Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Questions, Part 5: Buddhism and China

Question: Can you discuss Buddhism and China?

Answer: It tears at my heart to see the state of Buddhism in the Chinese expatriate community here in the United States. It really does. There are beautiful temples, and all manner of stage dressing, but the levels of teaching and understanding do not match this external display.

The most popular deity is Dzambala—you know, the one who holds the mongoose vomiting up jewels—a so-called wealth or treasure deity. The worship is the worship of material gain. People are praying for money. It is like show business, or what you might call spiritual materialism. The whole arena is foreign to essential Tibetan Buddhism—although we have our own expressions of Buddha, Incorporated, to be sure. Go look at the newsstand.

I think the main issue is language. For example: I am very fond of the Vimalakirtinirdesa Sutra. I have a substantial connection with this sutra. You could even say I have an attachment to this sutra that I should probably try to overcome. (laughter) Anyway, I always bothered my Chinese friends, asking them to read this sutra, and one Sunday morning everybody woke me up and said, “O.K., we’ll go find this thing in Mandarin and we’ll all read it.” We set off in a gang and found a library that had five or six versions in Mandarin. Now, in English, the operative translation is the Thurman translation, which was done in about 1976. I know this translation quite well, so I used it to compare with what was available in Mandarin. The variations were interesting. I also know the Sanskrit pretty well, and again, the variations were interesting. To tell you the truth, even though it was translated into Chinese by Kumarajiva in 401 or thereabouts, I am not convinced that the Vimalakirtinirdesa Sutra is at all “there” in the Chinese language, at least at the commentary level. When we consider the centuries that have passed, and the forms Buddhism has taken in China, this seemsremarkable. Scholars class it as a Mahayana sutra, and it is, but in many ways, it is a foundational text of Vajrayana Buddhism and it is so very, very important to learn in that context. Really, in many ways it is.

The Chinese Buddhism I see expressed here in the West seems to foster the notion that Buddha is a God; or, at least the great mass of followers seem to express their beliefs that way. The people pray to Buddha for big money, male children, quick business, faithful spouses, and so forth, promising good conduct in return. I think Buddha wishes us well, but I do not think Buddha is in the god-like business of granting temporal wishes. I have read every word ever attributed to the historical Buddha, Shakyamuni, and every word attributed to Buddha’s manifestation Padmasambhava. I have studied all of the sutras and most of the tantras. This, I have very painfully done in three languages, having mastery of none of them. I have spent over forty years doing this. Quite possibly, I have missed a great deal, and most probably, I have not understood what I have read. Nevertheless, it is my current understanding that, intellectually, Buddhism is unconcerned with anything other than coming to know mind, in order to benefit those who have yet to know mind. Spiritually and practically speaking, Buddhism is fundamentally unconcerned with anything other than benefiting others. I have never known a lama who uttered a Buddhist prayer to his own benefit in his entire life. I do not see how anyone could, or more to the point, why any teacher would allow such a thing to happen.

Question: But seriously, are you prejudiced against Mainland Chinese because of what happened in Tibet?

Answer: I cannot be. I am realistic, and I understand what happened very well. We cannot say that what happened was a good thing—it was a genocidal atrocity in fact—but we cannot hold an entire race accountable for the deluded actions of an uncivilized, morally bankrupt, totalitarian political regime that rules by repression. There were, in the distant past, Chinese emperors and members of their immediate family who were devout followers of Tibetan Buddhism. For example: there was one Chinese emperor, I forget exactly which one, who took very close counsel from the Karmapa. The Cult of Mao destroyed temples and monasteries, and killed tulkus, monks, and nuns. The cultists destroyed libraries, medical schools, and desecrated or stole hundreds of thousands of religious treasures. Nevertheless, on a relative scale of values, they did not destroy anything that cannot be replaced. Tibetan Buddhism reformed itself, and transplanted itself in the West where we have sufficient freedom and resources to guarantee a long and fruitful rain of blessings.

The greater atrocity is done by false teachers—and these seem to proliferate in Taiwan as well as the mainland—because they attack from within, destroying the Dharma with false teachings and wrong views. This phenomenon is not unexpected; it is in fact the subject of prophecy that dates to the very inception of the Buddhist religion in Tibet. This phenomenon is a feature of the degenerate age in which we now live. That it is rampant should be enough to establish precisely where in this age we now find ourselves, and what we can expect to happen next.

When I began to formally study Tibetan Buddhism, I was extremely fortunate. Tibetan Buddhism was not very strong. Nobody really cared very much. Thus, Tibetan Buddhism presented no threat to anyone’s interests, and was not particularly attractive to anyone’s interests. Authentic spiritual friends were easy to find.

As Tibetan Buddhism began the process of transplantation, the numbers of followers increased, as did the political profile. When the Dalai Lama was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, the world began to take notice of what had happened in just a couple of decades. When the truth rises, it is like the sun. When the great sun rises, even small creatures have to shade their eyes. Thus, the Chinese Communist Party—which I firmly believe is an expression of demonic activity that hates everything related to peace beyond suffering—expanded its interest in the destruction of Tibetan Buddhism because it perceived Tibetan Buddhism as a potent threat to its demonic mission. At the same time, charlatans began springing up, laying claim to this or that mystery, and temples began springing up that are nothing more than businesses.

This is why it is so very important to meet and practice with an authentic spiritual friend. If you cannot do this, then you run the risk of being dragged into destructive and perverted actions that are the very opposite of what your heart is telling you to do.

Question: How do you judge who is true or false?

Answer: That is the question I have been waiting to hear. I will give you the simple answer, and then I will give you the complicated answer. Real teachers do not go looking for students.

Real students go looking for teachers.

The authentic teachers practice generosity that is completely free from attachment; have a way of teaching that is attuned to the students’ minds; have the ability to introduce students to practices that lead to freedom, and in general, practice what they preach.

True spiritual masters have few extraneous activities. They are focused on the Dharma, and when we are in their company, we are moved to similarly focus ourselves. True spiritual masters know an infinite number of ways to lead others out of suffering, and belong to an unsullied lineage. True spiritual masters work for others, not for themselves, and that is their sole concern.

Charlatans practice Dharma dishonestly, out of a sense of pride. Maybe they want to preserve a line of tulkus, or bring increase to a family. Maybe they want to build a reputation for their temple, because they fear having no place to reside. They will adopt haughty manners because they receive offerings and service from credulous fools. Charlatans do not care for their students, seeing them only as beasts of burden, like oxen plowing fields or horses drawing wagons. Such teachers are demons to their students, because they rely on a cult of personality to gain their livelihood.

To differentiate between a true spiritual master and a charlatan is not an easy task. True spiritual masters can behave in unconventional ways. Their actions and words can shock or astound us, and even offend us, seeming exactly contrary to the Dharma. Nevertheless, even if their actions and words appear controversial, there is wisdom and purpose and we should not
judge them wrongly.

The thing is to carefully study the teacher’s ultimate purpose. For example: a person might gather hundreds of students and benefactors, build huge temples, hold elaborate ceremonies, and then run away to an island and live in luxury, saying, “Now I am in retreat.” Does this benefit the student, or does this benefit the teacher?

While a true spiritual master may only rarely accept students, he or she will nevertheless be willing to meet anyone. Be wary of the self-styled master who “never sees anyone,” and is allegedly engaged in arcane practices. Be wary of the self-styled master who makes himself the focus of all activity, building a cult of personality that becomes the object of all activity. All activity of true spiritual masters is directed to only one purpose: the student’s enlightenment, by any means necessary.

We have so many questions for our teachers. Perhaps we ask the teacher about somebody who interests us, like a potential girlfriend or boyfriend. The charlatan will give a long answer, and offer opinions, whereas the true teacher might say, “I do not know this person and I would rather you spend your time examining yourself instead of others.” This is just a hypothetical example.

Perhaps we ask the teacher about a house we want to purchase. The charlatan will give a long answer, and offer to “correct” perceived problems, whereas the true teacher might merely say,
“The house is empty.” Again, this is just a hypothetical example.

Once we find a true spiritual master, it is important to conduct ourselves appropriately. One of the things I find disturbing is the absolute lack of etiquette in many of the temples and groups. This bespeaks a sort of mindlessness and laziness, and a fundamental misunderstanding of the teacher’s central role in Vajrayana Buddhism.

What would you do if Buddha walked into your temple? How would you conduct yourself? Would you slap him on the back? Would you joke around with him? Would you tell him, “Hey,
Buddha, you are always this way, you are always that way.” Would you say, “Wah! This guy is sure in a bad mood today!” I hope you would not.

In the Mahabheri Sutra, Buddha himself said:
Ananda, do not sorrow!
Ananda, do not weep!
In future I will come again
Appearing as your spiritual friend,
To act for your and others’ sake.
By this, we understand that a true teacher is the Buddha, come again, so please learn the etiquette and conduct yourself accordingly.

Question: What is the proper etiquette?

Answer: Proper etiquette is simple because it rises from profound love and respect. If, for example, you have a dream where your teacher seems at fault, you should wake up and apologize. When a teacher stands up, you should not remain seated but stand up immediately. You should not sit down until the teacher first sits down and then directs you to sit down. When the teacher is seated, you should inquire as to his health, offer him refreshment, or give him small things that might please him.

If a teacher has to go from place to place, you should see that his way is unobstructed and pleasant, even to the extent of sweeping the ground and freshening the air. You should also offer to accompany the teacher, and provide him with transportation.

When you walk with a teacher, walk only on the left side, and do not step in his shadow unless he explicitly instructs you otherwise.

When the teacher is present do not make loud noises, dress ostentatiously, or make a nuisance of yourself. Be quiet, and respectful, and never lose your temper. Never lie, and do not engage in overly familiar or impertinent behavior, attempting to ingratiate yourself or show how clever you are. The correct attitude is one of humility and awe. Although there are numerous examples of extreme service and devotion in the literature—Milarepa’s relationship with Marpa the Translator provides an example—you need to maintain perspective.

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