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Enlightenment in one life? Errmm…

I was recently in a discussion about whether people get disappointed because Tibetan Buddhism is sold to them on the promise of achieving Buddhahood in this one, very life. Some were arguing – and not without reason – that the position of other traditions, namely that it is going to take quite a lot of lifetimes, is more reasonable and therefore less disappointing. Their point, however, only makes sense if we have a very narrow understanding of the view.

The question of whether Tibetan Buddhism, and in particular its vajrayana segment, proposes that people are likely to become Buddhas in one lifetime, as opposed to a more gradual expectations supposedly proposed by other schools, is only an issue if we assume a much more literal and a much more utilitarian approach than is the case in reality.

Too literal?

Firstly, if we take these points too literally, we run up against some logical problems. Supposing I am practising a tantra that claims to guarantee Buddhahood within 14 lives. Which life am I on? Just because I was born in the West, and don’t have the title of a tulku, does that mean I am necessarily on life number one? Perhaps I’m already on life 13 or 14!

The purpose of such a claim is, I think, far more didactic – intended for the purposes of classification an explanation – than specifically practical. A system that is said to lead to Buddhahood within the very first life, even for a great sinner, is clearly being painted as more powerful (if possibly more difficult) than one that only leads to Buddhahood after 14 lives. But what actually happens is another matter.

I have no literary source for the following story, but I swear on Buddha’s tooth that I got it from a genuine Tibetan Lama more than 40 years ago:

A teacher tells his two close students that now that he has given them empowerment and pith instructions they will reach Buddhahood in 14 lives. One student is disappointed, leaves in search of something better, and ends up wandering in Samsara for several further aeons. The other is so pleased about “only” having to practice for 14 lives, that he jumps into the air for joy and is enlightened by the time he hits the ground. The point of the story, of course, is not whether this actually happened, but to stress that these rigid specifications are not meant to be taken too literally. What is going on in our heart and mind trumps the scholastic rule.

Too utilitarian?

Secondly, as for “utilitarian”, I have a hard time believing that many people choose one system over another because somewhere there is a claim that it is quicker or slower than another system. Another story for which again I have no literary source, but I swear again on Buddha’s tooth that I got from a genuine Tibetan Lama only a few years ago, might illustrate this:

A yogi has been practising and practising, reciting and reciting, but feels that he is getting nowhere and starts to get despondent. One morning, the Dakini appears in front of him.

“What is wrong,” she says.

“I’ve recited your mantra 10 million times,” says the yogi, “but nothing has happened.”

“Well,” she says, “didn’t you notice that extra bit of fat that came in your porridge this morning? And in any case – you are a practitioner. That’s the real blessing.”

And the moral of this fairytale is, I believe, that the rewards of practice – the blessings, if you like – should start on day one with a growing sense of joy, inspiration, and dawning insight. Obtaining enlightenment for the sake of all sentient beings, as the refrain goes, must of course be the practitioner’s ultimate motivation, but to focus too much on the idea that Buddhahood beckons somewhere down the line, but that the rest of our practice is just something we have to slog through, seems to miss the point.

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