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Overcooked devotion

It’s becoming increasingly clear to me that the overemphasis on the relationship with the guru – I’m tempted to call “incestuous”, in a metaphorical sense, but I’d prefer a better word if you know one – that we find today in some “Tibetan Buddhist” circles today has its origins with old Trungpa’s activity.

Yet he himself, at a relatively early stage of his career, said that the importance of guru was being overestimated. In the Chronicle Project, a site dedicated to his devotees’ memories, we have this:

Rinpoche knew what we all were thinking, and finally he addressed the issue directly. Laughing, he said: “Everyone overestimates the importance of a guru. I’m just a clark (clerk) sitting in the booth. You buy the tickets, get on the train, and take the trip!”

Much of what I have read from such circles has only loose relation to my own understanding of the typical guru-disciple relationship as it was in Tibet. In those circumstances, a student might have very little contact with his (or her) main teacher at all. That lama would dispense empowerments, explanations and reading transmissions, and perhaps, on rare occasions there might be a more personal discussion – an interview, if you like. Even outside the monasteries, amongst the smaller groups of ngagpa-style practitioners, a teacher would be very likely to have given various transmissions and expected the students to get on with the practice. (Please excuse the crude simplicity of this sketch.)

It is, of course, possible to find a few cases that play into the narrative of the extreme western view of the relationship: Naropa’s mythical trials at the hands of Tilopa; the harsh treatment said to have been given to Milarepa by Marpa, at least in later accounts; Do Khyentse’s wild behaviour, probably drunken, which brought about realisation in Patrul Rinpoche. But these are, I submit, exceptional cases, often quoted to make a point, and often quite mythologised. But is Naropa recorded as having treated Marpa harshly? Not as far as I know. Did Milarepa insult or beat his students? Not as far as I know. Did Gampopa? Not as far as I know. Atisha? Not as far as I know.

My growing suspicion therefore is that in the quote above:

Everyone overestimates the importance of a guru. I’m just a clark (clerk) sitting in the booth. You buy the tickets, get on the train, and take the trip!”

we see a reflection of this overestimation being, at least at first, pushed onto Trungpa by his western students.

It reminds me of an incident when I was on the outer edges of the inner circle of students around my first teacher. He had a cook, and that the cook did something to annoy him. I can no longer remember whether it was about the cooking, or whether he was perceived as getting “above his station, or what. In any event, he was told that his services were no longer required. What then greatly amused the lama was that the erstwhile cook was now delighted, saying that now he was a “real student” because he had been spoken to harshly and sent away.

If my speculation is right, the question arises of where this overestimation entered *Western* culture. It found fertile ground (to what many of us feel was bad effect) in Trungpa, but what were its cultural origins? Was it perhaps from the ideas promulgated by Hindu gurus who had been active in Europe and America in the early 20th century? I don’t know. Perhaps there is an anthropological/Buddhist PhD topic in there for somebody!

Comments welcome!

One comment

  1. Tenpel says:

    I think we here in the so-called West have an extreme tendency for black and white thinking – not being very nuanced or differentiated in general. Another mark is that we like to put people on a throne (high above us) to uncritically look up to them. You can see this with music ideals or artist ideals or actor ideals. Michael Jackson is another good example. These people loose over time touch with reality due to how they are treated – as god like, most often they can do whatever they want to do. On the other hand, if ideals don’t meet our expectations anymore, there is another tendency which is to throw such people from their elevated thrones into the dust and to paint them and their deeds as only black. This cultural tendency combined with the guru emphasis found in Tibetan Buddhism and a rather literal reading of it – the guru must be seen in the literally sense and at all times as a Buddha and the guru can’t have faults, faults are only in the students – combined with Tibetan cultural examples like Tilopa, Naropa, Marpa and Milarepa (as you say rare exceptions); plus a lack of familiarity with these practices, a lack of historical experience in a healthy teacher-student relationship and also how to deal with abusive / controversial / gone astray gurus, a lack of good dharma knowledge … and other factors – for instance a lack of cultural counter balance against too much power or unethical behaviour of Tibetan lamas in the West (Tibetans like Thrungpa, Sogyal, Kelsang Gyatso, Sakying Mipham etc.) operated mainly with totally inexperienced, easily to brainwash and easily to manipulate Westerners – led to these disasters which we can now observe IMO. Its complex. Basically, its a type of cross cultural confusion on both sides.

    A African historian told me: when I see Tibetan clergy in the west, they remind me of Christians coming to Africa “to bring the light of Jesus”. Not understanding their culture, Western Christian missionaries spread their religion among Africans and had no clue about African cultural backgrounds.

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