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Doing what the lama says

Ever and again I read criticisms of Tibetan Buddhism which seem to me based on an at best half-baked, at worst seriously distorted, idea of what Tibetan Buddhism says. Only too often, however, I have to admit to myself that the critics would not have to go all that far to find Tibetan Buddhists who do indeed hold the dumb views concerned.

A case in point is the nonsense that everything we experience is the result of our own karma/past action. Often enough, this is applied to diseases – karma is, according to these views, the sole cause of whether you get sick or not and whether you recover or not. The facts that this is unhelpful, in conflict with common sense and in conflict with the sutras sometimes don’t seem to carry the weight that I think they should.

There has been increasing focus on the web on the abuse of the position of “lama”, and critics often imply (with some justification) that vajrayana students are expected to take the word of their lama/guru as absolute law. The loss of perspective, loss of intelligence and the shut-down of common sense entailed in this are pretty obvious.

There is, I think, a common thread running through this – many of us Western, would-be vajrayana students are desperately uneducated in the dharma, and this leads to a two-dimensional, overly simple understanding of the teachings, with no distinction between fairytales, poetry, and literal advice, between aspirations expressed with poetic hyperbole and literal vows.

Tibetan culture was rich and complex. Some of it – the social structure, for example – is highly incompatible with Western views. So those of us who are trying to absorb what we perceive as the enormous value embodied in Tibetan Buddhism must accept that we must approach it with great caution, and we must be very slow to conclude that we know what anything means. That means that we must be ready to live with not understanding, to live with being unsure, and to live with puzzlement and uncertainty.

If I’m right about that, it means that Tibetan Buddhism is one of the last things to turn to if we are looking for easy certainties. And yet… am I being too sure of my own superiority when I suspect that a good proportion of the Western devotees are looking precisely for the certainty of the word of the lama, the guru who tells you what to do, what to believe, what to accept and what to reject?

Some lamas are, of course, capable of being complicit in this, perhaps genuinely believing that they are “protecting” their students from confusion by guiding them towards a very minimal exposure to the variety of views and thinking within Tibetan Buddhism. Which brings me to my point (well, almost):

The very concept of the “lama” is multilayered. It extends from the first stirrings of compassion for sentient beings in the mind of the Buddha, through the great lamas who gave their teaching and inspiration to the various lineages, through those teachings themselves down to the person who teaches you the alphabet. And yet this rich and complex idea gets reduced to the single person sat on the throne at the front of the hall who tells you to donate for the good of the teachings while sending his (it usually is “his”, obviously enough) close students out for cigars and rosé wine.

A story, though only on good authority, not from personal experience. The scene: Khenpo Tsultrim Gyamtso (K. Kagyu students will know him) with newish, but serious students. The actual event: he discovers that one at least of the students is doing their prostration/guru yoga practice while actually visualising him, himself, as the lama in the centre. The upshot: an extremely forceful clarification that the visualisation should, as it says in the text, be of the imposing, dark blue Vajradhara. The explanation: he, himself, is the human lama. As the lama, he is the connection to the lama in a much bigger sense, the three jewels and the three roots – hence the respect and devotion. As the human, he has all sorts of faults in which the students should emphatically not be taking refuge.

The thrust of this message (if indeed it has a thrust, and is not merely a limp lettuce leaf) is what Dudjom Rinpoche (Jigdrel Yeshe Dorje) had to say about “carrying out one’s teacher’s instructions”. For those who do not know this, Dudjom Rinpoche was vastly erudite, on the basis of which he had a huge literary output marked not just by scholarship but by great poetry. After the Tibetan diaspora, when someone was required to speak for the Nyingma school, he was chosen to be the first “head” of the Nyingma.

He does not offer a “lightweight” recipe for relating to the teacher. He gives, for instance, a visualisation and mantra to be used in the unfortunate circumstances in which one cannot avoid stepping on the teacher’s shadow, an act that would otherwise lead to disastrous effects after death. I mention these things to make it clear that his views are both weighty and traditional.

Having explained that vajra-masters are Vajradhara in person, and that one must follow them without doubt or hesitation, he continues by stating that it is “important to carry out everything your teacher asks joyfully and respectfully”. Just as we might expect. But then:

“If you cannot do so, either because it is something inappropriate – contrary to the dharma or whatever – or because you are unable, properly ask to be excused in a way that does not displease the teacher, and request permission. To abandon it thinking it does not matter, without asking the teacher’s permission, will not do.”

He makes much the same point in a number of different ways: the wise, he says, make every effort to obey, but if they are unable, they clarify their inability by speaking about it. He explains that if the teacher asks you to do something improper, e.g. contrary to the dharma, you must think about it, why it is normally not allowed, and why perhaps you have been asked to do it. Then either carry it out or ask permission not to. Simply to disobey is wrong.

So he’s not letting us off the hook, and he does describe an approach to the teacher that would not sit easily with most Westerners. But at the same time, it strikes me as quite human. If the teacher asks you to do something that you are convinced is wrong, then simply to ignore and disobey really does break samaya. But to say, “Look, I’m sorry, I can’t because …” is exactly how the student IS supposed to react. It’s not easy, but it’s not stupid either.

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