Friday, January 21, 2011

The Approaching Moon of Good Fortune

"...a ground related to many thought constructs 
cannot be a primordially pure ground."
                                 --Jamgon Kongtrul Lodro Taye

Some Western people, who are interested in Vajrayana Buddhism as it was practiced by Tibetan people, ask themselves, "Why am I not getting anywhere?" The question appears simple enough to answer. There is no "anywhere" to "get." Still, it seems useful to spend a moment exploring why, or how, such a question could be asked in the first place -- or, properly speaking, spend a moment discovering the hidden question that lays behind this question.

Above, is a photograph of the light from a rising moon. This is not entirely self-evident. Even you see the outline of the rocks, the light, and the sky, unless I tell you this is a rising moon, you do not know. The picture is a bit ambiguous. This could even be a photograph of the setting sun, or it could be something else. 

By telling you, "this is a rising moon," we have established a framework into which you may begin to insert your thoughts. You can for example say, "Oh! That's a lovely photograph of the moon," or you can equally say, "Oh! That's not a very good photograph of the moon." We have agreed on this idea of a moon, so we are relating everything in a certain direction. Even if you disagree, saying, "Oh! That doesn't look like a moon to me," we are still relating to this idea of a moon albeit in the sense of negation.

So, this is how the trouble begins: with subject and object. Owing to causes and conditions we color appearances through the veil of subject and object. We infer or impute a particular state to that which has neither state nor statelessness. When we are exposed to a little Vajrayana philosophy, or instruction, we learn to say "appearances are deceiving," but this is not quite correct. Appearances are not doing anything apart from their own nature. The deception is entirely our own doing. 
"When the [ground of being] arises as manifestation within its own nature, the ground serves as the basis for both freedom and deception, and is therefore called the common ground. Because it serves as the basis for freedom, it is called the ground of freedom. Because it also serves as the basis for the deception of sentient beings, it is called the ground for deception. The ground's manifestation is of a single nature, but when distinguished in terms of [serving as the basis for] freedom, deception, [or both] it is threefold." --Jamgon Kongtrul Lodro Taye
As a measure of worldview, Western people generally believe in that which is graduated, classifiable, and hierarchical. We believe in taxonomy. Our entire corpus of mythology is expressed that way. If you climb the beanstalk, you will see a naughty giant. If you slay a dragon, you will win a beautiful princess.  Our entire  system of education is contrived just that way. If you attend classes, and pass tests, you will be awarded a degree. 

So, absent the direct appreciation of wonder, and genuine love of knowledge, do you see how we become conditioned to expect that we are ascending ladders, or following paths? Do you see how we become conditioned to expect that ladders and paths lead somewhere?

The hidden question behind the spoken question presupposes that Vajrayana is classifiable: there are buddhas, and then there is me. It suggests that Vajrayana is graduated: if I do thus and such, I will become thus and such. It demands that Vajrayana is hierarchical: there is me sitting on the floor listening to some guy sitting on a throne.

You can see these concepts are not mutually exclusive; indeed, they are symbiotic, intertwined, and mutually dependent upon each other. There are no hard edges between them. Actually, this worldview is like a big ball of string. You don't know how many pieces of string are in there. You don't know where those pieces begin and end.

Vajrayana is not that way. It is not about securing, gaining, or achieving status in a social order, or institutional hierarchy. It is not about pleasing teachers. It is not about employing rote memory to achieve technical proficiency, nor repetition to achieve craft proficiency, nor is it the province of intellectual erudition. Temporarily boot-licking the visiting lamas with re-cycled scarves and obsequious crouching is contrived and ugly. Scheming about rank is disgusting. Repeating what you've heard measures neither understanding nor intention. Adding cultural nuances or literary flourish does not improve anything. Hunting birds mimic the cries of other birds in order to trap and kill them.

The essential element of Vajrayana is expression or fulfillment of bodhicitta. More to the point, it is the recognition of needless suffering, and an immediately subsequent desire to be of lasting, overarching benefit. The embedded idea is that a buddha or bodhisattva is best suited to deliver such benefit. Whatever form that may take is whatever form it takes at the moment.

I do not have the ability, nor do I have the education and training, to say how many buddhas  and bodhisattvas have been in the world in the past. In any event, the imputation of the past is the imputation of something that no longer exists. I cannot foresee how many there will be in the future.  The imputation of the future is the imputation of something that has not yet come into existence. Since the present is conditionally based upon imputations of past and future, I cannot say how many there are at present. 

I can only assume that the number of them is unfathomably large. Similarly, I can only assume that each of them embodied the same aspiration to end the suffering of all sentient beings, and their powers in this regard were immense. Maybe these are safe assumptions, maybe they are not, but these are operative assumptions nonetheless. 

On the basis of these assumptions -- and adopting a non-classifiable, non-hierarchical view which totally discards the notion of paths and so forth -- there is only a decision in front of us, and in this decision we can decide we see an ocean. We can decide to swallow this ocean, or swim in this ocean. We can think about sitting on the beach, as lifeguards do, ready to go into action when needed. The possibilities are infinite. Maybe the oceans need no recognition or intervention. Maybe the oceans of suffering we think we see are actually oceans of virtue, and we have only deceived ourselves into believing in something that needs to be done, and somebody who needs to be doing. 

Regardless of how we choose to regard the matter, we need to cultivate infinite patience, and a wide-open way of watching.

Since all sentient beings are actually buddhas, we need to stop measuring and metering that which neither can nor need be measured or metered. 

Stop traveling, stay in one place, and just let the moon be lucky.

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3 reader comments:

michael said...

Thank you for that excellent refreshment. I find Longchenpa's advice on the yoga of space to be helpful here. Sit and directly recognize space; relax. Everything freely rests on space and is filled with space. Space is bodhicitta; free, unbounded, and entirely common with all existence and other ways of being. Are we anything other than space and its display? Great completion.

Anonymous said...

Très lucide et éclaircissant, mille mercis ! Votre style d'écrivain est remarquablement fort et percutant : vous me laissez en haleine ...

Tashi said...

I like the post with one exception: I don't think the notion of grades and progress is any more prevalent in Western thinking than in Eastern. It seems to permeate Tibetan Buddhism in the open teachings: there are five stages of the path, 10 bhumis, 9 stages of meditation. Even in the secret teachings, there are four levels of tantra. Or nine. There are the two stages of meditation--creation then completion.

Boot-licking might also be equally widespread