Comments on “The learning relationship in contemporary Vajrayana”

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Seems neat!

Kenny 2023-06-21

I’m a little skeptical that this would help me personally much, not because I think I already know whatever it is this is intended to transmit, but because it’s sometimes very hard to imagine what one doesn’t already know (and understand, or think one understands).

On the other hand, I feel like you, David, have already transmitted some non-zero amount of ‘enlightenment’ to me!

What one doesn't know one doesn't know

David Chapman 2023-06-21

Yes… “transmission” is a way of communicating stuff the student doesn’t know they don’t know. (As opposed to transferring information or skills, which the student either knows or recognizes they don’t know.)

Describing what one doesn't know

Kenny 2023-06-23

Are the kinds of things students learn via “transmission” generally/mostly/almost-always/always things that are difficult/impossible to describe, even after the fact? If not, are there any examples you can (and are willing to) share?

I – sadly – don’t expect to be able to just try this out myself, but I trust you pretty strongly about whether there ‘is something there’ about this kind of thing.

Ineffability and incommensurability

David Chapman 2023-06-24

Are the kinds of things students learn via “transmission” generally/mostly/almost-always/always things that are difficult/impossible to describe, even after the fact?

Well, officially the answer is “yes,” the content is always ineffable. It points to indescribable aspects of experience that one is unlikely to be able to access until one has been meditating pretty seriously for several years.

Transmission is usually (not always) given verbally, although it is an indirect “mere indication” or “pointing,” rather than a propositional statement. And, although officially the whole of Dzogchen can be transmitted in a single short sentence—and I think that’s true in a sense—there are thousands of volumes of Dzogchen theory. So apparently you can explain it; but maybe only after the fact, in retrospect.

There’s a bit of an anti-intellectual streak in Dzogchen. That is a necessary corrective to the sterile intellectualism of the university-style education of elite monks, but it may be counter-productive for the rest of us.

Coincidentally, the day before you asked this I started writing a piece on this topic. I think there may be a useful analogy with the notion of “incommensurability” in the philosophy of science. Sometimes new “paradigms” simply can’t be understood from the perspective of the older one, because the fundamental ontology is different. As a consequence, all the old words mean different things in the new ontology. An example is planets in the Copernican revolution. (I wrote about that in detail here.) Before the revolution, a “planet” was a light that moved around in the sky differently from the stars, and therefore included the sun and moon, but not the earth. After the revolution, a “planet” was something that goes around the sun, which includes the earth but not the sun or moon. That is inconceivable and nonsensical in the old ontology; the sun is up in the sky and the earth is down here and obviously not moving; how could the earth possibly go around the sun?

Dzogchen has a radically unfamiliar fundamental ontology; even, or maybe especially, if you are familiar with sutric or tantric Buddhism. Words like “emptiness” and “enlightenment” and “mind” and “non-duality” and “meditation” mean something quite different. (Although there’s some continuity, in the same way that Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn remained planets after the Copernican Revolution.)

I think—I’m not entirely sure—in Dzogchen transmission, the teacher points this out by pointing to aspects of the student’s current experience.

If not, are there any examples you can (and are willing to) share?

This stuff used to be secret, but it’s not secret at all now. Nevertheless, there’s two reasons to be cautious giving examples. One is that if you read a sentence now and sorta-kinda understand it, it’s less likely to be a shock when you get it as transmission, and then it won’t have the effect of putting you in a useful non-ordinary state. The other is that if you don’t sorta-kinda understand it, it may sound like nonsense, and you could conclude that there’s nothing here worthwhile.

There’s another analogy, actually, with meta-rationality, which has a radically different fundamental ontology from rationality, and if you hear meta-rational statements before you are ready, they sound like stupid hippie woo. If you are just barely ready, they may come as a shock and revelation. (Likewise, if you hear rational statements before you’re ready—if you are in the prerational stage of cognition—they just sound like selfish social dominance claims.)

Anyway, as a fake example, there’s a made-up example here, in which the teacher tries to give transmission and the student doesn’t get it:

This is just my made-up example, trying to give the flavor of the thing, so don’t take it seriously.

Ineffability and incommensurability are great

Kenny 2023-06-25

Damn – I’m even more intrigued!

I’m only really passably familiar with Buddhism – via the various (mostly pretty superficial) glosses of what you describe as ‘Consensus/Modern/Western Buddhism’ – but I think I’m much more familiar with what I think you’re pointing-at/gesturing-to in the form of ‘Taosim for nerds’ via, e.g. the relevant works of Raymond Smullyan. (I also feel like my academic background in mathematics was frequently and, at the time, surprisingly similar in many ways.)

I think I can appreciate why one would want to preserve the possibility of experiencing “shock[s]” and their ability to put one into a “non-ordinary state”, so I don’t think I’m personally at much danger of falling into the trap of dismissing this kind of thing as “nonsense” or being not “worthwhile”.

I’m still curious tho about the kind(s) of ‘insights’ one might expect (or hope) to discover.

But I also think you’ve kinda-sorta demonstrated the very thing I’m asking about in this back and forth! I now think I’ve been ‘putting you on the spot’ – unfairly – because, if for no other reason, you don’t know what ‘insights’ I’m currently missing (or could usefully rediscover).

(I’m a little sadder now that I don’t expect to be able to just ‘try this out’ at one of the Evolving Ground retreats/events.)

Situating this critique within modern teachings on the Lama student relationship

Curious nagkpa 2023-07-02

Thank you for sharing your and Charlie’s perspective. As usual, I find much insight in your writing.
I am wondering how you think the authors of such books as ‘Dangerous Friend’, a modern book which explores the importance of the Lama student relationship, would respond to this post.
If I recall correctly, they critique attempts to do away with the Lama but have little discussion of alternative arrangements, such as coaching. One thing I anticipate is that devotion will be far more difficult to cultivate with the proposed dzogchen-coach advocated here. I am recalling certain mahasiddha stories where it was devotion that allowed major transformation.( In developmental terms you might see devotion as a mechanism for disruption of a self centering stage 3 process into an institutionally oriented stage 4 process.)
I am very curious what, if any, you’d anticipate in terms of pushback f you presented this idea to extant Vajrayana Lineages.


David Chapman 2023-07-02

These are excellent questions, thank you!

I read Dangerous Friend when it came out, but don’t remember it very well. We (Charlie and I) were students of Ngak’chang Rinpoche at the time, as was the author of the book, Rig’dzin Dorje, and we knew him quite well. He’s a good guy; we haven’t talked in about a decade though, since I left that sangha.

It’s hard to know how he would respond. I can’t speak for anyone else, ever, of course. But also there has been a lot of water under the bridge, for all concerned, since 2001 when it was published. Historical conditions have changed… some of which I’ll explain below.

they critique attempts to do away with the Lama but have little discussion of alternative arrangements

Yes. The book was motivated by attacks coming, at that time, from what I called “Consensus Buddhism.” It was one sally in a large, nasty war that lasted two decades (roughly mid-80s to mid-2000s).

The Consensus presented a stark dichotomy of either radical egalitarianism or “the guru model.” They confused Tibetan practice with “the guru model,” and pointed to bad behavior from some gurus (many/most of whom were not Buddhist) as proof that “the guru model” is bad and therefore lamas are bad and therefore Tibetan Buddhism is unacceptable for Westerners.

Meanwhile, Tibetan conservatives insisted that they owned Vajrayana and it had to be the way they said, and nothing whatsoever could be allowed to change.

The controversy overlooked a wide space of what was already feasible. These were never the only two models. In fact the Consensus didn’t practice their egalitarian theory themselves. They had, and have, what we termed “pastors” here.

Tibetan learning relationships were also quite variable in practice. The book defends a somewhat idealized version of a scriptural theory, which is not generally realistic. The mahasiddha stories are exaggerated, heroic myths of ancient times; they can serve as inspiring models, but aren’t descriptively accurate.

In the war between tradition and modernity, what was mostly missed by both sides was the functional role of the lama. Traditional sources, and therefore Rig’dzin Dorje who relied on them, did not do a good job of explaining why lamas are necessary, and specifically what they do. (If my memory of his book is correct.)

The model we presented here attempts to clarify the functional role, which we believe is absolutely necessary, and to separate it from traditional institutional practice, which we believe is culturally-specific and not ideally suited to current Western conditions.

Something we didn’t talk about is devotion. That isn’t because it’s not important. Some amount of devotion is functionally necessary, and it can be centrally important, depending on the student.

One reason not discussing it is that the word “devotion” is vague, and doesn’t communicate well the pattern of interaction that is functionally necessary. Instead, it suggests patterns in romantic relations that tend to dysfunction (“codependence”). In fact, that pattern is the way “the guru model” goes wrong in dysfunctional cults. In that case, students who don’t understand how to relate to the teacher fall into the same dysfunctional emotional dependence they’d bring to a romantic relationship. If the teacher doesn’t forcefully correct their misunderstanding of the nature of the relationship, the standard guru/cult abuse scandal develops naturally.

So we’d want to avoid the word altogether, and talk instead about what is functionally necessary from the student. “Devotion” is whatever attitude toward the teacher is needed in order to be able to make use of the teaching. We did include one sentence of that:

It depends on receptive presence: active, attentive openness to brief, subtle interactions, in an apparently mundane relationship with someone who may appear perfectly ordinary.

This is, roughly speaking, what “devotion” functionally consists of in a Dzogchen context. One could adopt “receptive presence” as an attitude, just based on this brief description, and that might be enough. Or, that might be obscure, or difficult.

In that case, some other words could be helpful. Receptive presence depends on an adequate degree of trust in the teacher. That includes trust that they are competent to teach the material (including to give transmission of the relevant sort). Another word for this could be respect, rather than “devotion.” It also includes trust in their good intentions; that they aren’t psychologically or emotionally manipulating you, and don’t have some secret selfish personal agenda. There needs to be enough of that trust that you are willing to follow their instructions, at least on a provisional “I’ll give that a serious try” basis, even if they don’t seem like they’d work. (Of course, asking questions for clarification at that point is a good idea!)

Another functional aspect of “devotion” is inspiration. That is the motivation for doing the hard work of Vajrayana, and for making changes in your psychology that may be somewhat difficult or even painful initially. Ideally, you find the teacher inspiring: they have personal qualities you’d like to emulate. At minimum, you need to find the contents of their teaching inspiring. They give you an uplifting vision of possibility.

In developmental terms you might see devotion as a mechanism for disruption of a self centering stage 3 process into an institutionally oriented stage 4 process.

That’s interesting… it could indeed do that, if the teacher guides students in that direction.

The lama is often traditionally described as a father-figure. For young monks (some start in monasteries as young as five), that’s just necessary. And monasteries are fairly systematic institutions, so one function of the lama is to induct novices into that systematic mode of being.

Relating to the lama in ways reminiscent of relating to a parent is natural, probably unavoidable to some extent. It can be helpful, so long as the student understands their own emotional transference, and can mostly separate the ways it is functional (trust and respect) from the ways it is not (dependence and/or reflex rejection of authority).

I am very curious what, if any, you’d anticipate in terms of pushback f you presented this idea to extant Vajrayana Lineages.

I’m not curious :)

I simply don’t care about what traditionalists think, anymore. I think they’ve made themselves irrelevant through refusal to adapt. Their opinion is no longer of consequence.

There is much to learn from tradition. It is best not learned from those who refuse to acknowledge modernity and postmodernity.

So many coaches already

Murat 2023-07-02

Great post, but I’d worry about the tight congruence between omnipresent coaches and current neoliberal economic logics, revolving on individualism, entrepreneurialism , adaptability, flexibility. Basically, little one-person shops to purchase one-on-one training, experience, and expertise. Also a semi-tragic facet in the vein of ‘humans of late capitalism,’ as the burn-outs of so many in prior professional or institutional contexts supplies the very capital for their reinvention of coaches for those who are still employees! Maybe the ubiquity of coaches is a cultural and economic symptom of sorts, not something to be taken for granted or idealized.

Re: Devotion

A curious Ngakpa 2023-07-05


Thank you for your extended reply. I appreciate the added context for Dangerous Friend, and the attempt to untangle the questions around devotion.

Re the pushback — it’s understandable to disregard if the criticism is coming from a refusal to acknowledge modernity, but what I meant was whether there is something that is diluted when the relationship shifts to coaching. For instance, I find it quite plausible that a typical coach will require more skill than a Lama in facilitating a shift in the student. Of course, the whole point is that a coaching relationship is more flexible and in principle can include even some of the wrathful display that certain Lamas have.

The presentation of the relationship, and the words used to describe the teacher have a markéd impact on progress. What I am curious about is whether there are crucial functions that traditional Lamas play that are not realized by this presentation of the coaching relationship.

Critical missing functions

David Chapman 2023-07-06

What I am curious about is whether there are crucial functions that traditional Lamas play that are not realized by this presentation of the coaching relationship.

Well, what is crucial or not crucial depends on the five certainties: the students, the teacher, the teaching, and the time and place. Traditional lamas have many different functions, most of which would not fit in a coaching format. If, due to factors within the five certainties, one or more of those functions is critical, the coaching model would not be a good one.

The article says:

What contemporary social arrangement would support the essential aspects of the Dzogchen learning relationship? Evolving Ground is an answer to that question.

I’ve added the emphasis to “an” here to make clear that this isn’t a universal answer. It’s one that can work in this time and place for some students, teachers, and teachings.

As an example of its dependence on teachings, we described this as a model for Dzogchen transmission, contrasting that with tantric transmission. Charlie also teaches tantra, and a somewhat different structure is needed for that. That’s a different work in progress, emerging organically as it’s under co-construction with the students, teaching, time, and place.

It depends on the students, too, as the article said: “Dzogchen transmission requires far more from the student. It depends on receptive presence…” So this model won’t work for students who haven’t developed that capacity.

And, this model won’t be suitable for some teachers, for any of many reasons.

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