Levi-Bruhl proposed that there was a major distinction between the thought of European and preliterate people, which he termed "primitive mentality."
He stressed that the difference was due to the content of the ideas and causal understandings in culture, and was not the product of different mental capacity.
He termed the modes of thought that characterized each as scientific and prescientific (or prelogical), respectively. He proposed that "primitive" societies tended to use mystical or supernatural explanations for unexpected occurrences. He contended that this form of thought does not permit a kind of logic that challenges or tests it. The thought process has an internal consistency and rationality, but does not follow the rules of scientific thinking and does not differentiate between what Levi-Bruhl called the natural and supernatural.
Some of Evans-Pritchard's most important contributions followed from an attempt to address Levi-Bruhl's distinction between forms of thought. Evans-Pritchard associated Azande common sense with empirical observation and science. This allowed him to contrast what he called "empirical thought" and "mystical thought," which included magic. A central point in his discussion of magic and witchcraft was that Azande thought is founded on rational processes and empirical knowledge of their world.
His ideas offered a radical departure from the preoccupation of previous literature with the dichotomy between magic and science, and between thought that either was or was not scientific.
Following Levi-Bruhl's observation that the body of collective representations in cultures with prescientific thought limited possibilities for the thought system's self-critical appraisal, Evans-Pritchard used examples from his Azande material to explain how this took place. Azande responses to the failure of magic to achieve the desired result were not to question their technique or knowledge, but to question the specific acts of the magician and to assume that other magic conducted to counter theirs was stronger. These and other explanations, which Evans-Pritchard termed "secondary elaborations of belief," did not require the Azande to confront the failure of their explanation, nor the failure of their entire system of thought.
Not all Tibetan exiles are enamoured of the old Shangri-La theocracy. Kim Lewis, who studied healing methods with a Buddhist monk in Berkeley, California, had occasion to talk at length with more than a dozen Tibetan women who lived in the monk’s building. When she asked how they felt about returning to their homeland, the sentiment was unanimously negative. At first, Lewis assumed that their reluctance had to do with the Chinese occupation, but they quickly informed her otherwise. They said they were extremely grateful “not to have to marry 4 or 5 men, be pregnant almost all the time,” or deal with sexually transmitted diseases contacted from a straying husband. The younger women “were delighted to be getting an education, wanted absolutely nothing to do with any religion, and wondered why Americans were so naïve [about Tibet].”63
The women interviewed by Lewis recounted stories of their grandmothers’ ordeals with monks who used them as “wisdom consorts.” By sleeping with the monks, the grandmothers were told, they gained “the means to enlightenment” -- after all, the Buddha himself had to be with a woman to reach enlightenment.
The women also mentioned the “rampant” sex that the supposedly spiritual and abstemious monks practiced with each other in the Gelugpa sect. The women who were mothers spoke bitterly about the monastery’s confiscation of their young boys in Tibet. They claimed that when a boy cried for his mother, he would be told “Why do you cry for her, she gave you up--she's just a woman.”
The monks who were granted political asylum in California applied for public assistance. Lewis, herself a devotee for a time, assisted with the paperwork. She observes that they continue to receive government checks amounting to $550 to $700 per month along with Medicare. In addition, the monks reside rent free in nicely furnished apartments. “They pay no utilities, have free access to the Internet on computers provided for them, along with fax machines, free cell and home phones and cable TV.”
They also receive a monthly payment from their order, along with contributions and dues from their American followers. Some devotees eagerly carry out chores for the monks, including grocery shopping and cleaning their apartments and toilets. These same holy men, Lewis remarks, “have no problem criticizing Americans for their ‘obsession with material things.’”64
Foot note: 63 and 64Kim Lewis, correspondence to me, 15 July 2004.
To welcome the end of the old feudal theocracy in Tibet is not to applaud everything about Chinese rule in that country. This point is seldom understood by today’s Shangri-La believers in the West. The converse is also true: To denounce the Chinese occupation does not mean we have to romanticize the former feudal régime. Tibetans deserve to be perceived as actual people, not perfected spiritualists or innocent political symbols. “To idealize them,” notes Ma Jian, a dissident Chinese traveler to Tibet (now living in Britain), “is to deny them their humanity.”65
65 Ma Jian, Stick Out Your Tongue (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2006).
One common complaint among Buddhist followers in the West is that Tibet’s religious culture is being undermined by the Chinese occupation. To some extent this seems to be the case. Many of the monasteries are closed, and much of the theocracy seems to have passed into history. Whether Chinese rule has brought betterment or disaster is not the central issue here. The question is what kind of country was old Tibet. What I am disputing is the supposedly pristine spiritual nature of that pre-invasion culture. We can advocate religious freedom and independence for a new Tibet without having to embrace the mythology about old Tibet. Tibetan feudalism was cloaked in Buddhism, but the two are not to be equated. In reality, old Tibet was not a Paradise Lost. It was a retrograde repressive theocracy of extreme privilege and poverty, a long way from Shangri-La.
Women of Wisdom page 89
There is a notable difference in the way the feminine is seen in Buddhist and
In Hindu Tantric iconography the Great Mother, or Sakti, is the
active principle and the creative principle which often sits or dances upon the horizontal Shiva, who represents the static male principle. This polarity existed within the Tibetan
Buddhist Tantras as well, but the attributes of the male and female were reversed. The
Tibetan system attributes the dynamic aspect to the male [upaya), and the female and the female is associated with emptiness (sunyata and profound knowledge (prajna).
The reason for this could well be that the Tibetan society was already strongly patriarchal The reason for this could well be that the Tibetan society was already strongly patriarchal at the time of the arrival of the Buddhist Tantras from India, and therefore the attributes of masculine and feminine were reversed to fit into Tibetan cultural predilections.
This could be ascertained by viewing the native Bon deities, but because Bon
was so much influenced by the advent of Buddhism in Tibet it is to find purely Bon iconography which would prove this supposition.
Agehananda Bharati in his book The Tantric Trandition makes a fascinating analysis of the question of the male-female polarity in theTantric tradition. He suggests that there was a combination of forces absorbed in the Tibetan tradition:Quote
I think that the Vajrayana Buddhists created or absorbed two types of two types of deities, chiefly female, i.e. genuine "Shaktis" in in Indian sense female "energies" which retain their purely which retain their purely dynamic function in in Tibetan Vajrayana (e.g. rDor je phag mo – Vajravarahi, "the Vajra-Sow"); and also, goddesses who embody the theologically genuine Vajrayana concept of the static yum (cosmic mother) who is also shes rab (prajna, total wisdom), viz the quiescent apotheosized Prajnaparamita.
Bharati states: "There are scores of variants in the erotic symbol sculpture of India
, but the one typical of the yab yum is not found anywhere to my knowledge, in Indian sculpture proper
Thirty-five years ago I was in the temple with a younger monk polishing brass statues when the following conversation transpired. Our abbot was off on a teaching tour and had invited another Tibetan teacher to takeover his philosophy classes. It wasn’t going well.
Older monk (me): This new teacher doesn’t seem to know his stuff.”
Younger monk (shocked): “But our teacher chose him.”
Older monk (me): “Yes I asked him about that. He said they were old friends.”
Younger monk (frowning): “There must be another reason. There’s a lesson in here for us.”
Older monk (me): “The lesson is that some teachers are better than others … and perhaps ours made a mistake in choosing this one.”
Younger monk (stops polishing, opens mouth in disbelief): “I can’t think that. I won’t think that.” (Younger monk hastily leaves my presence.)
That was the day I realized that my incessant questioning had finally isolated me from the community.
* * *
This seemingly trivial exchange illustrates the defining paradox of Tibetan Buddhism: guru-devotion.
Here’s how it goes: You should regard your guru as a fully enlightened buddha. To benefit from your relationship with him, you must see him as always having your interests at heart, no matter what. If you doubt, question or reject that, you’re cut off from your source of spiritual advancement now and in future lifetimes, where you’ll suffer countless rebirths in tantric hell.
As a desperately hungry spiritual seeker thirty-five years ago I suspended my doubts without a second thought. I’d burned my bridges back home, almost lost myself in drugs, found a home among the Tibetans and done what was necessary to fit in.
As you’d expect, this prescription has its dangers. A recent Canadian documentary
reports that the influential Tibetan lama Sogyal Rinpoche abused his female disciples for sex. As in earlier but less explosive exposés, those wishing to tell the story were confronted by a Vatican-like code of secrecy that has silenced even the Dalai Lama. In 1993 he chose to not endorse a letter calling on students to report abusive teachers.
A less public, more insidious, danger is the disciple’s private decision to avoid seeing the guru’s human failings. When the facts of life are incompatible with your spiritual practice, you’re headed for bitter disillusion.
On first contact, Tibetan Buddhism is a welcoming paragon of reason and compassion. However, the teachings are layered with esoteric, mystical, exclusive and secret accretions. On the bottom lie the austere ethics and philosophy of the historical Buddha, referred to as ‘the lesser vehicle.’ Above this is the ‘greater vehicle,’ and then the ‘secret vehicle,’ also called tantra. It’s at this level that a guru is indispensible.
Tantra is a rich body of symbolic practice with strict ethical codes. However, it employs sexual and demonic imagery that’s easily manipulated, not only by opportunistic teachers but also by the wishful thinking of devotees. Tantric lore and even contemporary Tibetan history are rife with invisible demons and magical happenings.
Wishful thinking permeates Tibetan religious life. Lamas are routinely referred to as a living buddhas, especially if they’re wealthier, smarter or better-connected. Tibetan culture is deeply stratified. The Tibetan language itself has different vocabularies for speaking up to a superior, across to a peer or down to an inferior. The everyday name for woman is, ‘low-born.’
Although many devotees bury their doubts and questions, the tantric scriptures do not demand it. They wisely spell out the precariousness of the guru-disciple relationship and call on teachers and students to inspect one other for years before making this esoteric pact. In practice however, ‘secret’ empowerments are freely available. The Dalai Lama’s public Kalachakra rituals are organized and attended like rock concerts. Few devotees pass up the opportunity, and then they’re supposed to view the officiating lama as a tantric guru.
Newcomers to Tibetan Buddhism are often hungry for enlightenment, and teachers need students for their ongoing credibility and sustenance. You might wonder, “What’s a fully enlightened buddha like?”
More to the point, is this a true relationship or just a dependency?
* * *
There’s no historical record of the Buddha teaching tantra. To lend these practices authenticity the Tibetan establishment calls them the Buddha’s ‘secret’ teachings, carried out in a duplicate body in another realm of existence at the same time he was teaching here on Earth. The practice is further legitimized by the claim that tantra is built upon ‘ordinary’ Buddhist practice.
In theory, you can choose at what level you wish to practice. However, tantra is said to make enlightenment achievable in as little as three years, as opposed to the ‘countless lifetimes’ of ordinary Buddhism. Once ensnared in the Tibetan orbit, few devotees opt out.
For them, Tantra is supercharged Buddhism. They engage in the most elaborate mental gymnastics to maintain its compatibility with ordinary Buddhism. The inner culture is infused with hierarchical relationships that mirror Tibetan society. ‘Ordinary’ Buddhism and tantric ritual are inseparably entwined.
Ordinary Buddhism depends on the basic practice of mindful attention. This form of mental training, used today worldwide by progressive physicians, requires practitioners to unsentimentally see things as they are. It takes a long-term approach to stress by delivering insight into the ways we think things ‘should’ be. This can be disquieting. By contrast, tantric practitioners need to view every facet of the guru’s behavior as enlightened. Whether or not it’s actually possible to reconcile these two approaches, for all but the most penetrating thinkers they end up being mutually exclusive.
The question that most guru devotees avoid at all costs is the one that mindfulness poses most insistently: Is your view of the guru an example of heightened perception, or the projection of an ideal? When I could no longer isolate these two perspectives from each other, I lost my tantric faith and migrated to the lesser vehicle. It was a step up to reality at the cost of great hand-wringing, guilt and self-doubt.
Since my memoir The Novice was published, I’ve received dozens of emails from people confronting the same dilemma. This is the trajectory of many who came to Buddhism through the Tibetan archway. It’s a welcoming, enticing and beautiful archway. For the spiritually exhausted, beat-up and destitute, it’s hard to resist the promises of supercharged Buddhism. However, sooner or later we all have to consider how it’s working for us.
Decision-making is an emotion
Tantra is not stuff and nonsense, but it’s widely disseminated and practiced in the most superstitious way, quite out of step with its dignity. Its symbolic and narrative value is as powerful as any Greek mythology, but for most devotees that comparison is pure heresy. Even among those who quit, few dare to speak up. I’ve been accused of apostasy and of being a ‘false prophet.’ Some of those who reported Sogyal Lakar’s sexual abuses received death threats.
A prerequisite of ordinary Buddhist practice is to inspect your own motivations, and one of the Buddha’s great insights is that feelings precede reason or, as neuropsychologists put it, decision-making is an emotion. To examine your motivations in that way, to question why you accept and why you reject, is to expose yourself most nakedly to the daring path he took.
I put little stock in the great answers to life, but I value the questions. A half-century of wrestling with belief systems has convinced me that the big one is, “Why do I believe?” There’s a lifetime’s insight in there. Nothing in the tantric scriptures contradicts this critical approach, but as long as you’re in Buddhism for comfort, consolation and security, you won’t be going there.
Thomas M October 5, 2012 at 12:14 am | Permalink | Reply
There is no freedom in samsara. you are making the mistake of taking a mundane view at a supra-mundane set of ideas. It’s like someone in the Sahara trying to read about how to survive in a blizzard, of course it doesn’t make sense to you. There are numerous other common errors in this article as well. (If anyone is interested I could list a few.) This is what happens when cultures collide.
Stephen October 5, 2012 at 9:17 am | Permalink | Reply
Please list all errors.
Thomas M October 6, 2012 at 11:29 am | Permalink | Reply
Thank you this dialogue, this is exciting – I’ve never commented on an article on the internet before. This was my take:
1. It would be inappropriate for a Buddhist to refer to Theravada as ‘the lesser vehicle’ below the ‘greater vehicle’. Big boat and small boat are not positions on a hierarchy. They point out that Theravada is the vehicle of individual liberation and Mahayana is the Bodhisattva vehicle, which doesn’t embark until everyone is aboard. Traditionally, part of a monk’s training would be to first gain an understanding and some experience in the first two vehicles before moving on to the next. Each vehicle is built on the foundations of the previous one. Granted, you may not be Buddhist anymore, but it’s still misleading.
2. It is not wrong to talk about the potential for “opportunistic teachers”, who would take advantage of naive students. But what is the point? Any system put in the hands of humans is going to be subject to human failings. Is there anything that this cannot be said for? It is also not wrong to write an article of warning for westerners who might be reaching out for something. But that is not what this is. I hope I’m not being too harsh but it sounds like you are venting your disillusionment. You saw a suit that you really liked but just couldn’t make it fit so you vilify the tailor; “Wishful thinking permeates Tibetan religious life” – this makes me chuckle. This is the furthest thing from an objective observation. I could write quite a bit on this point as this article has several such oversimplifications, but I only included two examples here to save time. My point is that these seem to be emotionally driven statements that might be misleading for someone with little experience in Tibetan Buddhism.
3. “teachers need students for their ongoing credibility and sustenance”
- teachers are supposed to be free from the eight worldly winds so this does not describe a qualified teacher. I understand that maybe you were referring specifically to unqualified teachers but that is not clear in your article so this is another example of #2
I’m going to stop here for now. Maybe I can pick this up again later.
I don’t write much so I apologize if my tone comes off poorly.
Stephen October 9, 2012 at 1:07 pm | Permalink | Reply
Thomas: Thank you for taking the time to write. No need for apology. Your tone is fine. As you’ll see, we disagree not on the way things should be but on the way they are.
1: “It would be inappropriate…” It most certainly would be, and yet it happens all the time. During my eight years as a monk in the Tibetan tradition I was repeatedly reminded that there was only one true Buddhism. A very human response? Absolutely. Acceptable? Not one bit.
2. a) I find this a little shocking. Are you suggesting that opportunistic teachers need not be denounced because they’re only human? b) True, I may be venting, but I have no issue with disillusionment; I think it’s a good thing. The Buddha’s whole point is that our problem is illusionment. c) As for wishful thinking (or in this case imaginary thinking): how else would you regard the energy generated by debate over invisible demon Dorje Shugden? It has caused murder, mayhem and the erection of a Berlin wall through Ganden monastery. I can’t see how either side has an ethical or pragmatic leg to stand on.
3. “Teachers are supposed to be free of the eight worldly winds.” That’s nice, but the reality of the Tibetan monastic system is that monks must fend for themselves, unless they’re born into the privileged tulku class. My own teacher Geshe Rabten starved for years in Sera monastery until he made a name for himself and was finally given regular meals by his students, and he was a highly qualified teacher. The freedom from worldly concerns you speak of is, once again, ideal and entirely theoretical. Spend a year in a Tibetan monastery and your eyes will soon open to the realpolitik of day-to-day life. They’re only human like us, but they must also be held accountable like us.
VB October 8, 2012 at 11:46 pm | Permalink | Reply
Thank you for posting the link to the documentary. I feel overwhelmed with gratitude reading the articles on your website. Everything you have written is very validating and a relief to read. I felt so alone in my doubts and thoughts for so long.
Yes, in my opinion, Tibetan Buddhism is a cult. I say this after first becoming a Tibetan Buddhist in 1975, learning to speak, read Tibetan and living in various Tibetan communities in India for 6 years, studying continuously for those years with Tibetan lamas of all the four sects.
Tibetan Buddhism is, in my opinion, some sort of shamanistic overlay on top of Buddhism that lost its way in Tibet a thousand years ago. It devolved into being a political theocracy in Tibet with ‘monasteries’, packed full of tens of thousands of boys forced to enter by their families at a very young age, then physically and/or sexually abused, brainwashed into memorizing thousands of pages of text which made no sense to them, cut off from the world.
Breaking free of the cult was deeply painful on many levels, not least because none of the friends, those I thought were friends, ever wanted to discuss the abuses the various lamas did to me or other people I knew. I was told repeatedly it was either my fault the lamas sexually abused me or to just shut up about it because it was “bad for the dharma”. The sangha I had taken refuge in was one that turned a blind eye to the abuses within the cult.
Perhaps more importantly, there was not any willingness among the cultees to discuss Tibetan Buddhism with critical thinking. Even in the last 12 years or so, whenever I attempted to post my doubts or negative experiences on any Tibetan Buddhist discussion forum my comments were responded to with rage, hatred and contempt. I was astounded by the mean spirited ill will. This included death threats and voodoo-like curses.
There is in Tibetan Buddhism abject magical thinking, obsessive obedience, endless rituals, a dizzy worshiping of names and lineages, routine taking of so-called tantric vows in mass ‘initiation’ rituals, consisting mostly of sitting there for hours, or in some cases, for months, while a lama sat on a chair mumbling something nobody understood and nobody discussed critically, sanely or coherently. There is a lot of narcissistic posturing about who does the most – or the most secret – rituals, who got what ‘wang’ from whom and how much razzle dazzle and how ‘high’ that lama was. It would be hilarious if it were not depressingly pathetic.
There is a lot of shaming about feeling many emotions by Tibetan Buddhists, as if it were wrong, spiritually wrong, to feel anger in particular but also to feel bitterness, grief and many other emotions. Contemporary psychological ideas about codependence, abusive relationships are not just unknown, there is an unwillingness to talk about psychology or the mind in any other way than the Tibetan Buddhist version. One woman having a mental/emotional breakdown at the Tibetan Library was given exorcisms. In fact, the colloquial word for Buddhist in Tibetan is the rather arrogant term, “insider”, nang-wa. Anybody with a different perspective is an outsider.
The various Tibetan Buddhist cult leaders I met in the decade I lived in India, gave routine warnings about Vajrayana being a fast one way up the bamboo tube or one way into hell and yet routinely stated the lama was to be seen/experienced as the Buddha. This was after no meditation instruction was given, only being told to visualize “deities”. These so-called Vajrayana commands were largely to experience life with the obligation to see the lama as a Buddha and to spend an hour a day reciting a cinematic description of a lengthy visualization, that not to do so after attending one of these ‘initiation’ ceremonies was breaking sacred, lifelong vows and that would mean straight to the hell of hells. It struck me as very similar to fire and brimstone pulpit thumping of fundie Christians.
That said, I still am still deeply drawn to Buddhist meditation, shamatha and vipassana, Madhyamaka philosophy, the concepts of interdependent arising, sunyata, the Four Noble Truths, compassion for all sentient beings and a number of other Buddhist ideas.
Anyway, thank you Stephen for having the courage to speak your mind
Stephen October 9, 2012 at 1:26 pm | Permalink | Reply
VB: Yours is a very sad testament, but I can attest from my own experience that your words ring true. The more I recall those experiences and the more ire I attract through my writing, the more I see how accurate was the Buddha’s insight into the human condition. Out of fear we hang on to our illusions, see what we want to see and push aside the rest. We are driven by deep feelings that we subsequently rationalize with whatever theories are at hand — including those of the Buddha himself. The assumption that Buddhists necessarily promote what the Buddha promoted is not just wishful thinking, it’s also convenient, lazy and ultimately hurtful thinking. There is never good reason to put aside one’s own judgement, though it be imperfect.
lee October 21, 2012 at 6:26 pm | Permalink
I suppose from a high enough altitude, the problem of sex in the sangha isn’t limited to Tibetan schools. Accounts of pederasty in the 17th CE Japanese Zen monasteries isn’t widely discussed, but it’s not hard to find. There’ve been repeated problems involving hierarchy and manipulation in the Nichiren sects, and Sinhalese Buddhism is undergoing its own reformation reminiscent of Christian Protestantism.
All this invites pondering some weighty matters — religious manipulation, hierarchy & abuse, human frailties, their victims, and righteous indignance. Again and again the established human hierarchies that claim being the standard bearers of societal ethos are found to tacitly condone – or be complicit in protecting – abuses from within their ranks. Nailing grievances on the door of the mother church isn’t enough, too many clerics have an inward-looking view of the problem and can’t foment sufficient redress or reform.
Stephen October 21, 2012 at 8:48 pm | Permalink
I agree entirely Lee. This problem begins with human beings. What’s interesting is that the various religious establishments could quite easily make a clean break of it, and yet their initial reaction is to hide it, to their eventual great disadvantage. It seems that institutions, like people, tend to be more emotional-reactive than rational. I despair of any solution and choose to stand outside of all organizations. However, I have the greatest respect for those with the social/political skills to remain and fight for justice from within. I lack those skills but have found a naked voice outside.
Nancy October 26, 2012 at 2:58 pm | Permalink | Reply
I began studying Buddhism with a Tibetan Lama over 25 years ago. My teacher suggestions of a specific meditation helped me weather a deep family tragedy while simultaneously revealing to me the incredible power of vajrayana meditation practices. After some years I chose to take monastic vows. I have never regretted this decision although I acknowledge that I am not now and probably could not live a monastic life as such a life unfolds in Asia. I had always known about my teacher’s activities that appeared to be mean spirited, explotive and at times dishonest. I even had discussions with more senior students regarding these behaviors. I felt uncomfortable in these discussions because I was constantly trying to balance keeping samaya with the teacher against my own view of events that were actually occuring. During the years I was with him, I saw many sincere and dedicated students leave the organization due to dissonance between the teachings and the teacher’s behavior. However the power and the efficacy of the practices coupled with my teacher’s willingness to continue teaching me lead to my continued membership in that sangha. Several years ago I entered a traditional three year retreat. I completed the retreat. I continued to be within my teacher’s circle. He became more and more critical of me both privately and publically. At last I chose to leave that circle of students and teacher. I felt immediate mental freedom. I no longer had to perform the mental gymnastics to reconcile my teacher’s behavior with the Buddha’s teachings. It has been a time of confusion, doubt, and anxiety. It has also been a time of clarity, and joy and freedom. For awhile I was angry . ” How could he throw me away so easily? ” Now with a couple of years perspective, I find new levels of compassion for myself, for the many students who have left, for the students who remain, and for him even as I acknowledge that how he treated me and others was unethical, mean and immoral. We are all circling in stew of attraction, aversion and ignorance. Of course my teacher is Buddha incarnate and of couse he is also a sentient being…. as am I and you and all the rest of us. The Buddha taught a way of transcening the pervasive suffering of this life. It works whatever vehicle we follow if we actually do the work. Buddhism doesn’t stop unpleasant events from occuring in one’s life, but it allows one to mitigate, avoid, transform and even transcend the suffering associated with the inevitable unpleasant events that occur. As I have worked to integrate my separation from my teacher into my current life I have developed deep respect and gratitude for the teachings of the vajrayana that I have been given. I also have developed deep respect and gratitude for my own mind – the ultimate guru. I seldom engage in Diety yoga anymore but I do not disavowed it’s worth. Mind-training and mindfulness practices have so much to offer all of us. Coming home to these practices after exploring the peaks of Diety yoga reveals new depths that I never even suspected. I maintain my vows even as I live a life that appears to most to be very householder-like. Lately I have been willing to explore issues like trust, devotion, faith, and guru yoga. (Yikes I tell myself, BE CAREFUL). If the teaching is true that devotion is a prerequisite for the ultimate realization, does that mean that realization is closed off to me this lifetime? (Digression: Is this akin to the early Mormons believing one must have many lives to enter the highest heaven?) I think not, but even if it is true, I cannot, I will not ,once again betray my own mind. Meanwhile I notice that my back is stiff from sitting too long at the computer.
Tenpel November 11, 2012 at 5:51 pm | Permalink | Reply
I would like to address some points you made because I see them as being superficial, not grasping the meaning of what Indo-Tibetan Buddhism is all about. IMO, the content of this post adds rather to the confusion than clarifying it – though some might find it helpful because it reflects their own thinking.
If there are cults in a religion – and I would not hesitate to say within „Tibetan Buddhism“ as well as in other „Buddhisms“ there are some cults – this does not necessarily mean that the whole religion is a cult. Because there are some cultish or cult-like groups within Tibetan Buddhism to infer from this Tibetan Buddhism in general is a cult is a generalisation that goes a bit too far for me, and it’s no valid proof either because you cannot infer validly „because one child of the family is crazy the whole family is crazy.“
You say: „You should regard your guru as a fully enlightened buddha […]“ but you miss to contextualise this teaching, which is mainly a training, and shouldn’t be understood on a literally level.
When one trains even in the lower classes of Tantra on starts from the perception / meditation of oneself, the guru, and the deity as being of the same nature: lacking inherent existence (lacking a self) = „ultimate deity“. Then gradually one proceeds through the Six Deities of self-generation to the „deity with signs“ where one perceives oneself as a Buddha and trains in „correct pride“ based on the visualised basis to be the deity. In such a context it would be ridiculous to regard oneself as a Buddha (as a part of the tantric training) and the Vajra-Master as ordinary. And since one trains in the same way in the mediation break, it makes sense to see the “Guru as a Buddha” (while the mind that realizes emptiness takes on the aspect of oneself being also a Buddha.) In short the Tantra training does not include to see the teacher as a Buddha and oneself as an ordinary, deluded, poor-self being who is nothing and the guru is everything. In Tantra one trains to avoid ordinary appearance and ordinary grasping to both, oneself and others, including the teacher (+environment etc).
These teachings don’t suggest therefore to look up to a teacher and down on oneself or to bend reality as it fits. It’s a training for certain trainees (mainly Bodhisattvas with sharp faculties). If one has taken up such a training and if one is properly qualified (as well if the teacher is properly qualified) one can quickly progress on the path – as long as one is not lead astray by oneself or the teacher. There are certain risks, which is illustrated by the saying that one either goes up or down by practising Tantra. Three years is a theoretical measure related to the breath and the winds entering into the central (or side) channel(s), and it should not be taken literally. It’s a hypothetical time duration! HH the Dalai Lama stresses that for most in a three year retreat what they attain is pride, when they do a next 3-year-retreat, they attain that this pride reduces, after a third 3-year-retreat one might have some genuine experiences.
Also the hells need not to be taken literally: if there is the qualifications of both (teacher & student) and if one gives this rare occasion up, the hell is waiting in the sense of one continues to wander in Samsara. Moreover, to go to the hell „by a breach of guru devotion“ is not that easy, as Alexander Berzin explains in his excellent book on this subject. Some teachers go so far to say, that Westerners are so less qualified for Tantra that they cannot break their Samayas. So there is a variety of understanding here too.
I don’t know where you got this from:
„To benefit from your relationship with him, you must see him as always having your interests at heart, no matter what. If you doubt, question or reject that, you’re cut off from your source of spiritual advancement now and in future lifetimes, where you’ll suffer countless rebirths in tantric hell.“
First of all once one has checked the master (ideally 12 years of examination) and if one sees him/her as qualified and has decided to accept him/her as one’s Tantric teacher such thoughts about his or her shortcomings aren’t useful for the training, nevertheless different texts also clearly state, that if the master gives wrong teachings, wrong advice or wrong commands contrary to the Dharma, one should no follow it. E.g. Je Tsongkhapa states for instance: „If someone suggests something which is not consistent with the Dharma, avoid it.“ „Distance yourself from Vajra Masters who are not keeping the three vows, who keep on with a root downfall, who are miserly with the Dharma, and who engage in actions that should be forsaken. Those who worship them go to hell and so on as a result.“ How can you do this if you even don’t question his or her actions? Also the Dalai Lama says clearly that to see all actions of the guru as enlightened is an „extremely dangerous teaching“.
Maybe the teachers you met didn’t go to the depths of the meaning of the teachings, however, it’s a bit more profound than the blog entry suggests.
You say: „The Dalai Lama’s public Kalachakra rituals are organized and attended like rock concerts. Few devotees pass up the opportunity, and then they’re supposed to view the officiating lama as a tantric guru.“
Again, I find this as being a superficial statement. There are different ways to be present at an empowerment (see again Alexander Berzin). For instance a Christian (who sometimes as well as Theravadins are also present during such empowerments) can just attend as an observer to receive inspirations for the own faith, a next level is just to receive a blessing etc. In all those cases the Dalai Lama doesn’t become their Tantric Guru, nor do they have to practice Tantra or the Sadhana. (The Dalai Lama usually also doesn’t give a commitment, when he grants a Kalachakra empowerment. He even leads through the taking of the Bodhisattva vows in a way, that everybody has the choice to take or not to take them.) People like these rituals and the Dalai Lama says himself only 3-6 at such a gathering receive a real empowerment but he gives it mainly to use their faith in the ritual by passing some relevant teachings for their lives to them.
You say: „Newcomers to Tibetan Buddhism are often hungry for enlightenment, and teachers need students for their ongoing credibility and sustenance.“
This is a mere allegation that “teachers need students for their ongoing credibility and sustenance.” Why shouldn’t there be teachers who give it really with the motivation to benefit others? Again you generalise here: „teachers need students for their ongoing credibility and sustenance“ but what prove do you have for this claim? It might be true in some cases or even in many but not for every teacher. As Jackson from Hamburg University has put it so nicely:
»In Tibet as in many a country, in addition to genuine religious teachers there were also a host of dubious mendicants, madmen, and charlatans who plied their trade among the faithful, and life within the big monasteries witnessed the full range of human personalities, from saintly to coldly calculating.«
You say: „There’s no historical record of the Buddha teaching tantra. To lend these practices authenticity the Tibetan establishment calls them the Buddha’s ‘secret’ teachings …“
You miss to mention that the Tantra is not an invention by the Tibetans but was brought to Tibet by Indian masters such as Padmasambhava or Atisha. And they say exactly the same. You can likewise say „there is no historical record of the Buddha teaching Theravada or Mahayana“ because all written and transmitted teachings appeared long after Buddha’s passing away. Even scientists (who are more open and who don’t adhere to the view that Theravada is the „most authentic Buddhism“) say that there is no proof for any teaching that it is from the Buddha. The Buddha did also not teach in Pali. This is quite of a vast topic …
You say: „The practice is further legitimized by the claim that tantra is built upon ‘ordinary’ Buddhist practice.“
This is not a claim, it’s a fact. Why? Tantra is based on renunciation, great compassion and emptiness.
You say: „In theory, you can choose at what level you wish to practice. However, tantra is said to make enlightenment achievable in as little as three years, as opposed to the ‘countless lifetimes’ of ordinary Buddhism. Once ensnared in the Tibetan orbit, few devotees opt out.“
I commented on this theoretical claim of in-3-years-enlightenment already above. I don’t know of few devotees opt out. Do you have any reliable statistics?
You say: „By contrast, tantric practitioners need to view every facet of the guru’s behavior as enlightened. Whether or not it’s actually possible to reconcile these two approaches, for all but the most penetrating thinkers they end up being mutually exclusive.“
See the Dalai Lama’s comment: [info-buddhism.com]
After reading the blog entry, my impression is that what was passed to you or what you’ve understood seems to be rather a superficial type of understanding of Tibetan Buddhism but not what Tibetan Buddhism is all about in its depths. Kelsang Gyatso (New Kadampa Tradition) and his NKT teachers spread such superficial understanding too, and of course this is a cause of misunderstandings and subsequent problems but it’s not what „Tibetan Buddhism“ in a deeper sense is all about. Therefore I wouldn’t go so far to attribute these misunderstandings to Tibetan Buddhism but to the persons, groups, teachers who have taught / spread them.
I agree however, that the teachings within Indo-Tibetan Buddhism can be used to establish and to abuse power. But this is a human failing and not necessarily the failing of Tibetan Buddhism, and you find this also among practitioners of other Buddhisms and religions, Atheists, Scientists, Agnostics etc.
Stephen November 11, 2012 at 10:37 pm | Permalink | Reply
I agree that not all Buddhisms are cults. I didn’t suggest otherwise, though I did suggest that much of Tibetan Buddhism is taken superstitiously, and that the tantric scriptures actually warn of this danger.
More importantly though, I wonder how human failings might be in any way separate from the failings of Tibetan Buddhism? What is Buddhism if not the people who claim it?
Sorry I can’t answer you point by point. There are too many.
Tenpel November 12, 2012 at 4:54 pm | Permalink | Reply
Thank you, Stephen.
The headline together with the content of the post suggest for me that Tibetan Buddhism is more or less a cult and in a way also that the Tantra is a Tibetan made-up that is somewhat “infused with hierarchical relationships that mirror Tibetan society”, and therefore also somewhat distorted. This is what forms up in my mind when I read the post.
You say: “More importantly though, I wonder how human failings might be in any way separate from the failings of Tibetan Buddhism?”
There are incredible spiritual persons and charlatans alike within Tibetan Buddhism. There are those who, I think, have advanced greatly on the path and have a high (or full) degree of inner freedom due to the practice of Tibetan Buddhism, and the way how they applied the teachings being taught. The charlatans, gone-astray teachers and misled practitioners have gone that (wrong) road due to misunderstandings, blind spots, mind poisons, being misled themselves etc. I cannot attribute their failings to Tibetan Buddhism.
“Tibetan Buddhism” is also a Western term attached to the Buddhism found in Tibet. For Tibetans this is just (Indian) Buddhism as it was transmitted by the great Indian Panditas like Atisha or Shantarakshita and others to Tibet. They from their side think they have closely preserved the Indian siddhas’ and scholars’ heritage.
If it were true that human failings might not be separate from the failings of Tibetan Buddhism, it follows also the human failings among Tharavadins might not be separate from the failings of Theravada Buddhism. See e.g. [www.bbc.co.uk] (there are more examples and wrong developments).
You say: “What is Buddhism if not the people who claim it?”
Buddhism should lead to the reduction of the mind poisons. I would judge it from the effect it has or doesn’t has. And then one needs to examine if there are genuine examples that live those teachings, that incorporate them. I think it is save to say, those examples exist. So why then go some astray? Is it due to Tibetan Buddhism? I think not.
Stephen November 12, 2012 at 11:37 pm | Permalink | Reply
You have great faith Tenzin; much more than I.
Tenpel November 13, 2012 at 4:33 am | Permalink
I don’t know what you want to say with this comment? You avoid to pick up the discussion of points you’ve raised yourself.
Maybe, you are suggesting that I would have a type of irrational or blind faith, while you rely on “most penetrating think”ing [a term used in the post] ?
Faith in the sense of what it actual means in Buddhism: to see the really existing qualities of something, faith into that which exists based on reasoning is approachable also for “the most penetrating thinkers”
Stephen November 13, 2012 at 8:39 am | Permalink
Dear Tenpel: I am not trying to raise points. I am trying to provide a reference point for people like me who have been disappointed by their own illusions. You can pick apart my essay as if it were a philosophical thesis, but it isn’t. You arguments may be valid, but they are tangential to what I am doing here and the audience I address. What I see as significant, you consider superficial. Where you place your faith, I have none. Read some other comments on this post you’ll see that the discussions are largely about people’s pain and confusion, not about defending one or another brand of Buddhism.
Tenpel November 17, 2012 at 5:57 am | Permalink
Dear Stephen. Thank you for your reply. All the best
Stephen August 16, 2013 at 2:54 pm | Permalink | Reply
I thank you for this Peter, although I’m uncomfortable with the way you’ve interpreted my statement about learning from abusive gurus. One can learn from every experience of course, but a guru’s behavior should be held to the highest standards. The Buddha himself was so preoccupied with the lay community’s judgement of his beggars that the vinaya (code of ethics) is as much about public perception as about personal discipline. Awakening is not a personal matter. Our perceptions are intrinsically connected, and so is our practice. Let us not be so blinded by our desire for ultimate freedom that we sacrifice our good judgement. Without it, no viable relationship of any sort is possible.
“Driving all blames into one” is a method to subdue one’s own mental imbalance. Once you’ve achieved that and have a stable perspective on things, it’s necessary to denounce abuse and hold abusers responsible. The whole community must see that “crazy wisdom” is not just an excuse to ignore necessary social and ethical conventions. The vajrayana (tantra) is supposed to be founded upon the lesser paths, not a replacement for them.
Sonam Tharchin August 16, 2013 at 10:59 am | Permalink | Reply
I am Tibetan and so sorry to hear that Tibetan lama has abuse these young innocent students. Some time i am surprise how can they let it happen. I always think westerner are smart enough to protect themselves as they do from any sex scandals of these kinds. But in reality this lama are nothing special and they have same sinful nature and lust and sexual desire as you and me.
Before you decide to get any spiritual teaching you better check their history and their background.
Because in Tibetan world its very common for Tibetan lama to abuse young Tibetan girls. Those woman and their family would never dare to open their mouth against these powerful lama. In My Tibetan settlement this big Rinpoche (high lama) use to teach Tibetan language to several student. There were five to six young woman. And he abused all these girls and some them become pregnant, and these days one of son and now also incarnate lama in one of monastery in Nepal. Tibetan Public in that area still thinks this blessing rather than speak against it. So its very common practice in villages in Tibet.
Its been more than 50 years since china took Tibet but still Tibetan lamas have not changed. It’s sad and I am part of this medieval-period mind set and practices. But in reality all these Tibetan Religious leader use fraud and Buddhism to make money and live in Luxurious life, which completely different from what Buddha was teaching…. Be careful with smiling fake humble looking Lamas….
Stephen August 16, 2013 at 3:07 pm | Permalink | Reply
Thank you for this Sonam. I lived in Tibetan refugee camps in South India for a year and am acquainted with the ‘medieval mindset’ you describe here. Most Westerners hold Tibetan lamas in high esteem and will be shocked, thinking that this couldn’t possibly be a systemic problem, but they’re under an illusion; they’re far more vulnerable than you imagine. I was shocked when I first encountered it, and deeply hurt.
The Buddha teaches that we should face reality and not avoid it. I applaud you for speaking out.