Thursday, January 22, 2009

How should we relate to a spiritual teacher?

What does it mean to follow a teacher in the Buddhist path? The Buddha taught that each person is his or her own master, and no higher being or power sits in judgment over our destiny. He said  “One is one’s own refuge, who else could be the refuge?” and “You should do your work, for the Tathāgatas only teach the way”. But many of us struggle to reconcile this individual responsibility with the notion of following a spiritual teacher and the Vajrayāna practice of guru devotion. It's all too easy for our practice to fall into the eternalist extreme of blind faith and total submission towards our teacher as a saviour-like figure. Or we might see this danger but then completely reject faith and discipline (and even the very idea of having a teacher), which might lead us to a nihilist extreme (as in Sam Harris' "The End of Faith"). In neither case can we progress along the spiritual path. So what's the answer? How should we relate to the teacher or guru?

To help us reflect on this question, here's an edited extract from one of Rinpoche's teachings on ngöndro (given in Silz, Germany in 2001):

In his Guru Yoga, Jamyang Khyentse Chökyi Lodrö said: “If you treat the guru as an ordinary person, and then pray to him, you will have a corresponding result.” So if you think of the guru as a good guy, a compassionate and well-informed man, then that is as much blessing as you’ll get. If you think the guru is a great Bodhisattva on the first bhūmi or tenth bhūmi, then that is the kind of blessing you will receive. And if you think the guru is the Buddha, then you will receive enormous blessings. It all depends on your own attitude. It is all your own perception. You should really try to understand this, because there have been so many misunderstandings about the guru, about guru devotion and about the guru-disciple relationship. 

Nowadays, many people in the West think that the whole guru system is a bit like a dictatorship. And in the East, many societies have a very Confucian way of thinking. People believe the leader is always right, even if the leader says, “this wall is black” when it is actually white. Then everyone has to say, “Yes, it’s black.” If you look at China, things still go on like that. Whatever the leaders say goes with many millions of Chinese. At least in the West, with someone like President Bush, he can say something and the whole of America just laughs at him. But in China, whatever the boss says is right and that is it, finished.

But the guru concept is totally different from this kind of idea. It is beyond dictatorship, or the Confucian way of understanding your elders, or the notion that the leader is always right. Why? There’s a very important reason, which you should highlight and keep constantly in your head: Never, ever in the Vajrayāna practice will you see a Guru Yoga practice without the guru dissolving into you. Never. If you find one, it is wrong. I can confidently say that it is either a wrong or mistaken text or that it is being taught by a phoney teacher. 

What does this tell you? That the guru is beyond the concept of dictatorship and the Confucian idea of worshipping the leader. When you worship a leader, the leader is always the leader. They are always the good guy or the big guy while you are always secondary. But in the Vajrayāna, the whole purpose of guru yoga and the practice of guru devotion is to recognise that your mind is the Buddha. It is to realise that your mind is the ultimate guru. And to do that, the practice has this dissolution, the merging of your mind and the guru’s mind. There is no ultimate dictator up there, called guru, who directs your everyday life. That is absolutely not the right way to understand this.

As part of the path to recognise that your mind is the Buddha, we then have the outer guru, which manifests as a reflection of your devotion. The outer guru is unquestionably important. I have never denied that. Paying homage and paying respect to whatever your qualified master has said is very crucial. But please don’t forget that the final and most quintessential thing to know is that your mind is the Buddha. 

© Siddhartha’s Intent 2001

Monday, January 19, 2009

Week 2 teaching - 18 January 2009

Thank you to everyone who joined us in Vancouver (and virtually in Victoria) for an enthusiastic meeting on Sunday - and for those of you in New York and Germany who wanted to join, our aim is to connect you next week.  A recording of this week's teaching and discussion can be downloaded here.  We talked about:

(1) Our reflections on our homework:
  • Why am I on the spiritual path? What am I seeking to get out of it?
  • When Rinpoche said we should "buy more useless things like Buddha statues, and fewer useful things like iPods", why did he say this? And what did he mean by "useless"?
(2) The first 10 pages of "What the Buddha Taught" by Walpola Rahula, which cover "The Buddhist attitude of mind", including:
  • Individual responsibility: Man is his own master, and no higher being sits in judgment over his destiny; Buddha taught the path to liberation, but we have to walk it ourselves; and since we have to determine right/wrong and good/bad for ourselves, we have to develop our own wisdom - this is why Buddhism is a path of wisdom, rather than a religious system of ethics and morality.
  • Freedom of thought, tolerance and doubt: The story of the Kālāmas; the need to develop wisdom, as "To force oneself to believe and to accept a thing without understanding is political, and not spiritual or intellectual"; the story of Upali; how human qualities like love and compassion don't belong to any particular religion.
  • No attachment to blind faith, tradition or any teachings or views: The story of Buddha and Pukkasāti in the potter's shed - how the young novice realised his companion was the Buddha because he spoke the truth, rather than vice-versa: how we should take refuge in the truth of the teachings, rather than in the teacher; the story of Kāpathika and how traditions without realisation are "like a line of blind men"; how attachment to any teachings or view, even Buddhism itself, is just another fetter: "O bhikkhus, even this view, which is so pure and clear, if you cling to it, if you fondle it, if you treasure it, if you are attached to it, then you do not understand that the teaching is similar to a raft, which is for crossing over, and not for getting hold of"
For next week, our homework is to read and contemplate the first chapter of Rahula once again (to page 15).  Next week, we hope to complete the chapter and then discuss a teaching by Rinpoche which covers many of these same topics.

Monday, January 12, 2009

Extremism with a buzz-cut and tattoos

Why do things happen to us in life?  There are 3 positions you could take on this question:

1) It's controlled or predetermined by a higher power, such as God or fate
2) It's random, and we're all part of a giant cosmic lottery
3) It's causal, so we reap what we sow - there are 'causes' for all the 'effects' in our life, even though the relationship between cause and effect is too complex for us to ever understand it in its entirety

The ancient Indian philosophers - the Hindus, Buddhists and Jains - termed the first two 'eternalism' and 'nihilism' respectively.  These are both seen as 'extreme views', and much of Indian philosophy was about establishing why extreme views are a bad thing, and how to build a middle way between these two - the Madhyamika.  The philosophy of the middle way rejects the two extreme views of eternalism and nihilism, and accepts the third position of interdependence, which is at the heart of how Buddhists explain why things happen in the world.  

But although this debate was settled many centuries ago in India, at least at a philosophical level, it doesn't seem to have made much difference to the way we live our lives.  For most of us, either we haven't thought much about it, or else our actions don't line up with our professed beliefs. Meanwhile, extreme views continue to spread like invasive species in an unsuspecting and defenceless ecosystem, and many people actually take pride in holding such beliefs. Sam Harris has clearly set out how religious extremism has led to great human suffering and death from religious wars over the years, and this terrible legacy continues today with the nightmare unfolding right now in Gaza.  You might think we'd be ready to scream 'enough is enough'.  But the popularity of extremism continues.

And now we have a new representative here in the Pacific North West. In the article "Who Would Jesus Smack Down", The New York Times profiles Mark Driscoll, the pastor of Mars Hill Church in Seattle, a megachurch which draws 7,600 people weekly. He's got "fashionably distressed jeans and a taste for indie rock", and his churches are filled with worshippers - and staff - sporting buzz-cuts and tattoos.  He's out to make Calvinism cool.  And if, like me, you're not up on your Calvinist theology, that means:

"you are not captain of your soul or master of your fate but a depraved worm whose hard work and good deeds will get you nowhere, because God marked you for heaven or condemned you to hell before the beginning of time"

Extreme views, anyone? And it's no surprise that these views don't lead naturally to compassion in your meditation or your action. Driscoll feels that the American church has transformed Jesus into “a Richard Simmons, hippie, queer Christ,” a “neutered and limp-wristed popular Sky Fairy of pop culture that . . . would never talk about sin or send anyone to hell.” Not exactly HH The Dalai Lama.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Is Bono a Buddhist?

Being in the present - not dwelling in the past or thinking about the future - is the quintessence of dharma practice.  And it's something dear to the heart of many artists and performers as well.  In an article in today's New York Times, Bono talks about the time he spent at Frank Sinatra's house in Palm Springs.  They talked about Miles Davis and jazz, and Sinatra said:

“Jazz is about the moment you’re in. Being modern's not about the future, it’s about the present.”

Bono reflects on Frank's words, and his classic rendition of "My Way", and says: "I’m sure he’s right. Fully inhabiting the moment during that tiny dot of time after you’ve pressed “record” is what makes it eternalIf, like Frank, you sing it like you’ll never sing it again. If, like Frank, you sing it like you never have before."

Week 1 teaching - Rinpoche's "new ngöndro" - 11 January 2009

Thanks everyone for coming today!  We managed to set up a successful live web link with the sangha in Victoria, and even joined them in meditation across the internet.  We went through the first part of Rinpoche's new student manual to accompany the ngöndro (if anyone doesn't have this manual, please contact me: alex at khyentsefoundation dot org), and also the commentary on the manual that he taught in Rio de Janeiro, December 2008.

The first part of the ngöndro has three components:

(1) study and contemplation (based on the reading list below)
(2) meditation of "just sitting" for a total of 50 hours, at least 5 minutes a day
(3) post-meditation, where we start to integrate our practice into our daily lives.  Rinpoche suggests we should start to do things that would be good for ourselves and others, that we start to buy "useless things" like Buddha statues rather than "useful things" like iPods, and that we make some kind of vow or commitment to give up something small in samsara as a way of cultivating discipline.

Rinpoche's recommended reading list includes 5 books:

(a) Books on the nature of faith and devotion
- "The End of Faith" by Sam Harris
- "Feet of Clay" by Anthony Storr

(b) Introductions to Buddhism
- "What the Buddha Taught" by Walpola Rahula
- "Old Path, White Clouds" by Thich Nhat Hanh

(c) Something to help us to "get accustomed to a different logic"
- "Tao Te Ching" by Lao Tzu

We're going to start with "What the Buddha Taught" as our first text, and we'll go through as many of these texts as time allows.  The purpose of this period of study and contemplation is to "test the gold" of the Buddha and his teachings, not just accept them on blind faith. As Buddha himself said:

"As the wise test gold by burning, cutting and rubbing it,  So, bhikshus, should you accept my words - after testing them, and not merely out of respect." 

  • Contemplate why you are interested in following the spiritual path, and what you expect as a result of following this path
  • Contemplate what does Rinpoche mean by "useless things"
  • Daily practice of "just sitting"
  • Buy "What the Buddha Taught"
See you next week