Saturday, January 05, 2008

The Wandering of the Lamas


I have received many, many enquiries and notes concerning the lack of teachers to give empowerments, serve certain geographical areas, and so forth. I used to give individual replies, simply because I thought that was the most honest way to handle the matter. Nevertheless, I continued to think about the best way to address the issue, and I continued to get a steady stream of correspondence. I confess that I simply did not know this was such an issue with so many people, but apparently it is.

The following is not a textbook response; it is, in fact, a deeply personal response. The following is simply the way I feel.

(1) Lack of Teachers.
In one way, maybe I can believe there is a problem. In another way, it is my own understanding that there is no lack of qualified teachers; rather, there is a lack of qualified students. I can only relate this to my own experience. In my youth, when I heard there was a teacher somewhere, I went looking for him. I did not expect him to come looking for me. Still, I recognize that there came a period when a number of the great teachers simply died, and the organizations they established came under the control of students. This led to a really disagreeable mess that is still being sorted out. I knew many of the teachers in question personally, and I am convinced they did this purposefully. A complaint I often hear is that the various teachers who are around have so many students that it is impossible to form any sort of meaningful relationship. This bespeaks a certain ignorance of purpose: a quantitative judgment. The purpose of interacting with the teacher is not to form a relationship, or propose a quantitative experience; rather, the purpose is propose a qualitative experience. In my own knowledge, it has never been a problem to enter into the teacher-student dynamic with any qualified teacher, no matter how many students he has, just so long as one's intention is properly formed. Let me give an example: suppose a student sells everything she owns, jumps on a plane, and comes to the teacher's city. She tells the teacher to come fetch her, gives him all her money, offers body, speech, and mind, and then expects the teacher to care for her like a girlfriend or something. Maybe she wants to obligate the teacher? Maybe she wants to buy the teacher's time and attention? In any event, do these actions establish any particular qualifications for the student beyond blind ambition? What, precisely, is the intention? When Marpa went to India, even he took along gold. When Yeshe Tsogyal went to India, even she had to earn gold. But is gold enough? No, gold is not enough. Maybe this issue of gold is a metaphor and maybe it isn't. What is so noisy inside your head is not enough. Blind offerings of your bewilderment are not enough. In my understanding, it usually takes two or three years of mutual examination before one could even think about establishing the teacher-student dynamic. In the meantime, what do you do? Do you hang around waiting to get fed, or do you make yourself useful? Did Milarepa borrow Marpa's tractor and tools? Do you behave like a journalist? Are you the sand that blows under the door and eventually covers everything? Teachers manifest naturally, at the times and places that compel their manifestation. Students are rather a different matter. I think there is some language to the effect that to shoot is to shoot in all directions, and to hit is to hit that with which one has a legitimate connection. I think Ken McLeod's comments on this issue are amusing and possibly helpful -- maybe because I used to wash my teacher's dishes.

(2) Digital Dharma.
I started keeping this web log because I am fundamentally homeless, I don't have any place to usefully keep my books and images, and I wanted a place to store little bits of assistance to my fading memory. As I kept up with this web log, other people started reading, and very soon I came to understand that there are a large number of dharma students who, for whatever reason, feel it is a problem to get their questions answered. I also began to understand there are disabled people, time-challenged people, elderly shut-ins and so forth, and their needs are largely ignored. So, I started thinking in terms of using this web log to deliver content to others according to their needs and my abilities (yes, I know, Lenin said it, but then again so did Buddha). As an isolated exercise, it is what it is, but what it actually accomplishes is to get us all outside the envelope and thinking. That is a good thing. His Holiness the Dalai Lama can fill Albert Hall or Dodger Stadium and reach thousands, but if he ever started webcasting, he could reach millions. So, the internet is a good thing -- not all that divorced from "real" life, whatever that is, and certainly capable of reaching every corner of the globe. When using the 'net to study dharma, you have exactly the same challenges that you face when you interact with a teacher --- the only thing you lack is the feedback. Maybe that will change in time.

(3) Empowerments.
There are all sorts of empowerments, and if you want the textbook exposition, get out the textbook. I have been discussing the modalities of empowerment in my exchange with a reader, elsewhere, and it is not my intention to repeat myself. However, I do propose to address the frequently asked question: how do I practice with no lama to give me an empowerment? Well, the lama doesn't give you the empowerment... the deity does, and you and the deity are identical. What is your intention for doing the practice? If your intention for doing the practice is properly formed, the practice will bring result. Is empowerment absolutely, positively necessary? The textbook answer is yes, it is, but the textbook answer usually leaves out the second part: intention is so important that it overrides every other consideration. If you suddenly come upon a scene of enormous misery -- the fall of a city during wartime, for example -- and you are confronted with masses of suffering beings, and you honestly and desperately wish to help them in a fundamentally useful fashion, then please be assured -- that is your empowerment. There is so much more I could say about this, but for the moment I think this is sufficient.

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9 reader comments:

Loden said...

>Well, the lama doesn't give you the empowerment... the deity does, and you and the deity are identical. What is your intention for doing the practice? If your intention for doing the practice is properly formed, the practice will bring result. Is empowerment absolutely, positively necessary? The textbook answer is yes, it is, but the textbook answer usually leaves out the second part: intention is so important that it overrides every other consideration.

Are you suggesting there is no need for a qualified Lama to be present in order to receive an empowerment? This is a very dangerous statement!
The so called text book answer is 'yes, you need a Lama to receive an empowerment' for a very good reason! Because without one there is no empowerment. The Lama blesses and plants the seeds of future realizations in the continuum of the student as they meditate together during the empowerment. With the Guru therefore no Deity! Wasn't that Naropa that said that?

Also the textbooks have generally been written for a reason, mostly to stop enormous ideas leaking into Dharma, and mostly by great Lamas of the past. To imply that although this is what the textbook's say but, I know better. Is rather short sighted in my opinion as there are people who will read this and accept every word at face value.

Surely if people want an empowerment, they can find a teach to receive it. HH Dalai Lama gives initiations in almost very city his visits. Or alternatively visit him in Indian.


I mean this with all due respect.
Please be careful about the message you are sending out.

Loden Jinpa

TENPA said...

Fundamentally, there is no difference between the deity and the lama, but this is a degenerate age and things are not always what they seem. What I am suggesting is that we trade spirituality for religion when we fail to examine precisely what empowerment actually entails.

This is a deep subject. For example: your statement "no need for a qualified lama to be present in order to receive an empowerment..." To what sort of empowerment do you refer?

Do you want to suggest that just anybody can give an empowerment? Do you understand that the deities themselves confer the empowerments?

Deconstruct this using the hypothetical example of the Medicine Buddha. Now, do you imagine that the Medicine Buddha's activity is confined to Buddhists, or that it is universal? Do you think that if someone genuinely wishes to engage in the practices associated with the Medicine Buddha that the benefits of such practice will be withheld until after an empowerment? Do you think they will be withheld if the person in question is not a "Buddhist?"

What is dangerous is to harden one's view so deeply into the midst of ritual that one ceases to be identical with the deity.

Loden said...

The activities of the Buddhas are universal but, we are not talking about the activities of the Buddhas. Bringing this up only confuses the debate. I'm not suggesting the Buddhas are bias, that would be silly. I'm also not saying that people can't practice. Again a silly notion.

What you are arguing is that someone can receive an empowerment directly from the Deity. While in extremely rare cases this may be possible. For 99% of us it is not the case. Milarepa received empowerment from his guru Marpa. So if Milarepa needed a Lama, how can you seriously suggest that someone new to the Dharma doesn't need to!

>Do you want to suggest that just >anybody can give an empowerment?

No of course not, and this is my very point! If you want to receive an empowerment you need to receive it from a qualified Lama, not just anybody or sitting by yourself.

>What is dangerous is to harden >one's view so deeply into the >midst of ritual that one ceases to >be identical with the deity.

How you associate my view with ritual I don't understand, and is perhaps more of a reflection on your view than mine. This debate has nothing to do with ritual. It is about whether or not it is possible for normal blog reading dharma people, new or old, to receive empowerment directly from a Deity. Anyone that could would not be reading this, I would suggest.

As I said before without the Guru there is no Deity.

TENPA said...

I will affirmatively and emphatically tell you that it is 100% possible for "normal blog reading dharma people, new or old, to receive empowerment directly from a Deity."

The issue of probability is rather a separate matter, but I don't necessarily find it wildly improbable, either.

Have more confidence in the deity!

J.Morton said...

Loden said: "It is about whether or not it is possible for normal blog reading dharma people, new or old, to receive empowerment directly from a Deity. Anyone that could would not be reading this, I would suggest."

Loden: Such a person might be writing this! You head down a slippery slope when you start arguing empowerments with somebody who gives empowerments.

Yiyu said...

Loden! Kalu Rinpoche directly wrote this: "Most tantrayana or vajrarana visualization and mantra practices require that an initiation and subsequent authorization and instruction be given by a qualified lama before the sadhana, or ritual practice, can begin. However, a few practices, those that were given publicly by Lord Buddha Shakyamuni, do not fall under such restrictions. Very definitely, all the practices given in the Sutras have the full blessing of the Buddha and therefore can be practiced if one has the aspiration to do so." Loden! Since when do 13 year old Gelug monks of obviously limited experience caution senior Nyingma tulkus and correct very senior Kagyu tulkus? Loden! What is the difference between the "activities of Buddhas" and empowerments? Do you know how laughable that seems?

Loden said...

Hung on... no need to get personal!
I wasn't trying to be disrespectful to Rinpoche. However there are people out there who don't know ANYTHING about Buddhism. And perhaps reading statements like this

"Is empowerment absolutely, positively necessary? The textbook answer is yes, it is, but the textbook answer usually leaves out the second part: intention is so important that it overrides every other consideration."

could lead these people to think there is no need to receive empowerment from a qualified Lama regardless of what Deity it is. They may think as long as I have the intention to practice, I can become the deity. So regardless of my lack of experience, even I can see problems with this statement.

Also, Kalu Rinpoche's statement only endorses my argument. I am saying exactly that he said.

Finally, one of the great things I find with Buddhism is it's willingness to have open and polite discussions. yiyu I hope you can re-read my words with this tone in mind. Any Lama, Geshe, Rinpoche or Tulku will be open to it, why not you?

The Buddha himself said, don't accept my words out of mere respect. Check them as a gold trader checks the quality of gold.

TENPA said...

Loden is correct, this is a civil forum - he is a young man with passionate beliefs and he merely expressed his ideas. No offense was intended and no offense was taken. Do you know? It would be impossible to offend me.

The entire issue of empowerments, particularly vis-a-vis westerners, was the topic of intense debate all through the latter 1960s and 1970s.
Not a few teachers felt it would be impossible to do this properly, that people would break the commitments, and that the empowerment would thus beget an obstacle in the future.

Kalu Rinpoche became a very influential voice during this period because he found a graceful way to make everybody happy. He basically said that you could take empowerments with any one of three motivations: with the simple motivation to receive a blessing, with the motivation to do the practice immediately, and with the motivation to do the practice in the future. The freed up everyone, so to speak.

Still, there are highly qualified lamas who to this very day absolutely refuse to give empowerments to foreigners.

I think this thread is spinning on semantics. If you go ask ten lamas, and really pin them down on interior issues, I think you'll get ten different shades of the same color.

It happens to be my personal belief that one's intention is of striking importance, and that is really the only point I wanted to get across. You can sit in front of XYZ Rinpoche and get an empowerment for all the wrong reasons, you know? You can arrive in a really polluted frame of mind. I have seen people come to wangs high on alcohol, LSD, and so forth.

As to the "as long as I have the intention to practice, I can become the deity" proposition, it is useful to recall that one does not "become" the deity. To state that one becomes the deity is to propose the deity as external. Is that entirely correct? No, it is not.

I want to tell you a little story. A dear friend of mine wanted to get the White Tara empowerment, so I introduced her to a very senior tulku from Tarthang Monastery (not Kyabje Tarthangpa, but somebody else). The gentleman replied that he did not feel particularly well-qualified to give that empowerment, and that in any event, the lady's motivation was of such a character that she would achieve the deity without any empowerment being necessary. You have to understand that Tarthang Monastery has a special relationship with White Tara practice -- and that this tulku is the pre-eminent practitioner therein-- to understand why his comments were so important.

At the time, I was rather shocked. I tell you the truth... I was so shocked! I could never imagine these words would come out of a Tarthang Monastery tulku... particularly this tulku, who is known for being rather a perfectionist. But this happened.

The bald assertion "everybody needs empowerments" is as useful as the bald assertion "nobody needs empowerments."

Loden said...

>It would be impossible to offend me.
Yes I do :)

>it happens to be my personal belief that one's intention is of striking importance, and that is really the only point I wanted to get across. You can sit in front of XYZ Rinpoche and get an empowerment for all the wrong reasons, you know?

Yes I do know that and yes I agree with you, intention to practice and then practicing is key.


>As to the "as long as I have the intention to practice, I can become the deity" proposition, it is useful to recall that one does not "become" the deity. To state that one becomes the deity is to propose the deity as external. Is that entirely correct? No, it is not.

Yes that would be correct.

>You have to understand that Tarthang Monastery has a special relationship with White Tara practice -- and that this tulku is the pre-eminent practitioner therein-- to understand why his comments were so important.

I absolutely believe this is possible. But, that is different than anyone can do it with any Deity;)
I have heard of people receiving an empowerment directly form the in this case Cittimani Tara. I am not discounting these events.

>The bald assertion "everybody needs empowerments" is as useful as the bald assertion "nobody needs empowerments."

Yep I'll take that one :) Though I'd add that it is better to receive an empowerment from a fully qualified Lama than not.