The Four Traditions of Tibetan Buddhism: Personal Experience, History, and Comparisons
Session Two: Comparisons
If we look at these four traditions, if we speak of them just in general, then if we ask what are the common features, there’s a lot in common. First of all, the full and novice monk vows and the novice nun vows are the same, come from the same tradition in India. It had to be revived after Langdarma’s suppression and so one line was revived from three refugee monks who had fled to eastern Tibet and another line was reintroduced from India. Both come from what’s called the Mulasarvastivadin tradition of vinaya.
There were eighteen different schools of Hinayana that had developed in India – Hinayana being a derogatory term that was coined by the early Prajnaparamita Sutras, the Mahayana sutras. But there is no convenient term that really is used for covering those eighteen and you have to call them something, so we call them Hinayana. Because “Shravakayana,” that some people like to use, is also very misleading, because Mahayana presents a Shravakayana path and their version of what the Shravakayana path is is different from what any of the Theravadins or those eighteen schools would say what the Shravaka path is – so you can’t really call it Shravakayana either.
So, one just has to say, “This is politically incorrect, but we’re going to do it anyway, so don’t take offense.” There is no other word, unless we just make up a word. No need to be oversensitive about it, although of course one could argue back and forth on the whole political correctness of it. But anyway, we call it “Hinayana” for the moment.
[See: The Terms Hinayana and Mahayana.]
Of those eighteen traditions, the main vinaya lineages that have survived are the Theravada, which you have in Southeast Asia, the Dharmagupta, which is sort of the Chinese line, and the Mulasarvastivadin, which the Tibetans have. So all the four traditions share that. Only the Dharmagupta has the full nuns’ ordination. In the Mulasarvastivadin and Theravada traditions, it was broken and is no longer extant. But they all have the full and novice monk and the novice nun. And all four traditions have monastics and lay practitioners.
In the Nyingma tradition you have the ngagpa (sngags-pa) type of practitioner – ngagpa is from the word ngag, which means mantra. These are tantra practitioners that are basically engaged in a lot of tantra ritual. There aren’t so many of them. It wasn’t as though “everybody can become a ngagpa, and then it’s a big lay movement.” It wasn’t; it was very specialized. They didn’t teach everybody; they taught basically their patrons – it went from big wealthy household to another – and maybe taught the children in the household and got a few disciples, but that was about it.
So it wasn’t really a major alternative to the monastic institution, which of course you had in the Nyingma as well. And as has been the case in Buddhism for most of its history, it has been pretty much a monastic tradition in terms of actual study and meditation practice. Lay people were primarily to support the monastic Sangha. Except for some lay doctors and government officials, the population was all illiterate; you could only learn to read if you went to a monastery or a medical school or a school for training the bureaucracy. And the lay people would invite monastics to their homes and after feeding them, like with Buddha, they would get teachings, but general teachings – Jataka stories of previous lives of the Buddha and so on – I mean you have to think in terms of a mostly uneducated population.
And it’s only fairly recently, it started in Burma actually in the nineteenth century, where you had meditation taught to lay people. And in general, not much is done. Even nowadays, to the shame of the Tibetans and the horror of His Holiness, still lay Tibetans get very, very little Buddhist education and very little opportunity to study Buddhism. Even in the schools in India, a monk may be there to lead the kids in prayers in the morning, but it’s no more profound than reciting Our Father in school – when I was a kid they did that and not much more.
So, lay people really studying Tibetan Buddhism in depth is very much a Western phenomenon and we shouldn’t be naive about that, that is the case. So, when I say you had both monastics and lay practitioners, we shouldn’t think that “lay” meant really super-advanced practitioners. Although you did have the ngagpa tradition within the Nyingma, but that, as I said, wasn’t open to the big population, that was very small.
All of them have a combination of sutra and tantra teachings and practice all four classes of tantra; all of them study the four schools of Indian tenets, but their understanding of them is radically different. It falls into two general categories: the Gelug and non-Gelug. As I said, Tsongkhapa reformed it very, very much. One example of that is this whole thing in Madhyamaka.
According to the earlier version, the main philosophical position is Svatantrika in terms of sutra and this was because Shantarakshita and Kamalashila, the great Indian masters, basically followed the Svatantrika tradition. The only difference between Svatantrika and Prasangika, and why they always said Prasangika was superior, was in terms of logic. They used Prasangika to go beyond logic and categories and things like that, because it just pointed out all the absurdity of any position that you could possibly make.
But it didn’t actually present a system of its own; their version of it is that Prasangika doesn’t present anything; it just tears away all conceptual frameworks. So the conceptual framework of the sutra voidness teachings – again, it gets a little bit tricky when we get into tantra, but the basic teachings: how you follow the paths and the division of the two obscurations, what’s defined, and what you get rid of on each of the paths, and all of that, and the analysis of voidness, and so on – is strictly Svatantrika there.
Whereas Tsongkhapa made a radical difference between Svatantrika and Prasangika and came up with a completely different Prasangika interpretation of everything – their own version of how you go through the paths and what you abandon where and what’s in each obscuration and all of that – that’s uniquely Gelug. So whenever I teach that, I always have to say “Gelug Prasangika”; if you just say Prasangika, that’s being a bit arrogant. That genesis is with Tsongkhapa. Tsongkhapa was the late fourteenth, early fifteenth centuries.
They all train in debate, in all the traditions. The emphasis may be more in the Gelug tradition and second in the Sakya tradition, but they all do it. They study mostly the same texts. The main text that is studied the longest is Abhisamaya-alamkara (mNgon-rtogs rgyan) by Maitreya and that’s the text that discusses all the stages and the paths and what you abandon on each. It is incredibly complex and organizes the Prajnaparamita Sutras, basically, and it’s taught from the Svatantrika point of view.
And that is emphasized so tremendously in the Tibetan systems; all of them emphasize it. It’s studied for five years in the Geshe training, because – again, going back to Shantarakshita: another of his major disciples was Haribhadra, who wrote the major commentary on it and that’s what everybody studies in Tibet. So, the legacy of that is the emphasis on this, because it’s certainly not a major text studied by any other tradition of Buddhism in any other country.
So, they all have training in debate; they all get degrees at the end, whether you call it Geshe or Khenpo. The non-Gelug tends to use the title Khenpo, that means abbot, that’s the title that’s also used for abbot, so it’s confusing. But the word khen means learned one, so khenpo, someone who’s learned. And they all do an awful lot of ritual, everybody. And in the ritual they all do chant and they all do music and make tormas, these little cones out of barley grain. Those cones come from the Bon tradition originally. There are many elements in Tibetan Buddhism that come from Bon.
[See: Bon and Tibetan Buddhism.]
The chanting style and music style is fairly similar [in all four traditions]. The super-deep chanting you find much more in the Gelug tradition than in the other traditions, but the basic style is pretty much recognizably the same. You find differences from one monastery to another, even within one lineage, so it’s very hard to characterize any particular lineage as having just one chanting style or ritual style.
All of them have the tulku system, including the Bon tradition. The Bon tradition, by the way, has all of this as well. And none of them are monolithic, as I said. As we were talking about mahamudra, you find that in the Kagyu, Sakya, and Gelug traditions.
The main differences are in terms of... what I think is the most important to realize is the difference in the use of technical terms. Whenever you study the different lineages, you have to really, really be certain of the definitions of the terms that are being used. That is very important, even if you’re studying within one tradition. The debate tradition is not called debate; it’s called tsennyi (mtshan-nyid). That means definitions. That’s what you study – you memorize the definitions of everything so that it’s clear what you’re talking about.
That’s even more important when we’re dealing with this in English or any other nontraditional language, because it gets even more distorted and in many cases our words don’t mean at all what the original word meant, so it’s very important to learn the definition. And of course every author in every tradition has different definitions, even within one lineage you can have different definitions. Even one author is going to define it differently in different texts.
So you really always have to find out: what are they talking about? How are they defining it in this tradition? Two examples:
One example is the word “permanent” – “permanent” and “impermanent” could have two very different meanings: either it’s talking about the issue of something being only temporary or forever, or it could be talking about whether it is static or nonstatic, whether it changes or not, regardless of how long it exists, whether for a short time or forever. The Gelug tradition, when you speak about mind, says mind is impermanent, because it’s nonstatic, it’s changing from moment to moment; it has a different object from moment to moment, so you have to say it’s impermanent.
Whereas the Kagyu and Nyingma traditions would typically say that mind is permanent. And by permanent they mean that it’s eternal, it has no beginning and no end – to which of course the Gelugpas would agree. And of course the Kagyus and Nyingmas would agree that the mind has a different object each moment. So, there’s really no contradiction, although if you just read the sentences, “mind is permanent,” and “mind is impermanent,” it seems as though they’re totally contradictory. So it’s absolutely essential to learn what it means.
Or dependent arising. From the Gelug point of view everything is a dependently arising phenomenon, arises dependently on causes and circumstances, but more specifically, it arises dependently on mental labeling, what words refer to. Whereas in the Karma Kagyu tradition we say that the deepest truth is beyond dependent arising. The Gelugpas read that and freak out and think that they’re saying that voidness or the clear light mind is truly existent, that they’re asserting true existence because it’s not a dependently arising phenomenon.
And that’s not at all the way that they’re defining the word and using the word “dependently arising.” They’re using it in the sense of the twelve links of dependent arising, which describes the mechanism of samsara and what arises from unawareness or ignorance, which is another usage that even the Gelug uses “dependent arising” for. And so when they say the clear light mind or deepest understanding and all these things are beyond dependent arising, that means it’s beyond the twelve links of dependent arising of samsara, which is perfectly acceptable. So it really is very, very crucial to look at the definitions. So, they use their terms differently.
All of them accept that Madhyamaka is the ultimate deepest point of view, but their understanding and way of explaining it is slightly different. As I was saying, it is quite different in many ways in terms of Svatantrika and Prasangika. So one has to be a bit sensitive to that. The whole issue is: how do you not only describe nonconceptual cognition of voidness as opposed to conceptual, but what terms are you going to use for it:
This word “sherab” (shes-rab, discriminating awareness), in the Gelug position it’s used for both conceptual and nonconceptual cognition of voidness. From the non-Gelug point of view, it’s impossible to have a nonconceptual cognition of voidness separate from the two truths; from their point of view: no way, it’s conceptual to cognize voidness by itself, because voidness is not by itself – which is a very reasonable point of view as well. And so they use sherab only for conceptual.
And if it’s nonconceptual, it’s yeshey (ye-shes, deep awareness), sometimes translated as “pristine awareness,” and that is always of the two truths. And Gelug uses yeshey for the cognition of the two truths as well. So where you use the term sherab, where you use the term yeshey, what does an arya actually absorb into? Is it voidness by itself, or is it the two truths together, but one more prominent than the other, which is how the non-Gelug describe it. This is quite different and that’s where you see that difference and obviously it’s arising from different masters’ actual meditation experience.
So, you have these differences in Madhyamaka. That’s why, by the way, in the non-Gelug traditions they always speak of the deepest truth being beyond words and beyond concepts – to refer to this thing that you can’t even speak in terms of cognizing voidness by itself. So, beyond words and beyond concepts is just another way of saying nonconceptual. So again one has to understand.
Another major difference is the point of view from which they explain. This was pointed out by Jamyang-kyentsey-wangpo, a great Rimey master of the last century – His Holiness always points this out – that the Gelug tradition emphasizes and explains from the point of view of the basis and the Sakya tends to explain from the point of view of the path and the Kagyu and Nyingma from the point of view of the result. And so which angle are you looking at the whole process of becoming enlightened and how are you explaining it?
Gelug always emphasizes looking at it from the point of view of the basis, the most common denominator. The ordinary person can only see one truth at a time, so it explains from that point of view.
The basis, path, and result comes from the text Gyu lama (rGyud bla-ma, Skt. Uttaratantra, Furthest Everlasting Stream). It’s another text by Maitreya, the main text that the Buddha-nature teachings come from. And so the basis is totally unpurified; the path level is partially purified, partially unpurified; and the resultant level is totally purified, referring to the states of Buddha-nature.
And so it’s using that basis or the path. From the basis point of view – ordinary people, unpurified – you only see one truth at a time.
From the Sakya point of view, they speak in terms of the path, so that their main theory is “inseparable samsara and nirvana.” Put in very simple Western type of terms, it’s like two quantum levels are coexisting and our energy can vibrate on either of those levels. I find this an extremely beneficial way of explaining things, particularly in terms of visualization of ourselves as Buddha-figures or deities.
Our energy can manifest in our usual form, but also in a deity form and it’s not that it’s a visualization; it’s not that it’s some imaginary type of thing. That is a definite quantum state that our energy is vibrating on; it’s just that we’re not really aware of that, like quantum states; so it’s just a matter of probability and how you work with that. So, it’s very modern in its approach and it’s also extremely useful in terms of seeing the teacher as a Buddha. In general it’s a very, very helpful system. So, that’s this inseparable samsara and nirvana point of view from the path, sort of like half purified, half unpurified path point of view.
And then the Kagyu and Nyingma explain from the resultant point of view; in other words, how it looks like from the point of view of a Buddha, in which everything is complete already and enlightened and you just have to discover what’s always been the case, all this sort of stuff. Well, that’s from a Buddha point of view, and so one has to appreciate that in order to not take things too literally. From a Buddha point of view of course you’re always seeing the two truths simultaneously, so you have to explain everything in terms of simultaneous two truths: Svabhavakaya, the Nature Body.
Well, Gelugpa has it just the voidness of the mind of a Buddha, of Jnana-dharmakaya, “Wisdom-dharmakaya” it’s sometimes translated. From the other schools’ point of view, the Svabhavakaya is sometimes explained as the inseparability of the other three bodies. What does that mean? It’s the inseparability of the two truths; it’s the two truths together, not just the deepest truth, voidness, but the two truths together of the Buddha-bodies, so all of them together inseparably, because the two truths are inseparable. So it’s obviously looking at it from the point of view of a Buddha. You can’t really differentiate voidness as the mode of existence of something from that thing which it is the mode of existence of, if you pardon the grammar. So, there’s that difference.
Now, in the highest class of tantra – there’s a difference in the classification of that: the highest class is anuttarayoga in the Gelug system and in Sakya and Kagyu. But in Nyingma, in the old system, what’s covered by that range of anuttarayoga would be divided into three different vehicles: mahayoga, anuyoga, and atiyoga or dzogchen. And roughly they correspond to different stages of the anuttarayoga path. It’s a different classification system.
But what you want to gain is the clear light cognition of voidness. Clear light mental activity is the subtlest level of mental activity. And that subtlest level is more subtle than the level that makes appearances of true existence; it’s more subtle than the level that grasps at true existence, more subtle than the level that conceptual thought works at or arises on, or more subtle than any of the levels that the disturbing emotions occur on. If you can get to that level and cognize voidness, you’re pretty good, very, very efficient.
Of course that level still has the habits of grasping for true existence, and appearance-making of true existence recurs until you’re able to stay there forever. And it doesn’t necessarily have understanding. It can be without understanding, it can be dull. That’s why the word “clear” is not so helpful here for clear light.
It’s slightly different from rigpa: rigpa is pure awareness in dzogchen and that’s referring to that clear light mental activity which is free of the habits of grasping for true existence as well, so the totally unstained state of that; so it’s speaking of a little bit more subtle level. In any case, whether we speak of clear light mental activity or this rigpa level of mental activity, we want that to have the understanding of voidness. And of course it’s going to be nonconceptual, just by its nature.
And there is a big difference in the style of meditation here in the four traditions of Tibetan Buddhism. In the Gelug tradition and most of the Sakya tradition you have the emphasis on meditating on voidness as an object. In other words, you try to access that mind, but meditation on voidness is discussed in terms of the voidness itself, that’s voidness of inherent existence, or the voidness beyond words and concepts, as you would have in Sakya.
Gelugpa, when they say “devoid of true existence,” what’s included in that term is the four extremes: existence, nonexistence, both, or neither. When the Sakyas use that – and Kagyus and Nyingmas as well use that – “devoid of true existence” only means the first extreme of existence. So if you talk about what is beyond words and beyond concepts, that type of voidness, which is what you would know nonconceptually, it’s only that which is beyond the four extremes. So if you use that term “voidness of true existence,” they say, “Well, that’s only one extreme.” Gelugpas say, “No, we use it to mean the four extremes.” It’s different there.
[See: Nonconceptual Cognition of Voidness by Shravaka, Pratyekabuddha and Bodhisattva Aryas According to the Four Tibetan Traditions.]
Though whether you do that emphasis of voidness Gelugpa style or the Sakya style, if you do that as an object, then that’s called the rangtong (rang-stong, self-voidness) position.
You also have the zhantong (gzhan-stong, other-voidness) position. Other-voidness means devoid of all other levels of mental activity, that’s what it’s devoid of, so of other, of these other things. So that’s referring to either this clear light mental activity or rigpa, depending on whether we’re speaking about the Nyingma system or the Kagyu and some of the Sakya – and you can’t actually say all of the Kagyu as well; here it’s primarily Karma Kagyu and I believe Drugpa Kagyu as well. Drigung tends to be more rangtong, self-voidness.
These other schools where you get the emphasis on other-voidness – well as I say, you want the combination of this clear light activity understanding voidness, so what are you going to emphasize in your meditation? Are you going to emphasize the voidness, or are you going to emphasize that clear light mind which is devoid of the grosser levels, that other-voidness thing? So when they’re doing other-voidness, they’re always speaking about the clear light mind.
How that clear light mind exists, that is something else. The Nyingmas would say it’s devoid of the four extremes; and the Karma Kagyus would agree that it’s devoid of the other four extremes, but they’d also say that it is beyond dependent arising, which means it’s beyond twelve links of samsara; so the Gelugs freak out at that and say, “Ah, they’re making it truly existent, they say it’s beyond dependent arising,” which they’re not, that’s not their intention.
But things certainly have to be beyond being void of true existence, because to be devoid of true existence by the non-Gelug position means that you’re only past one of the four extremes. So you have to go beyond that and that’s where your differences come in. It’s very confusing if it’s not clear to you how they’re using the terms, very confusing.
So you have that self and other-voidness division. So, are you speaking about a mind as your deepest truth, the mind that understands that voidness? Or are you speaking about that voidness as understood by that mind? Ultimately it doesn’t make any difference because both of them say you need both. That’s sort of the grand view of unifying them, putting them together.
Another point of difference is: how do you get to this clear light level or rigpa level? And the difference divides here between Nyingma on one side and the Kagyu, Sakya, and Gelug on the other side. The non-Nyingma schools work with dissolving the grosser levels of mental activity and the grosser levels of energy, working with the winds, the chakras, and various types of breath yoga that’s involved with that, different levels of bliss within the central channel, blissful awareness, all sorts of methods like that, like what you find in the six yogas of Naropa. So, you have to dissolve those levels in order to get to the clear light level.
Whereas the Nyingma says, “No, you don’t have to do that.” But again, you have to look at that more carefully. They say you’re able to access it in each moment because this rigpa is underlying each moment of mental activity – although that’s unbelievably difficult to distinguish. The Nyingma tradition, however, they say when you see that, then you get down to that subtlest level – when you can distinguish that rigpa. But of course they do a tremendous amount of practice with the winds and the chakras and the channels and visualization and the blisses and all that sort of stuff anyway as a prerequisite.
They’re just talking from the point of view of the result – when the result happens, that you don’t actually have to do that at that time in order to get the result. Because of all your practice before, then it’s not when you’re actively doing those chakra practices that you get to the clear light level. You’re doing another method, this working with rigpa, seeing it in each moment. But because of the legacies that you’ve laid from the previous practice with the channels and the blisses and the visualization and all of that, then automatically it’s all going to happen. You’ve greased the network, as it were. It works like that.
Also another difference that I find interesting is this whole thing of words and concepts. Gelug says that everything exists in terms of mental labeling, which means concepts. And all the other schools say everything is beyond concepts, “beyond words, beyond concepts.” That also looks like a bit of a contradiction, but it’s not. One has to make a differentiation: in the Gelug tradition when we talk about mental labeling, there it’s talking about what things are. Since there is nothing on the side of the object that by its own power makes it what it is, all you can say in order to specify anything is that it’s what the word for it refers to.
So, that’s what mental labeling is talking about. It’s not that when you mentally label something, like say “cup,” that you actively create it or it makes it. Nobody has to be actively mentally labeling anything; that’s not at all what mental labeling means. All that it means is: what is something? All you can say is that it’s what the word for it refers to, or the concept for it refers to, on the basis of some basis for labeling.
Now, when the non-Gelug are talking about things being beyond words and concepts, they’re saying that things do not correspond to words or concepts. It’s a big difference between “things don’t correspond to words” but “things are what the words refer to.” “Correspond” means that actually the universe is divided into boxes and something is either in this box or in that box. It’s either a table or a chair. This couldn’t also be a chair, but obviously you could sit on it.
For me that insight was most pronounced by experiments that were done with color recognition. At Harvard when I was there, they showed patches of colors to people from different cultural backgrounds and asked them, “What color is this?” And what they found was that the boundaries between red, yellow, orange, brown on the one side and between blue and green were very, very different in different cultures. The Chinese have three colors that span our two of blue and green, for example; and they only have yellow and brown and we have orange and these sort of things.
So there’s differences, so you can’t say that things correspond to words; correspond to words means that they’re definitely in one category, “this word,” defined by and enclosed by this word. So that’s also perfectly reasonable. If one looks, again, a little bit more closely – “What are they actually talking about?” – then although the words might seem quite contradictory, in most cases they’re not. Obviously, in some cases they are just different assertions, but in most cases you can resolve the conflict if you look more deeply and get into the definitions.
So, it’s very important to follow a nonsectarian approach, I think. And certainly this is what His Holiness emphasizes a great deal. And not to get into a football team mentality with the lineages, “my team versus your team,” and “mine is the best.” Although of course many traditional masters, both in the past and in the present, do approach things in a sectarian manner, that doesn’t mean that we have to, and in a football team manner. And His Holiness says the best antidote to sectarianism is education. The more you learn about the different traditions and the more you learn about how they do fit together, although they describe things differently, then the more respect you have for them.
And I think that also it’s important to recognize that these different ways of describing and explaining derive from somebody’s meditational experience. It wasn’t that they just made it up, “Oh here is an interesting theory, let’s make up something.” These great masters, these lineage founders had actual realizations and they’d describe things from their realizations.
As His Holiness says, if one is objective, you have to say that some were better able to express themselves than others and wrote and explained more clearly than others, but that’s human, that’s only human that that’s the case. So sometimes even the great masters didn’t write it that clearly. Of course you could be picky and fault them for that. But, in any case, they all arose from valid experiences. They were tested over time and that’s how these different positions arose.
Even in terms of perception theory – and it is a bit late, but I wanted to mention that because I find that so fascinating, the very basic difference. What do you actually see? And the non-Gelug say, what you actually see is just sensibilia – sensibilia means like sense data of one sense. All that that you cognize is either colored shapes – that is nonconceptual, sense perception – colored shapes. Or when you hear words, all you perceive is one second at a time.
This is in the non-Gelug that are very much into moment-to-moment, they take that very literally. You only perceive one moment at a time. A word, if you think about it, what do you hear? You only hear the sound of one vowel or one consonant at a time. You never hear a whole word at the same time, let alone a whole sentence, and so putting it together is a mental construct; that’s conceptual, and so commonsense objects are only known conceptually.
An orange. What is an orange? Well, I see an orange circle or an orange sphere. That’s all you see. Now, an orange isn’t a colored shape, there are other sensibilia about it – you could have your eyes closed and you’re holding an orange in your hands, so there is that sensibilia; you can have the smell; you can have the taste. And all you perceive is one moment, so it is a construct: it is known conceptually that there is a commonsense object, the orange, that’s the locus for all these different sensibilia of the different senses and that endures over time, because you never perceive it nonconceptually through your senses.
That’s perfectly reasonable, isn’t it? Tsongkhapa says “Well, yes, but...” Gelugpa always says that you can’t be too radically contradicting convention. You’d have to say, “Yes, what you say is true, but conventionally you do see the orange. It’s not that you just see colored shapes; you see commonsense objects nonconceptually.” Because you see commonsense objects nonconceptually, Gelugpa says that you have an appearance of true existence even in nonconceptual sense perception and that you have the appearance of true existence every moment – a big Tsongkhapa thing.
Non-Gelugpa says no, appearance of true existence means an appearance of truly existent commonsense objects that endure over time – that’s only conceptual. In nonconceptual cognition, there’s no appearance of true existence; there’s appearance of non-true existence. These are the other three extremes of the four extremes. There’s an appearance of not the voidness of true existence, but there’s an appearance of something not appearing truly existent as a commonsense object. This isn’t contradictory; these are just making the dividing line different.
I always find with the Gelug tradition, because they assert that you actually see commonsense objects with sense perception, you sort of get a flavor that there’s more emphasis on detailed presentation of bodhichitta and compassion type of practices – the eleven stage bodhichitta meditation and all these sorts of things – they go into much more detail. If you look in the other traditions’ texts, of course they have these teachings, but not so much detail, not so elaborate. I always get the feeling that that’s a little bit because of this emphasis, “Hey, let’s not negate too much commonsense reality; be careful there!” We get that slight difference in flavor; it’s a very subtle difference in flavor.
To learn that in fact quite different explanation of perception, I found very, very helpful. If you say that all commonsense objects are conceptual, then the whole emphasis in Nyingma and Kagyu of nonconceptual and “meditate nonconceptually on this or that” and so on takes on a whole different meaning.
It certainly doesn’t mean “just quiet the voice in your head,” which is the trivial level, sort of Dharma-Lite level of nonconceptual meditation in these traditions, “Just sit there and quiet your mind and don’t have the voice going,” which is an extremely difficult thing to do; we’re not minimizing that, but we’re talking about nonconceptuality. That’s going much, much deeper in those traditions. So you have to understand their whole perception theory in order to be able to actually understand their method of meditation; and often it’s not presented, which is a shame.
So I think that it’s very important to be educated in all the different traditions not only for nonsectarianism, but I think it’s very important for following one’s own tradition with appreciation for its profundity. I think that this is only gained by learning what is unique in your tradition and how does it differ from the other traditions, so that you really appreciate the value of what it offers. Then you can really say, “Yes, I am inspired by this lineage founder or this figure,” for a reason, not just because “They look so great,” or “My teacher said so,” or “Well, we’re constantly chanting the praises to them in the lineage prayers, so I sort of fake it and say I feel something, but I have no idea of who this figure is or what they actually did.”
That’s a little bit about the four traditions. What questions do you have?
Alex: The question is about semnyid (sems-nyid), mind-itself.
This is discussed not only in the Sakya tradition, you find that term in Kagyu and Nyingma, especially Kagyu. That refers to the nature of the mind. So you can be speaking about that from the point of view of the self-voidness or other-voidness nature of the mind – whether you’re talking about its being beyond the four extremes, beyond words and concepts, or if you’re speaking of it in terms of the clear light mind, which is the mind itself, the essential mind, there’s the subtlest mind. So it can have two meanings.
Alex: The question is: did I ever think of becoming a monk?
Yes, I thought of becoming a monk and I was never encouraged by my teachers; they never pushed me to do that. And I decided not to become a monk. I’ve not had a family either, so I’ve lived a life similar to a monk, certainly not in all respects, but in some respects.
There are several reasons for that. One is that I put in a great deal of time and effort to get a Harvard Ph.D. and it’s been very, very useful to me in my life, in my career. In trying to help His Holiness and the Tibetans, one of the things that I did was I went around and opened up the more remote areas of the world for the Tibetans, for His Holiness. The Tibetans in exile travel on these Indian refugee papers and they can’t get a visa for any country unless somebody invites them and if they don’t know anybody in a country, they can never start to develop relations with anybody in that country. And so I took on that task.
And the Harvard Ph.D. allowed me to go everywhere and to be invited to universities and to lecture and to meet top strata people and to meet all Dharma people, the underground people. I first started doing this in most of the communist countries while they were still communist and then I did that all over Latin America, South America, a little bit of Central America, then in big parts of Africa, then the Middle East, the Islamic world, and when the Soviet Union broke up, then in a lot of the republics. That was facilitated by having that doctorate.
If I were a monk in robes, then that would invalidate for most people my scholarly background. I’d gone native; I was no longer really somebody that was reliable – from their point of view. And for me to be a monk, but to be a plain-clothes monk and not follow any of the rules of discipline except the ones that were a little bit convenient, that you could hide, seemed to me hypocritical. If you’re going to do it, do it properly. So I didn’t do that.
Also, I think that – not just my opinion, but having spoken with many people – the main reason for becoming a monastic is to gain discipline through the ethical training of the discipline and living in a community. I think it’s very unfortunate that many Western monastics, almost all of them, have no community. The monastic tradition was never intended for solitary practitioners; it was always intended for a monastery, for a community. The whole organization of it, most of the vows are dealing with that, and how you beg food. For me this was not the case; in terms of discipline, I’m a very, very disciplined person and it didn’t seem to me that I needed the monastic discipline to teach me more discipline.
And I’m also a very, very independent person, and I don’t mean in an arrogant way – sure there’s some arrogance, but independent in the sense that I’ve always structured my own time my whole life and I have the discipline to do that and I didn’t particularly want my time structured by a monastery. There’s much too much other things that I want to do with my time, constructive things in terms of Dharma, so I didn’t want that restriction of a monastic community discipline, “You have to go to this ritual and that ritual and this and that,” so I never ordained.
Alex: The question is about the nuns’ lineage – was there a nuns’ lineage at the time of the early transmission, and the nunneries were destroyed the same as the monasteries?
I don’t know whether or not there were nunneries in the early tradition, that I really don’t know. But the full nuns’ ordination never came to Tibet. The excuse that is given in the histories was that the journey was too difficult for them. Whether that’s true or not, I really don’t know, but it never made it to Tibet. So women have not had the full vinaya in Tibet and they certainly did not have the same training as the monks had. That’s just a fact, not something that complaining about or criticizing does any good. His Holiness at present has instituted the same type of debate training and learning within the nun community as the monks have, but that’s very, very recent. Traditionally, it wasn’t the case.
Alex: Am I envisioning a future of Western Buddhism that’s not so fragmented?
I’m wishing for that. I’m not overly optimistic, but I’m not an overly optimistic person in terms of my general outlook. I’m pretty weathered and have seen a lot of things get a bit messed up. But I think there’s a great deal of good will. You see, it’s a difficult issue. I think that the critical issue in the future of Buddhism in the West, at least the Tibetan lineage is – they have all these charismatic teachers, Asian teachers who come over, Tibetan teachers and they start these centers and these big organizations and so on – and they pass away.
We have to realize that most of them are not the major teachers, not major figures; they would be rather secondary if they were just in Tibet – in the West they become real big deals, because they’re very special to us – so you would never have these people generating a line of tulkus, of reincarnations, that people would look for. Westerners take this so-called “guru devotion” so literally and have such misunderstanding of it, generally, that they think, “My guru is a Buddha and so of course we have to find their reincarnation; because if we don’t look for them, then that means that we are not only not loyal, but that we didn’t believe that they were a Buddha.”
Therefore they feel obligated that they have to look for the incarnation. Now, many of them do ask His Holiness, “Will it be beneficial or not to look for the incarnation?” And if His Holiness says yes, then they go ahead; so that’s fine. But I think that when you start to get the next generation tulkus of those founders... well, statistically an awful lot of them drop out. So then what’s going to happen to these lines? I think that’s when you’ll start to see some things at least have the possibility of combining.
But one thing which is not so promising is that there are up-and-coming charismatic young teachers in the Tibetan community that are also going out and starting their own new centers – so the phenomenon is continuing. And then you have to look at their incarnations. I don’t know how long that will last. Now, Westerners as teachers, also many of them are wanting to create their own dynasties and empires. That’s unfortunate, but I think among us as Westerners we might be open to reasoning with each other a little bit more easily.
But it becomes very difficult when you start to get like a power struggle and joining organizations with each other and people are suspicious... it’s really, really difficult, really difficult, so I’m not overly optimistic.
But I think that the approach, the argument that you have to use is the unsustainability of it and then appeal to the whole environmentalist sympathy – to having sustainable development and that we need a sustainable development of Buddhism. And I think – if we can be so gross – that is a good way of “marketing” this idea that I have, “the sustainable development of Buddhism,” because otherwise it’ll become extinct because it’s too fragmented.
But how to actually do that is difficult. You need great masters among Westerners of the caliber of Tsongkhapa or Sakya Pandita... and there’s no reason why those won’t come along at some time who are able to put together things, not just start yet another brand so that people will join. Maybe that’ll come. It came in Tibet. We can only hope, as they say in India. “Will the train be on time?” “We can only hope.”
We can create the causes; that’s true. We can create the causes and I think the main cause for it, as I mentioned, is education – learning about the other traditions and realizing even all the different fragments within our own tradition if we’re following Gelug or Karma Kagyu or Nyingma or whatever it is. We don’t need to be so fragmented on this “Rah, rah, rah, my guru...” So again, a lot really falls back to a better understanding of this whole issue of the relation to the spiritual teacher.
So, we try. I wrote the book on that, Relating to a Spiritual Teacher, as an effort to try to clarify that issue, because I think it’s so important, so utterly vital. And if one can somehow bring this whole “the guru is a Buddha” back on earth, then there’s some hope. But while people are still making the guru into God Almighty, then it’s very difficult, that just encourages the fragmentation.
So, like that. If there’s nothing else, let’s end here for this evening with the dedication.
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