Saturday, January 12, 2008


Dear Readers:

Before he became ill, Rinpoche was working on several posts. One of these is of particular interest: his comments on remarks by Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche treating the subject of respect for digital versions of sacred texts and images. I want to be so careful to point out that Khyentse Rinpoche's remarks are taken out of their original context, and are reproduced here only as a point of departure for further dialogue. I think it is very worthwhile to publish this because of Tenpa Rinpoche's very unique insights and experience.

Khyentse Rinpoche's Remarks:
"Printed versions of sacred texts and images are treated with great respect. They are placed in a high place. Even the dirtiest nomadic Buddhist will pick up a dharmic text that has fallen on the ground. The respect to the sacred texts and images will extend even to viewing them; monks will not even open a text for which they have not received initiation. Somehow digital versions of the same texts and images are not treated with the same respect. They are carelessly strewn everywhere on people's computers, jumpdrives, emails, and on the Internet. The Internet is the worst, since it is a vehicle for introducing the carefully guarded secrets of the Vajrayana to the global marketplace. Just as the onset of the Dark Ages may be slowed but ultimately cannot be stopped, there is probably little hope of doing more than slowing the Internet publication of the Vajrayana secrets."

Tenpa Rinpoche's Comments:
Khyentse Rinpoche is quite correct in raising this topic, and as it happens, this is a topic I have been thinking about for a very long time. In the past, we would print images, mantras, and so forth, and during the course and scope of the printing processes we used at that time, there was an enormous amount of waste. Particularly when we were doing color images, when we would be registering the different colors, you could walk into the shop and see all sorts of distorted images scattered all over the place. Therefore, for a long time I had a special container for "sacred waste," and I used to dispose of this in a particular way.

Then, one day Trungpa Rinpoche came to visit the shop. He saw my special container and remarked, "It seems a little selfish doesn't it?" I understood his thinking very well, because the same thought had already occurred to me.

We did not, in those days, have the good fortune to be born in a Buddhist country. Most of us were not born into Buddhist families. Growing up in the Western countries, we had precious little opportunity to be exposed to Buddhist imagery. Yet, for many of us, the very instant that we came into contact with Buddhist imagery -- in whatever form -- there was an immediate sense of attraction, and connection, and from this seed many of us eventually ripened into a deep commitment to Dharma.

Did you ever travel in a remote country for a long period of time? Sooner or later, maybe you run into some symbol that reminds you of home -- maybe the Coca-Cola sign -- and there is an immediate connection.

In this circumstance, any form of contact with the imagery of Buddhism is useful, beneficial, and in accord not only with the Buddha's teachings, but with the very heart of compassion. Nirmanakaya is unbreakable. If, for example, somebody crumpled up a picture of the Buddha and tossed it into the gutter, perhaps somebody else would find that picture, open it up, and smooth it out, and make it the center of an entirely new way of life for themselves.

Nirmanakaya is powerful. If I show an image of Padmasambhava to an unlettered person, perhaps someone living in primitive conditions, he will not understand anything other than that which he understands; yet, still the image will leave an imprint on his mind that will ripen over time. In time, the thing we might fail to immediately recognize becomes clearer: the image and its place in our lives comes into focus.

So, my idea is that respect for texts and images has to come naturally from the heart. It is a reflection of the nature of our relationship with the sacred; it is in some respects a form of self-respect. I sometimes get letters of criticism and censure from lamas and tulkus around the world saying, "How can you even mention so-and-so in public? How can you publish so-and-so on the Internet? How can you reveal secrets?"

In response, I can only say that there are no secrets in lifeboats. In response, I can only say that one of my life's purposes is to make Buddhist texts and images available to as many people as possible. If I can reach 100 million people I am happy. If I can reach 200 million people I am even happier. In the little houses I have for my rabbits, I have images they can see every day of their lives. I have enormous personal confidence in the emanations of deities that manifest themselves as pictures. Otherwise, all of this is just flickering light.

To be fair, I also get letters of praise and congratulation from lamas and tulkus around the world saying, "Don't stop! Don't listen to anybody who tells you to stop! Do more!" So, you see, we all have different methods of achieving our purposes, just the way the deities have different methods.

I have discussed the imagery of Buddhism with some Western tulkus. These discussions were in the context of their inner experiences, and this illuminates an interesting aspect of the issue. In several cases, the tulkus discussed childhood visions involving Christian imagery. One very prominent lineage holder told me directly -- and has stated in public -- that their earliest visionary experiences were of Christian deities. This is easily explained. The individuals had no exposure to Buddhist imagery, and a great deal of exposure to Christian imagery. When the mind opened to the display of the deity, the mind momentarily enforced a particular view -- we might say a focal view -- on that which was naturally arising. Thus, if the person had been born in Bhutan, they might have seen Tara, but if they were born in Boston, it might be the Virgin Mary.

This is a very difficult, very subtle point for many people to grasp. They will throw up their hands and say, "What? So-and-so Rinpoche saw Jesus? What kind of bullshit is that?"

There is nobody alive today who can tell you what Buddha looked like. The ancient Greeks interpreted Buddha according to their own eyes. The ancient Indians had other interpretations. The Tibetans have their Tibetan ideas. These are cultural imprints. If you talk to people who have pure visions of the deities, there are striking similarities of the initial impressions --- the initial moment the deity appears. Yet, in every case of which I am aware, people who have such visionary experiences will tell you that the artistic depictions bear absolutely no resemblance to what appears. So, these pictures on the paintings, while valid emanations, are just one more aspect of an infinite, ever-changing, multi-faceted display.

The deity is not something separate, so if you respect yourself then of course you respect the deity. If you are lazy, or careless, that is quite a different matter.

If there are images of the deity on your computer's hard drives, that presents an interesting question. When the computer is turned off, is the image still there? Is it there in the form you see when the computer is turned on?

This is actually a great meditation, you know?

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4 reader comments:

charles said...

re western tulkus seeing christian deities. my comment - i suppose that is possible, it would be better if the tulkus claiming that were named for follow up. but it has happened in the early sixties that one person saw an actual MahaBodhisatva with no previous introduction to the image or Buddhism at all.

Susan said...

Rinpoche believes it is not only possible but probable that a person with no prior exposure to Buddhism could still have the visionary experience of a Buddhist deity. He is always very careful to say that there is the initial experience of the deity, after which the mind struggles with the vision in an attempt to give it a name. In the Christian countries, he believes the deities appear in their pure form and the people then label them according to their experience. He believes that very young children can see the deities quite clearly.

charles said...

i mean that the vision of the MahaBodhisatva happens, the westerner sees MahaBodhisatva and the mudra and the implements held by the Bodhisatva does not struggle to give it a name nor does it appear in a christian form, but the person having the vision later sees the Buddhist image and recognizes it at that time.

Susan said...

Rinpoche teaches that such things happen all the time. He also teaches that even the most seemingly significant vision can become a great obstacle. He teaches that it is best to just continue with one's practice no matter what happened in the past, or what happens to arise at present.