Gelugpa says that with these lower teachings it won’t even lead to liberation, let alone enlightenment.

So is this a form of sectarianism innate within Mahayana traditions? And if so, is it an exclusivist form or an inclusivist form?

The exclusivist position would be that their paths don’t lead at all to liberation or enlightenment. And the inclusivist position would be that all lead to the same goal but ours is supreme; and the form that it would take is that the other tradition is actually a lower stage of our path, so they need to be led, in the end, to our path, to reach the same goal we attain with our path, and which they were aiming for but could not get to if they followed only their own path. So, very subtle here, of how it’s a sectarian point of view.

In Gelugpa, for instance, the views of the non-Prasangikas are considered coarse levels of understanding of the lack of a true identity of persons and phenomena, while the Prasangika view is a subtle form. And so of course you have to understand and realize the coarse form first, what these other traditions teach, and that’s okay but it will only get you so far, and actually it’s just a stage on our path, and our path adds to it the subtle form of this understanding, and that’s what actually will bring you to liberation and enlightenment.

Gelugpa also says, on the final stages of sutra and the lower three classes of tantra, that on this tenth bhumi level of mind – so that’s the final stage of a bodhisattva – that you have to switch to the anuttarayoga tantra type of practice and way of accessing the clear light mind, the subtlest mind, in order to rid yourself forever of the subtlest level of these cognitive obscurations preventing omniscience (shes-sgrib), the so-called habits of grasping for true existence.

But Gelugpa isn’t the only school within the Tibetans that have this so-called innate inclusivist, this sectarian point of view here. In Sakya, their approach to understanding of voidness is that first you need to understand the Chittamatra view, and once you have that then you… You know, that everything has as its natal source (rdzas) – both the cognition of something and its object – they share the same natal source (rdzas-gcig) from a seed of karma (sa-bon). Then they modify it. Once you understand that, then they modify it with a Madhyamaka view. So the Chittamatra view is just a stage on the development toward the Madhyamaka point of view.

Or another inclusivist form here could be that, on the final stages, that someone, a practitioner, will automatically come to realize the Prasangika point of view. Like Gelugpa says: that following anuttarayoga tantra with a Chittamatra view, that when you reach a certain stage, automatically you will realize the Prasangika point of view; you don’t have to actually have studied it – it will become obvious to you from your experience.

Views of the Indian Tenet Systems

Now it starts to become complicated. You would have thought perhaps that was complicated already. But now here’s where the complication comes in, is that both non-Gelugpa and Gelugpa refute views of so-called lower Indian tenet systems – with logic, it’s not just based on “I think so,” that “Mine is better.” So it’s all based on logic. So it’s based on fact known through inference, inferential understanding based on logic, and it’s not based on opinion. And this is because it’s very hard to say on the basis of pragmatism that all traditions lead to the same goal or they don’t lead to the same goal. Pragmatism would be straightforward or bare cognition (mngon-sum) that somebody else is a Buddha, or somebody else, by following this tenet view, they’ve actually achieved liberation or they’ve actually achieved enlightenment – because everybody agrees that only a Buddha can know accurately if somebody else is a Buddha.

So this becomes very difficult if everybody has to rely on logic – and they all rely on logic – to refute other positions within Buddhism. So now you start to wonder what’s going on here. I mean, you could also say that one person’s logic is not as good as the other person’s logic. And you have all these debates, and the debates are usually based in terms of “Not only is your line of reasoning faulty, but you have contradicted yourself within your logical assertions.”

But then you could have another point of view here, which is when we say that one view is less sophisticated and subtle than another, is that like the difference between Newtonian and relativistic physics? Newtonian physics describes things and it’s a coarse understanding, but on that basis it works: you can do things. And relativistic physics explains it on a more sophisticated level, but that’s true also. So are they… Both work, but one gives more accurate results? But that’s not quite analogous here, because none of the systems here – we’re talking about the Indian tenet systems here – none of them assert that all the tenet systems work to reach liberation and enlightenment; all of them say that it’s their own system that works for this.

So I think that even if this evaluation of levels of sophistication of the different positions of these tenet systems is based on fact and on logic, in a sense I think that it could be called a type of innate sectarianism. Then the question is, does this evaluation have innate, within it, a disturbing attitude of presumption, arrogance, and narcissism? In other words, by having this position, does it imply that we assume that we know what their tradition means actually better than they do? We know that their tradition is really just a coarse understanding and that they were just following it in order to be able to eventually come to our system. So that’s pretty arrogant and pretty narcissistic – “Ours is the best.” And it presumes – there’s presumption – that we know better than they do. And then there’s the danger of unintentionally looking down on the view of these other traditions, even while acknowledging that they’re useful and in some cases even necessary steps on the way to liberation and enlightenment.

And even when the inclusivist view takes the form that Buddha taught all of these tenet systems – and specifically their views on voidness – as skillful means for different people of different aptitudes and one has an attitude of respect toward all of them, there’s still the attitude that one tenet system is superior, is better, is more accurate – it’s more sophisticated.

So as I said, no one seems to assert that all these Indian tenet systems lead to liberation and enlightenment purely on their own. Complicated, isn’t it? Difficult.

In places like Nalanda, this great center of study, this monastery – monastic university, I guess we’d call it – in India, the monks there studied all four tenet systems, all of these tenet systems. So it seems on the surface that this was nonsectarian, at least in its curriculum, but it’s hard to say if they considered one as the highest. Certainly if we look at texts like Shantideva’s Engaging in Bodhisattva Conduct (Bodhisattvacharyavatara) or Chandrakirti’s Supplement to Madhyamaka (Madhyamakavatara) they certainly are asserting that the Madhyamaka view is superior and they refute Chittamatra and various other Buddhist views. So innate sectarianism. The question of course is, is it just a factual thing or do we have, on top of that, these disturbing attitudes of arrogance and narcissism – “We know better,” and so on? When that’s added to it, then it starts to become quite problematic.

Now Indian Buddhism with these tenet systems spread to East Asia, Southeast Asia, and Tibet. So let’s just look at the Tibetan case.

Sectarianism in the Tibetan Traditions

There were many translations and transmissions of different teachings of sutra and tantra, and they coalesced in the Tibetan traditions. They all accept, in one form or another, an innate sectarian view toward the Indian tenet systems. They have many different assertions on many different points of Dharma and many forms of quite similar practices, both sutra and tantra. That’s these Tibetan traditions – Nyingma, Kagyu, Sakya, and Gelug. But that’s the case also within each Tibetan tradition; each tradition will have many different practices and many different assertions, because there are many different authors and they don’t all agree on various points. More important than these differences about practices, or about specific tiny little points, is the assertion of the ultimate view of reality that brings liberation and enlightenment, and here we have some slight differences in that. But none of these Tibetan traditions assert that the Tibetan traditions form a graded path – that one is a more coarse understanding and one is more subtle. So they don’t view… The Tibetan traditions, they don’t view each other the way that the Indian tenet systems view each other. So that’s an important point to realize.

Now the Tibetan traditions, as I said, have different assertions on views of many points within each of these tenet systems from India. So they have different ways of asserting the two truths, different analyses of the different ways of knowing, how conceptual cognition works, how nonconceptual works, etc., and different definitions of terms. But then again the Indian tenet systems and authors also had different definitions. If you look within, for instance, abhidharma, Asanga and Vasubandhu in their two abhidharmas define each of the disturbing emotions slightly differently, for example. And everybody defines truly established existence differently within these tenet systems. So that’s nothing new in the Tibetan form.

Self-Voidness and Other-Voidness

Tibetan traditions have different anuttarayoga tantra or dzogchen practice methods, but these are usually based on different practitioners having different energy systems being more prominent than others, and so different ways of getting nonconceptual cognition of voidness, and so on. They also, however, have different views of voidness. And let me just list without explaining them, because we don’t really have time: There’s what’s called self-voidness (rang-stong). There’s something called other-voidness (gzhan-stong). There’s voidness that can be denumerated (rnam-grangs-pa) with words and concepts (or can fit within words and concepts). There’s voidness that’s beyond words and concepts (brjod-dang rtog-pa-las ’das-pa) but which in the denumerable form, the form that can be discussed in terms of words and concepts, it can be discussed with logic.

So non-Gelugpa (Sakya, Nyingma, and Kagyu) say that self-voidness as presented by Gelugpa – that’s the Gelugpa point of view (they call that self-voidness) – is a necessary lower step on the… It’s what you understand conceptually, and you have to understand that, but it’s on the way to a nonconceptual cognition of voidness, which is beyond words and concepts. Whereas the Gelugpa says that other-voidness is just wrong: it doesn’t lead to liberation or enlightenment.

So again you have the same issues that we discussed in terms of the Indian tenet systems concerning sectarianism, nonsectarianism. Of course it becomes complicated, because when Gelugpa says that other-voidness doesn’t lead to liberation or enlightenment, through that view, and this is what they identify as the wrong view, the non-Gelugpas (who assert other-voidness, and there are many, many different ways of asserting) would say that yes, there is a wrong view of other-voidness that doesn’t lead to liberation or enlightenment, but that’s not our view of other-voidness. So the thing becomes complicated, doesn’t it? Everything is complicated. That’s Buddhism.

So as I said, the position that is refuted, as in this example of Gelugpa refuting other-voidness, might not actually be the position that the other school takes, since they define terms differently. We find a very good example in terms of dependent arising, how that’s defined. When non-Gelugpa says that voidness is beyond dependent arising – the deepest reality is beyond dependent arising – they’re speaking about dependent arising in terms of arising from ignorance or unawareness, like the twelve links. Whereas when Gelugpa says that everything is dependent arising, they’re talking in terms of mental labeling (ming ’dogs-pa). So they’re defining their terms completely differently. So when Gelugpa refutes other-voidness, they’re refuting another voidness with their own definition of it, which… I’m sorry. Let’s start that again: When Gelugpa is refuting this position that deepest truth is beyond dependent arising, they’re using their own definition of dependent arising, not the definition of dependent arising of those who assert that deepest truth is beyond dependent arising is the case.

So again what’s the point? Why are they discussing like that? This is very, very perplexing. Usually the way that I whitewash it – I admit that it’s whitewashing it (that’s sort of making it smooth and nice) – is saying that they’re pointing out extreme views that you could go to if you misunderstood the definitions, if you didn’t get it clear.

Vows Relating to Sectarianism

So now the question becomes, does Buddhism itself speak about this issue of sectarianism? And you’d have to say that, the way that we’ve been discussing it – you know, that certain things don’t lead to liberation or enlightenment, or certain things are lesser forms of our view, and so on – and you would have to say that yes, Buddhism is very aware of this issue, specifically within Mahayana, and the place where we find that issue discussed is within the bodhisattva and tantric vows.

Forsaking the Holy Dharma

So let’s look at the pertinent vows here. The sixth root bodhisattva downfall… I mean, the vows are phased in terms of “If you do this, you have degenerated or fallen from your bodhisattva vows.” The sixth one is forsaking the holy Dharma, and the downfall here is to repudiate (repudiate means to deny), or by voicing our opinions, cause others to repudiate, that the scriptural teachings of the shravaka, pratyekabuddha, or bodhisattva vehicles are the Buddha’s words. So basically saying that these teachings, whether it’s shravaka, pratyekabuddha, or bodhisattva, are not the teachings of the Buddha. And this was certainly an issue. We find that particularly some of the Hinayana schools say that the Mahayana teachings are not the words of the Buddha. And Shantideva refuted that in his text Engaging in Bodhisattva Behavior. He refuted that with logic, which is quite interesting. He said that any reason that you use to refute the authenticity of Mahayana, I could use that same reason to refute the authenticity of your teachings as well, because none of them were written down – they were both passed by oral tradition – and any reason that you give for saying that your teachings are valid I could use to say that our teachings, the Mahayana teachings, are valid, in terms of having as its basis the main points of Buddha’s teachings, and so on.

Deriding our Own or Others’ Tenets

So we have this sixth root bodhisattva downfall, forsaking the holy Dharma. It’s the same as the root tantric vow (at least in principle), the sixth of that one, which is… the downfall there is deriding our own or other tenets. That is to proclaim that any of the Buddha’s teachings are not the Buddha’s words. Talk about others’ tenets, that’s referring to any of the three sutra vehicles – shravaka, pratyekabuddha, [bodhisattva] – as a practitioner of tantra, saying that those are not the words of the Buddha. Or practitioners of that saying that tantra is not the words of the Buddha. Or our own are the tantras, so that could be “Some of the tantras are not the words of the Buddha. Ours are, but not somebody else’s.”

Assessing the Validity of a Teaching

Now this raises a very interesting question, because maintaining this vow doesn’t mean forsaking a historical perspective. Buddha’s teachings were transmitted orally for centuries before being committed to writing, and thus corruptions and forgeries undoubtedly occurred. And so the great masters who compiled the Tibetan Buddhist canon certainly rejected texts, both sutra and tantra, that they considered inauthentic, and they said, “These were not the words of the Buddha.” And these great masters certainly had bodhisattva and tantric vows, but the point is that they didn’t base their decisions on prejudice and opinion; they used the seventh-century Indian master Dharmakirti’s criterion for assessing the validity of any material – this is the ability of its practice to bring about the Buddhist goals of better rebirth, liberation, or enlightenment. That, as I said before, is a little bit difficult to ascertain unless you’re a Buddha – to know that somebody else has actually achieved Buddhahood – but you can see is it going in that direction.

And the other criterion is, does it have the major themes of Buddha’s teachings? And in these texts you’re going to see: should it be included in the Kangyur or not, the translated words of the Buddha? And so the major themes that all of them need to have are of course the four noble truths and the four hallmarks of the Dharma (chos-kyi sdom-bzhi) – another term for it is the four sealing points for labeling an outlook as being based on Buddha’s enlightening words (lta-ba bka’-btags-gyi phyag-rgya-bzhi) – these four, that

  • All affected (’dus-byas, conditioned) phenomena, affected by cause and effect, are impermanent: they’re nonstatic, they change.

  • All tainted phenomena (zag-bcas, contaminated phenomena) are problematic. So anything mixed with confusion or unawareness brings about problems and suffering.

  • All phenomena are devoid and lacking an impossible soul or self.

  • Nirvana release is a pacification of these causes of suffering and it is something constructive.

So based on that criterion, if a teaching – if a text – didn’t have these major points and didn’t seem to actually work when tested by a yogi, an authentic yogi, then you could exclude it from the collected works of the Buddha and say, “This is not the words of the Buddha,” without breaking this bodhisattva or tantric vow.

Another criterion that some masters use, for instance – I think it was Buton – in putting together the Kangyur was, is it based on a Sanskrit text or not? But that’s problematic because there are certain teachings which are revealed in pure visions of a tantric deity or master after the texts were transmitted from India, so there isn’t a Sanskrit original. So this becomes a bit of a problem.

Belittling the Shravaka Vehicle

Now there’s another root Bodhisattva vow, belittling the shravaka vehicle. Here we accept that the text of the shravaka or pratyeka vehicles are the authentic words of the Buddha, but we deny the effectiveness of their teachings and maintain that it’s impossible to become rid of disturbing emotions and attitudes by means of their instructions. Well, that’s our inclusivist point of view, that okay, they’re words of the Buddha, but – well, it could be also exclusivist – but they don’t really lead to getting rid of the disturbing emotions; in other words, they don’t really lead to liberation. It doesn’t explicitly mention gaining enlightenment, but we can include that here. But Mahayana gets around this through inclusivism, by saying that with their understanding you can’t gain enlightenment – or Gelugpa Prasangika says you can’t even gain liberation – but they’re stages on the path. So it doesn’t say completely that they don’t work, but they say that they are stages on the path. So that’s inclusivist.

Rejecting Voidness

There’s a root tantric vow of… the downfall would be rejecting voidness. This is an interesting one. Voidness, or emptiness, refers either to the general teachings of the Prajnaparamita Sutras – those are the sutras on far-reaching discriminating awareness – that all phenomena, not only persons, are devoid of impossible modes of existence. So all phenomena are devoid. That’s the general prajnaparamita teachings. Or voidness could refer to specifically the Mahayana teachings of the Chittamatra, or any of the Madhyamaka schools, concerning phenomena being devoid of a particular impossible way of existing.

To reject such teachings means to doubt them or be indecisive (is this true or not true?), to disbelieve them, or to spurn them (to say, “This is no good. We should completely forget about them.”). Now the point here being, in terms of tantra, that no matter which Mahayana tenet system we hold while practicing tantra, we need total confidence in its teachings on voidness; otherwise, if we reject voidness during the course of our practice or attempt any procedure outside of its context, we may believe, for instance, that our visualizations are concretely real. So this type of misconception just perpetuates the sufferings of samsara; it can even lead to mental imbalance.

So it’s necessary to have some view of voidness while practicing tantra – whether it’s Chittamatra or Madhyamaka, or just a general Mahayana view of voidness – of all phenomena being void of some sort of impossible way of existing. But also they say that it’s necessary, along the way, to upgrade our tenet system from Chittamatra to Madhyamaka – or within Madhyamaka, from Svatantrika to Prasangika – and in the process refute the voidness teachings of our former tenet systems. So how does that fit in with this vow? What this means is… in discarding a less sophisticated explanation, it doesn’t mean leaving ourselves without any correct view of voidness of all phenomena. In other words, the vow has to do with… you break the vow if you practice tantra with no view of voidness whatsoever, but that doesn’t discount that you could upgrade your view of voidness along the way. So it has, underlying it, an inclusivist attitude of sectarianism: that you have to upgrade your view in order to actually attain liberation and enlightenment.

The Sectarianism of Individual Practitioners

So we’ve discussed, then, innate sectarianism within the assertions of a Buddhist tradition itself, but what about the sectarianism of a follower of a specific Buddhist tradition? What’s going on here? And for this, in terms of what Buddhism itself says, there’s a secondary bodhisattva vow. The secondary bodhisattva vows are speaking about faulty actions that are detrimental to either training in one or the other of the six far-reaching attitudes (pha-rol-tu phyin-pa, Skt. paramita) or detrimental to helping others in general.

Forsaking the Mahayana Vehicle

And we have the secondary bodhisattva vow of not to forsake the Mahayana vehicle; that would be a faulty action, to forsake Mahayana. And here we accept that, in general, Mahayana tenets are the authentic words of the Buddha, but we criticize certain aspects of them, specifically texts concerning bodhisattvas’ unimaginably extensive deeds and the inconceivably profound teachings of voidness.

So the thing about bodhisattvas’ unimaginably extensive deeds includes accounts of Buddhas multiplying themselves into countless forms, simultaneously helping numberless beings in myriad worlds. While the latter, these inconceivably profound teachings, are collections of terse and pithy verses extremely difficult to fathom. So what could be included here, in terms of our discussion of the four Tibetan traditions, would be biographies of great masters, like Guru Rinpoche – that we say, “Okay, this is the Mahayana teachings. These things are authentic teachings, in general, of (for instance) the Nyingma school. But come on! About this biography of Guru Rinpoche – all the things that he did are quite fantastic.” And so we would say that this is something that is a bit strange.

So we degenerate our discriminating awareness by repudiating something like this in any of four ways:

  • One would be that their content is inferior: they’re speaking sheer nonsense. (You can see this would also count as quite a sectarian point of view.)

  • The second is their manner of expression is inferior: they’re bad writing and they make no sense.

  • The third one is that their author is inferior: they’re not the words of an enlightened Buddha.

  • And fourth is their use is inferior: they’re of no benefit to anyone.

So by discriminating like that, in a close-minded and sort of hot-headed arrogant way, we damage our ability to discriminate anything correctly.

So when faced with that, with reading such texts or teachings, the main thing that’s always recommended is to just say, “Well, I don’t understand them.” We remain open-minded. We think that “Even though I can’t appreciate or fathom them now, the Buddhas and highly realized bodhisattvas understood their words and realized their meaning, and then through that they were able to benefit others in infinite ways,” and so we develop a firm resolve to try to understand them in the future. There’s no fault if we lack this firm resolve – “I’d like to understand it in the future” – so long as we don’t belittle and denigrate the teachings; we at least maintain equanimity, acknowledging that we don’t understand them. So that would be more of a nonsectarian point of view toward them, rather than saying, “This is ridiculous!” or “What use is this? This doesn’t benefit anyone,” or “This is really bad writing.”

Sectarianism Concerning our Own Tradition

But more common individual sectarianism takes the form of “My Tibetan tradition is the best.” And it’s either exclusivist (the others are no good, they don’t lead to liberation and enlightenment) or inclusivist: they’re okay, to a certain extent, when they follow what we do – their practice of lojong (blo-sbyong, attitude training), bodhichitta, and so on – but ours is the best and the highest. Especially people have that in terms of tantra practices. But we can even have that sectarian attitude, that individual sectarian attitude, within one Tibetan tradition. “My teacher is best. The others are no good,” “My Dharma center is the best. The others are no good,” etc. And again either they don’t lead to enlightenment – “You’re not going to get anywhere, there” – or “Well, some of the things they say are okay, but some of the other things are not very effective (or not good, or not right).” This is usually based on unawareness (ma-rig-pa; usually translated as ignorance), lack of understanding conventional and deepest truth about the lineages, about the Tibetan traditions.

Conventional truth: usually when you have [unawareness about] this, it’s based on not knowing the conventional truth of these various traditions. So you don’t know the distinctive assertions of your own or others’ traditions. You ask somebody, “Why are you so strongly Gelugpa (or Kagyu, or whatever)?” and they have no idea, really, what are the specific individual characteristics of that lineage and what are the specific characteristics of other lineages. So that’s quite sad. Or they only know them partially, or they don’t know any or some of them correctly – they know them incorrectly.

Lineages develop from different teachers and have different practices. If you look at these lineages, there were many translators who came to Tibet, many teachers who came to Tibet, many Tibetans who went to India. And you had various practices, each with their own lineage, and many different lineages of the same practice, and so on, and then various people combine some. And eventually what became sustainable was to have what’s called a tradition, a lineage. So they put together some of them, but what they put together wasn’t necessarily only in their tradition, because some of these lineages would also have been shared by some of the other Tibetan traditions. So this is the way that these traditions evolved. And they mixed and were nonstatic all along the way – things being shared, passed back and forth, in terms of lineages, and so on, and interpreted in different ways. Also the lineages aren’t homogeneous; there’s many variant views and many variant practices within each.

So, as I said, usually when we have this individual sectarianism, it’s based on not knowing (or knowing incorrectly or only partially) the conventional truth – what are the assertions of a tradition. And then of course there’s confusion about the deepest truth. We don’t know, or know incorrectly, the manner in which the existence of the traditions is established. In other words, how they exist. Obviously they arise dependently on parts; they’re dependently arising phenomena.

But actually it’s quite interesting when you analyze, because you can have this unawareness about the conventional and deepest truths about the Tibetan traditions even if you have a nonsectarian view. In other words, you could say they’re all valid ways of leading to enlightenment and liberation, but you don’t have a clear idea of what their differences are or what their assertions are, or you might even have an incorrect understanding of it. And you could certainly grasp at them as existing solidly truly existent and still be nonsectarian. So it becomes a little bit complicated here again.

Conceptual Cognition

When we think about Tibetan traditions, and consequently speak about them, it’s on the basis of conceptual cognition of the lineage. Now so what is conceptual (rtog-bcas) cognition? Conceptual cognition is cognizing something, being aware of something, through a category (spyi, universal), and the category would be the lineage – Gelug, Kagyu, Nyingma, Sakya. And then there is a specifier (ldog-pa, conceptual isolate), it’s called. A specifier is this thing which is nothing other than (ma-yin-pa-las log-pa) this lineage, so it is a sort of an intermediary between the category and what you’re going to use to represent the lineage when you think about it.

It’s like for instance when we think about a dog. Think about a dog. If you think about a dog, I’m sure that everybody has a different mental representation of what a dog looks like, and yet we can all think of dog. So there’s the category dog, there’s the specifier nothing other than a dog, and then what we use to represent a dog. And that’s how we think of a dog, even if we see a dog that doesn’t look like our mental image, our ideal image of the dog. Or when we see another type of dog, we can use that as our representation now when we conceptualize it as a dog.

So what do you think of when you think of Gelug or Kagyu or Sakya or Nyingma? What do you use to represent it? Very interesting question. It could be something vague. You don’t quite know, so just the sound of the word, for example, is representing it. It doesn’t really have content there. So this is a type of category which is just based on the… it’s just an audio category (sgra-spyi); you don’t really know what it means. Or it could be incorrect, one particular view – it could be correct; it could be incorrect. Or it could be a guru, my own teacher; this is what I think of when I think of Gelug or Kagyu or Nyingma. Or it could be a lineage, like Tilopa, Naropa, Marpa, Milarepa, etc. That represents in my mind Kagyu, when I think Kagyu.

But for this representation to be helpful it needs to be based on study and correct information about the assertions and practices of one’s own lineage and what the other lineages assert, so you can have an accurate distinguishing that this is this lineage and not that lineage. So although we might choose only one thing to represent a lineage when we think about it, that one thing is not enough if it is just one little thing within a lineage, like a particular line of gurus. It needs to be based on having a very wide knowledge, and then we choose one thing as an individual representation. That has to do with how do we know categories and individual items within categories.

The Five Deluded Outlooks

On the deepest level we have, when we have this conceptual cognition, we have unawareness. We don’t know how its existence is established or we know it incorrectly. We have that. So we just don’t know how I exist, how the lineage exists, what establishes its existence. And we have grasping for truly established existence or self-established existence of me and the lineage – something on my side that establishes that I exist and something on the side of the lineage that by its own power establishes that it exists.

And then we have, there are these… within the root disturbing emotions and attitudes, there are the disturbing outlooks (lta-ba nyon-mongs-can, deluded outlook) or disturbing views. There’s a list of five of them. And the first of these is called a deluded outlook – these are deluded attitudes – it’s a deluded outlook toward a transitory network (’jig-tshogs-la lta-ba). Transitory network is referring to something in our aggregates – they’re transitory, changing all the time – and so a body, mind, what we perceive. So thinking about the lineage, what we’re thinking about – the representation of a lineage. So the deluded outlook toward this is it seeks to latch onto this category and what it represents as being either me (nga, bdag) or mine (nga’i-ba, bdag-gi-ba). In other words, we have another type of category, me and mine, mixed with truly established existence, and then this deluded outlook is looking around with an attitude and it finds something and it latches onto it with this attitude.

I mean, this is in general talking about having an attitude. We say this in our languages, our Western languages, have an attitude about something. So here the attitude is me and mine. And this deluded outlook is not the attitude itself – the me and mine (that’s a conceptual thing) – but what it is doing is it’s the thing that will throw it onto something; it’s a mental factor that attaches it to something, searches and attaches it onto something. So here it is the lineage: “Me, I’m Gelugpa,” “Me, I’m Kagyupa,” “I’m Nyingmapa,” “I’m Sakyapa.” Or mine: “This is my lineage” – my guru, my Dharma center, my practice, my yidam (meditational deity, Buddha-figure).

Then we have also an extreme outlook (mthar-’dzin-pa’i lta-ba). This is the second of these deluded outlooks, and according to Asanga this is based on this first deluded outlook. It’s to see the lineage as being static: it will never change and it’ll last forever. So that obviously is an incorrect consideration (tshul-min yid-byed). It is an incorrect consideration not only of a non-truly existent thing as being truly existent, but viewing a nonstatic thing as being static. So we tend to think of these lineages with this outlook. What we are doing is we’re attaching this view that this is – this attitude – that this is some solid thing that’s never going to change and is always this – Kagyu, Nyingma, Sakya, Gelug – a solid thing that never ever has changed and is not affected by anything; it exists by itself.

And we could also have a third one, holding a deluded attitude as supreme (lta-ba mchog-tu ’dzin-pa). That basically, with either this first or second attitude or both, saying that mine is the best. So it’s attaching this concept of “this is the best.” And then with a distorted outlook (log-lta), which is the fifth of these five disturbing or deluded outlooks, we repudiate the others. This is basically saying, going together with “Mine is the best,” that “These other ones are incorrect.” So it’s repudiating that they are correct, either in general (as a whole) or a specific practice.

Very interesting. You look at a specific practice within a different tradition from our own, and they’re doing things slightly differently. For example in Gelugpa, the practice, it says, for – according to Asanga, actually – to attain single-minded concentration (ting-nge-’dzin, Skt. samadhi) you need to do it with mental consciousness (yid-kyi rnam-shes), not with sense consciousness (dbang-gi rnam-shes), and so Gelugpa tends to favor gaining single-minded concentration by visualizing a Buddha. Now you go to some of the other traditions, like in Nyingma – some of the Nyingma traditions, I should say – or mahamudra traditions, and they work on staring at a Buddha statue in order to gain single-minded concentration, the first step. So you say, “Hey, this is wrong. That won’t work.”

So this is a distorted outlook. That’s a form of sectarianism, isn’t it? Because basically it comes from not knowing other teachings – not knowing their definition of what is mental consciousness, what is conceptual, what is nonconceptual, what’s sense cognition, etc. Not knowing that. And just looking at one little piece and saying, “This isn’t right because…” – and now the only reason is “because it’s not the same as what I do.” And “Mine is based on this text,” and they’ll say that they’re based on that text. So just because it’s based on a text, it’s not going to prove one view is correct or another. It has to based on logic. And for it to be based on logic, as Shantideva said, the two sides have to agree on definitions; otherwise you’re talking about two different things.

So that’s what’s going on in this conceptual type of cognition.

Grasping at a Tradition as “Me” or “Mine”

What is interesting is that we could hold onto a tradition as mine or me (I’m a Gelugpa, I’m a Kagyu) and we could hold onto it as being static (a solid thing; it’s never going to change) and still be nonsectarian. And we view all of the traditions like that – this is mine, this is not mine, truly existent “me,” truly existent lineage, permanent ones, solid – but we assert that they all lead to liberation and enlightenment and they’re okay, they’re all okay. So just because we have this grasping for true existence and this deluded outlook toward a transitory network, doesn’t necessarily mean that we have a sectarian point of view. For it to be sectarian there needs to be this view of supreme: (“This is the best,”) and a distorted outlook: (“The other one is wrong; it’s not the teachings of the Buddha” or “it doesn’t work,”) and attachment to ours and repulsion toward the others, and of course arrogance: (“Mine is the best.”) So one has to analyze very carefully here what actually makes a sectarian point of view and what can be present in a nonsectarian view without making it sectarian.

Now of course the different lineages have defining characteristics that characterize individual examples of teachers of a lineage. In other words, there are common assertions of the lineage or common lineage gurus. So conventionally you would say they do have defining characteristics. But please note that we’re just talking about general common assertions, because different lamas in a tradition have different assertions, and different practices within different traditions have different lineages, but we can say there are some general ones that define it. But the point is that the existence of the lineage is not established by the power of the defining characteristic findable on the side of the lineage lamas or teachings. That’s a very important point in Prasangika. It isn’t that you look within the teaching and there it says this particular assertion, and by the power of that alone it makes it a Gelugpa teaching or a Kagyu teaching. Or there’s something inside me that makes me, by its own power – my instincts from previous lives, or something like that – that makes me Kagyu or Nyingma or Gelug or Sakya. This is the grasping for solid existence or for existence established by the power of something findable on the side of the object – in this case, a defining characteristic.

Even though there are defining characteristics, but you can’t find them and they don’t have the power by themselves to establish things, because even the defining characteristics are mentally labeled or chosen. They’re not just sitting there by themselves as being a common characteristic, otherwise they’re just words – they’re just assertions. But it’s necessary to know these defining characteristics, these common ones, based on knowing them correctly and knowing that a lineage is established merely as the referent object – not a findable referent thing, but a referent object – of a mental label on the basis of individual items having the common defining characteristic. Then you have a correct conceptual cognition of it.

We have the word dog. Dog. And we can think of it; we have a mental representation of a dog. What is a dog? A dog is what that label dog refers to – referent object – on the basis of all these different kinds of dogs. There is such a thing as a dog, conventionally, and it is what that term refers to, what the category refers to. But there isn’t a referent thing sitting out there that, by its own power, makes it a dog and not a wolf or not something else. It could be a completely different conceptual framework that would never put together a poodle and a German shepherd and a Mexican Chihuahua as being all within one category, dog. They look completely different – why would you call them all dogs? So it’s merely a concept that is used to refer to a group of things, based on an arbitrarily chosen set of common characteristics. Do you follow?

So it’s the same thing with the traditions as well. There are certain things which were put together. I mean, after all, lots of different teachers came to Tibet, lots of different Tibetans went to India; they came back, they had different teachings, they even remembered them differently, they might have even different versions of the same text, they lived in different places, they had different monasteries, different people understood them or practiced them differently. And someone came along and said, “Okay, all of you are going to be…” or they agreed among themselves, “We’re going to form a group.” That’s arbitrary, isn’t it? Not totally arbitrary, because they agreed on certain common assertions or common lineages – some – but none of them were exclusive, because teachings that were translated by Marpa went into Gelugpa as well – into Sakya as well, not just into Kagyu. So there’s nothing sitting out there on the side of practitioners or monasteries, or anything, that makes it, by its own power, Gelug or Kagyu. A sign with a name, by its own power, doesn’t make it Gelug or Kagyu, does it? Well, this is important to understand.

If we have this correct understanding… Then again, we can have either a sectarian or a nonsectarian view of it. This could conventionally be my lineage that I follow or my main lineage. Or “I’m nonsectarian. I follow all of them.” But even within that, I could have a view that mine is superior. Well, would that be nonsectarian? That would be sectarian. So this is a very, very delicate thing, how we view the various lineages. And if we have a correct understanding, that doesn’t necessarily mean that we have a nonsectarian point of view; it could still be sectarian, in terms of “mine is better” or “this is superior” and so on. Now it doesn’t necessarily have to have attachment and arrogance, not necessarily. You could argue it with logic, that this is more logical, but then you have views that say that this is beyond logic, so that becomes very difficult, doesn’t it?

Practicing Several Lineages

Now one final point. Even when we are supposedly nonsectarian – pluralist – and we practice more than one lineage of teachings… And this is happening more and more, particularly in the West. We have teachers who have studied a little bit of Theravada, particularly – specifically – the vipassana (lhag-mthong, Skt. vipashyana, special insight) form that’s developed in the West (well, coming from Burma, but the way that it has rooted in the West and is practiced in the West). And they have a little bit of Tibetan traditions, a little bit of Zen, and they sort of put it together and say, “We’re nonsectarian.” It’s very important – this is something that His Holiness the Dalai Lama emphasizes – not to mix. And not to mix means that we don’t just put it all together and make a soup out of it. That when we practice one type of practice, or one lineage, we do that separately from practicing another one.

So if we’re going to do some vipassana – well, you do that in one session. While doing vipassana, you don’t recite a mantra. Or going to do a mantra practice, do it at the same time while trying to practice Zen, and so on. You don’t mix these things. You do them separately. This means having respect for each of them that we are practicing together. And this is within the traditions, as well: We might have received, learned a certain practice from a Gelug lama and then another one from a Kagyu and a Nyingma. So you do them individually, [not] mix them all together into one sort of mess.

But that doesn’t mean that there aren’t certain ways of putting things together. Like for instance, within Nyingma and Kagyu there is a certain tradition from a Kagyu master that – he’s called Chagmey [Karma Chagmey (Kar-ma Chags-med)] – who had a method for combining mahamudra and dzogchen, which meant that up to a certain point you practice the mahamudra practices, but then at a certain point you switch to dzogchen type of practices. So that’s not mixing. That is practicing each of these two traditions at a specific point. Now you could say, is this an inclusivist sort of thing, that if you practice mahamudra you wouldn’t get all the way to enlightenment and that you have to practice dzogchen in order to get to enlightenment? Or is it just presenting it as another variant of what you could do? A sectarian and a nonsectarian way of looking at this type of thing.

Also, within Gelugpa, we have the combined practice of the three major yidams: Guhyasamaja, Vajrabhairava and Chakrasamvara. This is the main practice of the tantric colleges. And this has to do with, on the generation stage (bskyed-rim) – that’s the first stage of anuttarayoga practice – you practice the three individually, but on the complete stage (rdzogs-rim) then… Each of these teachings has more detail on one aspect of the complete stage practice than the other, and so you fill in the detail from Guhyasamaja about what’s called illusory body (sgyu-lus); you fill in the detail from Chakrasamvara about the practices of tummo (gtum-mo, inner heat) and the four blisses (dga’-ba bzhi) and methods for getting to clear-light mind (’od-gsal); and you practice those within the context of Vajrabhairava. So this again would not be considered mixing. This is a highly realized master taking the strong points from each of these, at a certain stage, and supplementing a practice – because Vajrabhairava contains practices that have aspects of what you find in more detail in Guhyasamaja and what you find in more detail in Chakrasamvara – and putting it in there and supplementing it. So that is not considered mixing, either.

Conclusion

So when we are dealing with all these different Tibetan traditions, and not only Tibetan Buddhist traditions but all the other forms of Buddhism, then we definitely are faced with the issue of sectarianism or nonsectarianism.

In most of the major cities now, around the world, there are so many Dharma centers. And it is not just one or two Dharma centers from one tradition or another tradition within the different Tibetan traditions, the different Zen traditions, the different Chinese traditions that are non-Zen, the different Theravada traditions, and so on, but even within one lineage there are so many different centers – from different teachers, and so on – and so it’s very easy to fall into a trap of sectarianism. And the sectarianism, as I said – we need to distinguish between what is innate within the Buddhist systems themselves, particularly in terms of these Indian tenet systems and the levels of motivation and so on, and what is an individual type of prejudice, of sectarianism, which could be fostered by the lama as well, by the teacher, and it could be fostered by a group within a monastery – “Our textbooks are the best. The other textbooks are no good.” – this type of attitude is there as well. And we have to distinguish what makes a view sectarian, what makes it nonsectarian. Even if it’s sectarian, is it something which is not so negative but something which is based on fact? Would we call that sectarian? Would we not call it sectarian? Sectarian after all is just a word that refers to something.

So as I said in the beginning, this is a very complex issue and one that we can approach in a very superficial way. “They’re all good. Don’t be sectarian. And these people that ‘Mine is the best!’ and have this football mentality – it’s just based on ignorance. They don’t know their own system. They don’t know anybody else’s system.” You leave it on that superficial level. Or you can do like what we’ve done this evening, is analyze on a much deeper, sophisticated level what actually is going on in this issue, and we see that it’s not so easy to resolve.

So thank you. That’s all that I wanted to explain. Are there any questions?

Questions and Answers

Participant: [unclear]

Alex: All right. So let me summarize. What he’s saying is that he has studied – and he’s not the only one, obviously, who has studied with someone who is a so-called “lineage holder,” and this teacher emphasizes that it is important to just follow his lineage or her lineage and not to follow other lineages. And that teacher has a responsibility to further that lineage, pass it on to others in the future. And how do we actually know that this is the best for us without actually studying and learning about other traditions? But these other traditions and lineages, the teacher says, would be too confusing: just follow this. And we’re faced with a dilemma.

There are several issues, very important issues, that your question brings up. First of all, what in the world is a lineage holder? Within any tradition of Tibetan Buddhism, there are many, many lineages. Each practice has a lineage and so it’s very hard to say… and each monastery, in a sense, has a lineage. And so what are we actually following? Or in Nyingma, each terma (gter-ma) tradition has a lineage; the people not only practice termas, these treasure texts, they practice other things as well. So it becomes a little bit confusing when one teacher says, “Here’s the lineage and follow it,” because that lineage undoubtedly is containing many things that are in common with other lineages.

But putting that issue aside – of what is a lineage and how is a lineage actually transmitted – who becomes a lineage holder, and who has the authority to say that somebody is a lineage holder so that their name actually appears in lineage prayers? That’s also a very contentious issue, of how do you get somebody’s name in a lineage prayer, and do different people have different names in it, and so on. But let’s leave that political issue aside.

The dilemma that we’re all faced with is: how do we choose a lineage? Now we all have different capacities, and so for some people studying one lineage is difficult enough – or one tradition, let’s say (let’s call it a tradition of a way of practicing a set of practices) – is difficult enough. For others it would be very beneficial, a teacher might tell us, to study many different traditions. Because if you’re going to become a teacher, for example, or become a Buddha, you have to be able to deal with people of different aptitudes, people coming from different traditions, so you have to know what they’re talking about – have some knowledge (if not experience) as well. So it depends on the capacity.

Now this becomes very difficult when you have a Dharma center with many different members. Does the Dharma center have just an open policy, inviting teachers from all lineages to come and teach? For a lot of people that would be very confusing. Or does it have a main line of practice and then invites some guest teachers sometimes? Or does it only have a main practice, a main line, and doesn’t invite outside teachers? So there are three possibilities here. And that’s very difficult for a center to decide, or a lama who is in charge of a center to decide, what would be most beneficial, because a center is not static – the members come and go, and their aptitudes and capacities are all very different. So that’s one point.

Another point, as His Holiness the Dalai Lama always says, in terms of practicing more than one tantric deity (Buddha-figure). He says that in the beginning it is helpful to practice several of them; this is the tradition – whether in one lineage or many lineages, that’s another point – but to practice many of them in the beginning. And it’s only when we are ready to devote ourselves 100% of the time to achieving enlightenment that, at that point, you have to choose one and follow just that. So again what we study and what we practice will be different at different stages of the path. But at the beginning it’s very hard, I must say, to even identify what are the common assertions of Buddhism, because, as we said – the four noble truths, the four hallmarks of the teachings, these sort of things – [but in addition] there are certain things within Buddhism that are shared in common with non-Buddhist Indian traditions. The methods for attaining single-minded concentration, for example; you find that in all Indian traditions.

So it is not an easy question at all. And so do we just go to the center that happens to be close to our house, the most convenient to go to? Do we go because the teacher’s charismatic? Do we go because the teacher is famous? Do we go because the center doesn’t charge as much as the other one and we can afford it? Do we go because our friends go to this center? There are many, many reasons, both valid and not so valid, for going to a center or going to a teacher, having somebody as our teacher, so it’s hard to really give guidelines. But one of the bodhisattva vows, the downfall is praising oneself and putting down others because of attachment to fame and so on, and these sort of things. And so if the center and if the teacher has this obviously sectarian view, that “Ours is the best and the others are no good,” and they basically want to have many students so that they can afford to pay the rent and so on, then one should be quite suspicious of what’s going on there.

That’s quite different from a center saying that “Here, this is the lineage. There are many other lineages, many other ways of practicing, which are also valid” – being a little bit nonsectarian here – “And this is what we offer. And test it out.” I think that’s very important. Not that the first time you walk in the door, all of a sudden you’ve converted. And I think in the beginning we do have to shop.

Participant: [unclear]

Alex: Right. So they’re saying wouldn’t it be a good idea for the lineages, the various centers, to have the responsibility to expose others to these other views. That’s a very good point.

I mean, another fact came to my mind as we were discussing. I was saying that perhaps it’s important in the beginning to shop, but I think that eventually we have to decide. And that shopping could go on for a very long time and that’s not very healthy either. But I was thinking in terms of the school of dialectics [The Institute of Buddhist Dialectics] in Dharamsala. This is a debate school within the Gelug tradition. And what they do is that they go through all the training that you would get for the Geshe degree, but at the end then they, for one year, they go to the debate schools of the other Tibetan traditions. So it is not study all of them first and then choose – although maybe it’s a good idea to sort of see where you fit in, to shop a little bit, and what makes more sense to you – but after you have become firmly established in one point of view, then to learn about the others.

One of my teachers, Geshe Ngawang Dhargyey, made this point in criticizing our Western approach. He said that we tend to want to compare two things, neither of which we know very much about; and if you do that, it’s just based on confusion. You can only compare two things when you know one very well and then you start to study something else, and then you have to know that pretty well before you can really make a fair comparison.

So is it the responsibility of the centers to do this? In an ideal world, yes. But you have to admit that not every teacher is an enlightened being and not everybody has the knowledge to be able to present the views of other Buddhist traditions. And there is this possessiveness in these Dharma centers, which could be partially motivated by financial considerations, that you don’t want people to go to other Dharma centers, you want them to stay by you to pay their fees so you can pay the rent, send money back to your monastery (because there’s an awful lot of pressure from the monasteries in India if you are a monk teacher).

So yes, it would be very nice to be taught about the other traditions. And then I think the model of the dialectic school is quite sound. I mean, this is the model that His Holiness chose, and undoubtedly he’s very wise. So they do this at the end of their studies. Now that’s very difficult at a Dharma center because people are coming and going. In some places you have a set course and you are supposed to be there from beginning to end, and they ensure that by having you pay for the whole thing in the beginning, so you feel a little bit stupid if you don’t go because you paid already. And then as part of that course, perhaps at the end, you could introduce some of these other views. But certainly within the tenet systems, the Indian tenet systems, everybody studies all of them, and as I said, there is an innate sectarian aspect to that within Buddhism. And so whether you want to say that’s fair or right or not, that’s something else, but it’s there. It doesn’t have to be with a disturbing attitude though.

Participant: Seems like it has to be…

Alex: Right. There has to be something there to… Well, it could be simply in terms of a college course. I studied Buddhology – you know, Buddhism – at university, and in the university there was no judgment about one tradition being more authentic or more correct than another; it just presented everything, just, “Here it is. Here are the facts.” So it could be like that. It becomes more complicated if you’re a practitioner and practicing one of them. Then, as I say, we have these exclusivist, inclusivist, or pluralist approaches, and then you have to analyze what makes it sectarian and what makes it nonsectarian, people within those three categories.

But I think a general Buddhist education is very helpful. Perhaps a general education in the very beginning and then a more detailed education at the end, when you are more advanced, when you’re more firm in one tradition – because to present too many variants of one point at a time is too confusing for most people.

Good. So let’s end here with the dedication. We think whatever understanding, whatever positive force has come from this, may it go deeper and deeper and act as a cause to clear away confusion we might have, or negative aspects, concerning sectarianism and help us to reach an enlightened state of a Buddha to be of best help to everyone.