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(although we need not take the stories too literally).
But I hope you meant: “In no sense do we don’t take this literal of course. Because this is an obvious cheap rhetorical technique to say our teaching kick the butts of sutra folks and other Mahayana folks. We rule! “
Sure, they believe it of course. But come on. It is rhetoric. You can hear other religions doing the same thing all the time. The proof is in the pudding, not in the rhetoric. Just because you are a devotee, you shouldn’t turn off your discerning mind and say, “Well, it is sort of the truth when our boys do it.”
Time, gradual exposure, and extensive study are the antidotes to yana shock.
But we also know that this is exactly how people lose themselves in abusive cults. They pay enough money, enough time, enough energy and surround yourself with other people that tell you they did the same and the stuff you once thought was shocking is just fine : sure, tell lies, steal, use that man’s wife or that woman’s husband. Sure, trust the lama to tell you what to do in your life – cause He/She sees reality as it “really” is. Don’t worry about your money – all that takes care of itself.
I hear no safety checks in your system. I hear things that any group would say. I’d imagine you have lots of checks, but I don’t hear them.
I try to err on the side of being too polite, rather than too rude, although sometimes I fail in each way! In the case you cite, yes, by “we need not take the stories too literally”, I meant “this is an annoying fairy tale.” If that wasn’t clear, I suppose I was being too polite.
Vajrayana doesn’t have formal/organizational safety checks. It is not a safe system, at all. This is true for all Tibetan lineages, as far as I know, including Aro.
Some American Zen organizations, for example, have set up such checks, after problems. Quite likely that’s a good idea; I’m not sure how it’s going to turn out, but it seems sensible.
It probably isn’t feasible for Tibetan Buddhism, because of the way the Lama/student relationship works. (Rig’dzin Dorje’s book Dangerous Friend goes into this.)
So, it’s dangerous. Vajrayana is an extreme sport. If you hang glide, you might crash and die. It’s like that. You can accept the risk—or not. If you don’t want to risk crashing, don’t hang glide…
The risk isn’t arbitrary, or unmanageable (in either case). If you are sensible, you can mitigate it, to a level you might find acceptable. I would love to hang glide, and have chosen not to; it’s just a bit too dangerous. I have chosen to be an Aro apprentice, because (after detailed investigation) I think the risk is low enough. (I also do some less dangerous outdoor sports, where I might die at any time, but statistically it’s pretty unlikely.)
If one were attracted to apprenticeship (as I am to hang gliding), one ought to do enough investigation to have a well-grounded estimate of the risk. The Aro Lamas won’t take apprentices until they see that they’ve done that investigation, which usually takes at least six months of peripheral involvement—more typically a year.
The different yanas contradict each other profoundly. They are not superficially and arbitrarily different. Their fundamental principles are different. They have different concepts of truth, and especially of ultimate truth. For Mahayana, emptiness is the ultimate truth and ultimate goal. It is a shock to be told that in Vajrayana, emptiness is merely the starting point.
I think this is overstated. My teachers clearly point out the essential continuity of the Buddhist message across all the yanas, particularly the continuity of the human problems which Shakyamuni set out to solve. It strikes me that a Vajrayana teacher who denied the Four Noble Truths would be a highly irresponsible individual, as would one who encouraged students to Take Refuge only in the Three Roots and not in the Three Jewels, and as would one who denied the need to develop compassion and loving kindness toward all beings. I’ve never encountered any of these fellows. The differences are ones of means and their application, not of ends.
Take the matter of “emptiness”. From the Hinayana viewpoint emptiness is about the essential lack of a “self” in any and all beings and, from the perspective of the Four Noble Truths, our habitual failure to see this directly is the root of our individual suffering. From that viewpoint the Eightfold Noble Path is a means to clear up the essential confusion about this that keeps the process of karma, cause, and effect running and so keeps us mired in suffering.
The Mahayana denies none of this. But what it does do is point out that it is incomplete. It ignores 3 basic questions: What about everything else? What about everyone else? And how does a Buddha get to be a Buddha?
From that standpoint, “emptiness” is not only about the lack of a personal “self”, it is also about the lack of an “essence” in appearances, the “emptiness of all dharmas”. My teachers say that the realization possible with the Hinayana focus is like a glass of water, the realization of the Mahayana focus is like an ocean of water. The water is the same in both cases, but the scope is vastly different. The Arhat is not a Buddha. The Arhat has defeated the foe of personal suffering, but has not achieved Complete and Perfect Enlightenment.
Moreover, we are not the only ones who are suffering because of our essential confusion. All beings are doing so. By shifting our focus to this fact and responding to it, we take the first step to realizing the “emptiness of dharmas” because we have stopped focusing exclusively on our own problems. Just like Shakyamuni did.
And that is the key point. Buddha’s own Enlightenment did not emerge arbitrarily and out of nowhere. It was made possible by the aspirations and the actions of past lives. And those aspirations and actions of the Buddha as a Bodhisattva were congruent with the result: they displayed compassion and loving kindness for others and the consequent wish to achieve complete and perfect enlightenment for their sake. We can do this too. Shakyamuni started out no different than us, and, with the same aspirations and actions, we can end up no different than he is.
Now the Vajrayana denies none of these components of either the Hinayana focus or the Mahayana focus. It is genuinely wrong [and highly dangerous] to become so fixated on the colorful techniques that we fail to understand why the techniques are there. The aspiration of a true Vajrayana naljor is exactly the same as someone only following the Mahayana path, achieving Complete and Perfect Enlightenment for the sake of all beings.
But to see what makes the Vajrayana even possible, we have to look more closely at the question of how the Buddha became the Buddha. He was able to do so because he possessed the potential to do so or “buddha nature”. We also possess it, and our buddha nature is no different than his. When Shakyamuni became Enlightened, the world he lived in wasn’t suddenly some different place. What changed was his perception and understanding of it. This change in perception is called Fruit, and the unchanging state of the world that he perceived is called the Ground. It’s exactly the same Ground whether we realize it or not.
The point of the Vajrayana is that we can walk the Path with the attitude of confidence that the Ground does not change and that the world is still the same place it will be when we achieve the Fruit. And all of the fancy techniques are really there only to make our confidence in this certain and doubtless. It is the confidence that makes the Vajrayana the “swift path”, not the techniques themselves.
The thing that worries me most about Vajrayana in the West is that those who practice it will lose sight of the moral and human basis of Buddhism in the Four Noble Truths and they will lose sight of the necessity to aspire unceasingly for the Enlightenment of all beings. If they do, the absolute best they can achieve is rebirth in some realm or other where they possess the power of the practices they undertook, without the insight and wisdom they were supposed to accomplish, and will sooner or later fall back into suffering.
The worst they can achieve doesn’t bear thinking about.
[I thought your suggestion to post the private e-mail I sent you a tremendous idea. However there are so many places I could post it over here that I got a little bewildered. Since this is my latest comment, I chose this one.]
While you are taking a week to do something really important, I have done some visiting of the Aro site and your Approaching Aro site. It has lots of reassuring information for beginners, but less information than I might have hoped that would allow a long- term practicioner of another tradition to make useful comparisons to the things he has been taught.
As a Karma Kagyudpa, with a very close and long term [27 years] bond with a single, monastic root guru, I have no reason to seek Aro out as a lineage, but I like to examine all of the lineages with some care and in some detail. Over the years I have found this very illuminating of my own lineage’s teachings and to my private practice.
The Aro site left me with many questions that I’d like to ask you as an Aro apprentice. Now I know that some of these may trespass on your commitments to keep silent, and I would never press you to break those commitments, but I have no idea where the line you must draw would be, so if any of these questions crosses it, don’t hesitate to tell me so.
Does the aro terma have a ngondro practice with a refuge field?
Does it have a specific guru yoga? Are there inner, outer, and secret levels to it?
Does it have both vira and dakini practices? Does it have dharmapalas? Who are they?
Do Ngakpa’s take the 5 genyen vows? Do they take any beyond this? Is the Bodhisattva vow given? Is there any use of temporary Sojong vows in your retreat practices?
Does Aro use any lamrim texts such as Longchenpa’s Finding Comfort and Ease? What are it’s views on the issue of karma, cause, and effect?
The Aro site mentions empowerments, does it use the three transmission approach of wang, lung, and tri? The Aro site also mentions yidams. Are these forms of the 8 herukas, such as Hayagriva or Vajrakilaya? You mention that your root guru and the visionary terton practiced a yidam from Dudjom Rinpoche’s terma. Is there any crossover into the Aro ter practices from that terma? Does Aro have chod teachings? Are there any meditations practiced in total darkness?
Do the “romance” teachings contain any form of karmamudra to assist the opening of the winds, channels, and drops? Some of the Tibetan teachers mastered tummo, is there tummo practice taught by Aro? Or any other “yogic applications”?
I could ask more, but getting answers for any of these would be helpful in focusing further questions. Hope your retreat goes well.
Yours In The Dharma
Thank you very much for these excellent questions. I encouraged you to post them publicly, since other readers may find the answers useful. Fortunately, all can be answered based on public information. Relatively little is secret in the Aro lineage.
It does not have a Tantric ngöndro (which is the only type most people are familiar with). It has a ngöndro for Dzogchen semdé.
The semde ngöndro does not involve visualizing a lineage tree. It can be thought of as incorporating refuge in the nature of mind (semnyid) at the yang sang (“most secret”) level, however. (See this from Düdjom Rinpoche, or in more detail this from Ngakma Nor’dzin Pamo on levels of refuge.)
Typically we practice the lama’i naljor (guru yoga) of Machig Labdron, which is not specific to the Aro gTér. There is also a lama’i naljor of Aro Lingma, which is unique to the Aro gTér.
I don’t recall a teaching on outer, inner, and secret levels to either of them. In the case of the Machig lama’i naljor, there is obviously outer performance, inner visualization, and “secret” meaning. Is that what you have in mind?
Does it have both vira and dakini practices?
Does it have dharmapalas? Who are they?
It does incorporate protector practices, but they are restricted to the ordained, so I know almost nothing about them. (I am not ordained.) I believe that the principal dharmapalas are the usual Nyingma Ma Za Dor Sum (Ekajati, Za Rahula, Dorje Legpa)—but I may be mistaken.
Do Ngakpa's take the 5 genyen vows?
All Aro apprentices take the genyen vows (“lay precepts”). They are considered to be inseparable from refuge. (I realize that in other traditions it is possible to take refuge but not the five precepts.)
At the outer level, they are just common-sense ethics… There’s also an unusual Dzogchen take on them in the terma.
Do [ngakpas] take any beyond this?
Yes, the ordained take samaya vows. These are essentially the same as in all tantric systems. (There are minor differences at the “branch vow” level, as with other tantras.)
Is the Bodhisattva vow given?
There isn’t a separate vow ceremony. It is included in every wang (and, explicitly or implicitly, in every other Aro practice as well).
Unlike lam-rim systems, Aro starts everyone with Vajrayana practice. For that, Bodhisattva motivation is a pervasive, fundamental, and utterly indispensable prerequisite. If you haven’t got it, you’d need to start somewhere else… But many people who are new to Buddhism (and lots of non-Buddhists) already have Bodhisattva motivation. In that case it simply needs to be affirmed, and strengthened through practice.
Is there any use of temporary Sojong vows in your retreat practices?
No. Yogic song is a typical retreat practice, which would be incompatible with the sojong vows.
Apart from that, Aro regards renunciation as the approach of last resort in dealing with the kleshas. Ideally, one allows them to self-liberate; failing that, one transforms them; only failing that does one engage in renunciation. In the controlled environment of a retreat, self-liberation or transformation will usually be possible. So vows of renunciation would be counter to the retreat approach.
Does Aro use any lamrim texts such as Longchenpa's Finding Comfort and Ease?
No. As is common in the yogic wing of the Nyingma, the curriculum is not linear. Some things do have natural prerequisites, but there isn’t a set series of practices as in lamrim.
What are it's views on the issue of karma, cause, and effect?
See this essay on that.
The Aro site mentions empowerments, does it use the three transmission approach of wang, lung, and tri?
The Aro site also mentions yidams. Are these forms of the 8 herukas, such as Hayagriva or Vajrakilaya?
Some are, yes. Dorje Phurba (Vajrakila) is probably the most commonly practiced wrathful yidam in the Aro system. There is also a Tamdrin (Hayagriva) practice. There are 111 Aro yidams in all; others include, for example, the Eight Manifestations of Padmasambhava.
You mention that your root guru and the visionary terton practiced a yidam from Dudjom Rinpoche's terma. Is there any crossover into the Aro ter practices from that terma?
Hmm. No, I don’t think so. Certainly not at the level of liturgy. I expect there’s some influence from Dudjom Rinpoche in terms of teaching style and emphasis.
Does Aro have chod teachings?
Yes, chöd is one of the most important Aro practices.
Are there any meditations practiced in total darkness?
Yes. Are you referring to the Togal dark retreat? There is such a practice in the Aro gTér. (Nothing more can be said about it, however.)
Do the “romance” teachings contain any form of karmamudra to assist the opening of the winds, channels, and drops?
Mmm… yes and no. There are tsa-rlung practices connected with the vajra romance teachings. However, they are in the style of Dzogchen longde, rather than completion phase tantra. So, technically, they are not karmamudra.
Some of the Tibetan teachers mastered tummo, is there tummo practice taught by Aro? Or any other “yogic applications”?
There is no tummo practice as such, in the same way that there is no karmamudra practice as such. The Aro gTér includes longde practices that are similar in function. Externally, these include systems of trulkhor and sku mnye; there are also internal tsa rlung practices at various levels.
I think this is overstated
Well—if we disagree, it appears to be a “how much” disagreement, rather than a “whether or not” disagreement.
I agree with almost everything in your message. (I don’t altogether see its relevance, but that’s OK…)
The “yanas contradict each other profoundly” remark links to this page. If you’d like to pursue the point, maybe you can read that and comment there.
The thing that worries me most about Vajrayana in the West is that those who practice it will lose sight of the moral and human basis of Buddhism in the Four Noble Truths and they will lose sight of the necessity to aspire unceasingly for the Enlightenment of all beings.
Yes, that is definitely a danger. I have certainly seen all too many examples of people who approach Vajrayana as a manipulative power trip. This danger has been warned against frequently throughout Vajrayana history; it’s not particularly a Western thing.
I guess I would say that it’s not my biggest worry about Vajrayana in the West. My biggest worry is that Westerners will miss the essential points, in the same ways that many Asian tantrikas have, again throughout Vajrayana history. It’s easy to get lost in the complexity of the beautiful rituals, subtle doctrines, and esoteric practices, and to pursue those for their own sake, or as a way of reinforcing samsaric/egoic conditioning, rather than using Vajrayana effectively as a vehicle of transformation, for the benefit of everyone and everything everywhere. …Hmm, reading back over that sentence, maybe we are saying the same thing!
Thank you, David. This has been very illuminating. And it is a stimulus for probing into further issues. Here is your root guru on karma, cause, and effect:
If ‘the law of karma’ could not be broken there could either be no enlightenment or enlightenment would have to be causal. The ‘law of karma’ belongs to the world of dualism which, like ‘ego’, like ‘distracted being’ or the famous ‘I’ – is illusory. The legal system of karma has no jurisdiction in the non-dual sphere.
This is unquestionably so, though my teachers would speak of purifying the karma to eliminate the cause and effect, rather than “breaking the law”, for they do not speak of karma, cause, and effect as a law, but rather, as an ongoing process which is quite maleable, even if you haven’t achieved the non-dual sphere. The narratives of Guru Rimpoche make it very clear that the Completely Enlightened Buddha is actually not subject to this process when appearing to those of us who still are. And even merely the first stage of Bodhisattva realization allows sufficient control of the process to avoid falling into the Lower Realms, despite being still subject to subtle mental stains.
But what they stress is that ordinary beings [including ourselves] cannot break through this process completely. So the problem is not just one of releasing our own thralldom to the process by achieving the non-dual state. It is also one of working with the karmic accumulation of those whom we are trying to help as Bodhisattvas on the path. Living teachers speak of tendrel, or auspicious circumstances which even the Completely Enlightened Being cannot simply create by fiat, because that is our karma and we are no where near the non-dual state. And the narrative of Guru Rinpoche leaving for the Copper Colored Mountain contains some marvelously pointed remarks about the limits of the Tibetan capacity to absorb the Dharma which he made to those who were trying to get him to stay.
Does Aro address this issue of Dharma activity among those who still are subject to karma, cause, and effect? And is any effort made by apprentices or Nagpa to address their Dharma activity in future lives?
The Dzogchen perspective is that we are all always already enlightened. There are no ordinary beings, and non-duality is not distant in the least! However, our enlightenment is obscured by the veil of samsara and karmic conditioning. On this view, karmic conditioning and samsara are simply bad habits of perception and action.
According to Dzogchen, enlightenment is the natural state; samsara is something we have to actively manufacture in every moment. Fortunately, we are actually not all that good at continually reweaving the veil of samsara. Inevitably, at times we fail, and then natural enlightenment sparkles through the dark cloth.
Dzogchen holds that everything is always already pure. (The Tibetan word for this is “kadag”. I’ve written about it here and on Buddhism for Vampires.) Therefore, purification is unnecessary.
Instead, the approach is simply to stop. Karma isn’t a toxic liquid, of which you have a specific amount in a reservoir that you have to drain bit by bit. It’s something you do; and as soon as you don’t do it, it totally ceases to exist. This is “instantaneous self-liberation.” A Buddha, in the Dzogchen view, is someone for whom everything is always liberated; who perceives all things at all times as kadag.
Because habits are powerful, for non-Buddhas, self-liberation is usually immediately followed by renewed samsara. So Dzogchen methods extend the moment during which samsara is suspended, and increase their frequency.
Non-Buddhas also find that Dzogchen methods are sometimes impractical, because samsara seems impenetrable. Then methods of Tantra and Sutra are useful, including purification.
On the other hand, someone who has the Dzogchen view regards purification as a method, not as truth. It’s a charade—theater—because nothing actually needs to be purified. But, like theater, it can have a useful psychological effect even when you know it’s illusory and somewhat ridiculous.
When working to benefit others, you need to be keenly aware of their karma—their habitual psychological patterning—as well as your own. This is a subject the Aro Lamas teach on extensively.
There are indeed many ways to promote Dharma activity in one’s own future lives. For instance, one can work to establish tendrel—connections that will persist into future lives—with as many sentient beings as possible. There are several specific ways of doing that. There are also various ways to increase the likelihood that one will be an effective teacher in future lifetimes. Phowa is one, somewhat esoteric, example.
By and large, though, the best way to promote Dharma activity in future lives is to engage as much as possible in Dharma activity in this one.
Since you bring up Phowa, this inevitably leads to the subject of death. Has their been much death in your Sangha? You would not believe the amount of grey hair that inhabits mine by now, a significant segment of which lives on my head or in my beard. We haven’t had too much death yet, but it is clearly coming.
Have you been taught how to sustain “instantaneous self-liberation” through the transition of death and Bardo? And is the confidence in being able to do that widely shared among Aro apprentices? Are there other alternative Aro practices to help those whose practice is not that strong die, and manage in the Bardo? For example, are ordinary sangha members above a certain age encouraged to concentrate on phowa as their major practice?
Given the demographics of Western Buddhism, which is mainly a Baby Boom thing, most sanghas—including Aro—can expect occasional deaths through this decade, and then frequent ones in the next decade. I don’t think this point has sunk in, quite; but then I’m not sure that there’s anything we can do institutionally to prepare, either. It’s a conversation worth having, probably.
Being a bit younger than the average Western Buddhist, I’m more concerned about a connected issue, which is that Buddhism doesn’t appeal much to younger generations. Unless that changes, there’s a real risk that Buddhism will die with the Boomer generation. I’ve written about this here (see also the comment thread), have made some related points on the meaningness site, and plan to write quite a bit more about the problem.
Have you been taught how to sustain "instantaneous self-liberation" through the transition of death and Bardo?
Yes, there are the practices of the elemental dissolutions, ösel, and all that. There are several ways of approaching that; in the Aro gTér, the yogas of sleep are seen as the most practical, and those are often taught together with the bardo practices.
And is the confidence in being able to do that widely shared among Aro apprentices?
I have no idea. Generally we are discouraged from discussing our experience of practice other than with our Lamas.
I personally am not confident about that. I’m also not particularly worried.
Are there other alternative Aro practices to help those whose practice is not as that strong die, and manage in the Bardo?
Hmm. I’m not sure. I think the answer is likely to be “yes”, but I don’t recall having received teachings on that myself.
For example, are ordinary sangha members above a certain age encouraged to concentrate on phowa as their major practice?
Not that I know of; but instructions on what to practice are highly individualized in Aro, and rarely discussed publicly.
We’re encouraged to take a relaxed view of death. I’ve written about that here; this page also points at that.
I think personally that the historic sociology of Buddhism is very much on the side of the Gelongs. Where the monastic sangha has been sustained, Buddhism has endured, where it has not, Buddhism has not. I don’t expect Buddhism to die in the West, I do think it may contract around more isolated monastic outposts. When you look at the sociology more closely, a monastery is a service organization to its patrons, and Western materialists [even the Buddhist ones] have little need of services.
Or at least they think they don’t. And they often die horribly, in dribs and drabs, life prolonged into dementia by medicine, in warehouses for the elderly, and with not much chance for Rigpa to sustain them into and through the Bardo.
As a member of the “superstitious” wing of Tibetan Buddhism, my contributions have been to help build a monastery for a famous tulku, well known historically for his capacity to benefit the beings who need his services as much as those who receive his teachings. I rest content in that. I hope he eventually comes to stay in America. My eyes, guided by my “superstition”, tell me that where he goes, that place prospers. Where’s he been lately? First China, and now India.
I am a lay follower of the Red Sangha, a Genyen taught by Gelongs, who has learned, as well, from his lay Tibetan and Chinese friends, that both the Red and the White Sangha are worthy of veneration. Guru Rinpoche took particular care to foster both in a land where Buddhism endured for a millenium, and survives there in people’s hearts even yet after 50 years of the harshest adversity under the most ungracious and implacable of materialisms. He built to last, and what he founded was sustained by the “superstition” and its monastic services as much as by any rational realization that Form is Emptiness and Rigpa is present in any and every moment.
I count it a blessing to have conversed here for these past few days. I’m sure it will help my own practice tremendously. Indeed, it already has. And I have done my best to ask the questions whose answers, I think, will benefit your segment of the White Sangha. At least I hope so. And I explicitly dedicate the merit of all of it to that end and to the benefit of all.
Just to be clear—I very much hope that the Red Sangha does survive, thrive, and multiply, in the West as elsewhere. The Red and White Sanghas work toward the same goals, in different ways that should be complementary and synergistic. As Padmasambhava intended!
I am glad that this conversation has been helpful. Thank you very much in turn for your keen questions. I, too, hope that our discussion will be useful to all.
Let us indeed dedicate the merit! To quote the Aro tsok liturgy:
Through this unending stream of rapturously fulfilled vows, may all beings be fed. Through the self-accomplished nature of realised manifestation may the needs of all beings be spontaneously supplied.
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