About Me

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I study, and try to practice, Vajrayana Buddhism. My main areas of interest are Chod, Kagyu and Nyingma traditions as well as Buddhisms interactions with the West, pop-culture and engaged Buddhism.

Monday, January 31, 2011

Karmapa raids and house arrest.

The recent harrasment of Gyalwa Karmapa has led to a lot of speculation surrounding the way the events have been handled by Indian media, the motives of Himachal Police and politicians. And of course there are the usual conspiracy theories about the Shamar camp being behind it all.

Some of Karmapas supporters, including a couple of high profile ones, seem to be using this series of seemingly unfortunate events for their own political gain. This is a highly dangerous game to be playing. History shows that trying to manipulate the Karmapas for political gain doesn't tend to work out as intended.

Following in a similar vein, looking to point fingers of blame for the resent events, and in fact the previous Karmapa "issue", is a pretty gross act of hypocrisy. Any negativity or obstacles around the Karmapa is the result of our own karma and messy samaya. As such maybe it would be a good time to look at our own motivation and perhaps do a bit more Vajrasattva?

As supposed Vajrayanists surely this is an opportunity for using difficulties to practice? Mishap linage and all that?

Everytime I've spoken to him, he has always made me really look at my own motives, both hidden and overt, and this is what I am doing now. Despite not being a particularly decent practitioner or even human being, this is a very helpful exercise.

Longer term there is also a possibility that all this will actually lead to greater freedom of movement for Gyalwa Karmapa as well as futher resolution of certain other issues.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Birthday card from myself

Birth is the beginning of death and just another round in samsara so not really anything to celebrate. Obviously a precious human birth with the freedoms and riches, tl;dr the opportunity to practice Dharma is somewhat different.

But really how much use have you made of this opportunity?

First you were born to two of the kindest people on the planet, yet you repaid them by firstly by causing your mother tremendous physical pain during pregnancy and birth. Both your parents suffered a great deal of emotional pain and worry even before you were born, yet this did not stop them doing everything to prepare for your arrival, both by altering their diets so you would be as healthy as possible and making the house ready. In the process not only did they make great sacrifices on your behalf, but they also generated negative karma for themselves in the process, yet you show zero appreciation for this?

Once you were born you were entirely reliant on them for food and so on, yet all you did was cry, deprive them of sleep through noise or physically waking them up. Yet they still loved you more than themselves and gave you everything.

Throughout your life you met many different people and had many different experiences, yet all the time you were only concerned with your own happiness and gratification, in the process you accumulated karma that will no-doubt send you to the lower realms yet again. Still you insist on generating more of this. Why are you so attached to suffering?

Then after wasting just over two decades of your life you somehow miraculously encountered the holy Dharma. You received the vows of refuge, which are the source of all good qualities and happiness in this and future lives, from Padmasambhava taking the form of a Yogi Bhikkshu who treated you as his son, yet you have entirely failed to emulate even a fraction of the qualities of a sub-atomic particle in his body.

They say the blessing of taking refuge is immense and within a year you had been face to face with numerous realised beings such as the Dalai Lama and the Protector of beings, Gyalwa Karmapa. You received initiations, oral instructions and vows to liberate all sentient beings without exception. How much have you done with any of this other than effect a poor charicature of a practitioner?

Then generous strangers and and the kindness of your main teacher combined to let you assume to robes of a monk and enter closed retreat. In retreat your accomplishments were quite something. Not only did you disturb serious yogis, but you also caused all manner of headaches for the caretaker.

After generating this chaos, you left almost as soon as you had arrived because you wanted to put your penis inside some woman. Once again, your teacher was patient and forgiving and not only let you continue your scamlike practice, he also gave this woman refuge and instructions which lead to Buddhahood.

You then spent six years living with this woman, who generally supported you in every way, including sending you on yearly retreats whilst you did nothing other than really treat her like a piece of meat, yet you lecture others on how badly they maintain their root samayas?

Having then exhausted the shared karma which had brought you together, you then went to live in the holy land of India. Here over qualified Khenpos and Tulkus of the Kagyu and Nyingma traditions gave up their free time to instruct you personally, yet you did nothing but hold them in contempt and try to deceive them with clever words to disguise your laziness. The teachings and empowerments you recieved you display as ornaments in your ongoing game of playing at Vajrayana. Even if you are oblivious to the lower realms which await you, at least stop being an obstacle to others practice and instead consider helping them and encouraging them.

Coming back you then wasted the opportunity at more academic study of Dharma by driking and chasing women. Having access to volumes of Dharma texts, you instead chose to read things which would make you sound clever, at least in your own mind.

When all this was done, you again through the kindness of your parents teachers, got the opportunity to study, this time in the land where the Buddha was born. Before going everyone encouraged you, including Gyalwa Karmapa and your main teachers. On arrival you were more or less placed in the lap of some of the greatest living teachers, yet once again you are failing to grasp the opportunity in your hands.

All being said, you have now for three and a half decades done nothing but cause harm to sentient beings and generate the causes for your own future suffering. Let me be more specific and give an example. Some years ago you took a vow not to eat meat in this life, oddly considering your lack of discipline and resolve you have actually kept this vow. This would be good if it wasn't for you turning this into another ego-display piece, and worse using it to make others feel bad for eating meat whilst you feel superior. You do this, yet feel no shame?

Everyday you have the best food, a nice room, teaching opportunities in two monasteries of good lineage, friends who are supportive, yet you do nothing but complain and waste time.

Through the blessing of your Gurus and some accidental past merit, you have access to many teachers as well as the connections and language skills to make the most of them. If you are not going to do so, will you at least help those who are sincere in their search and practice of Dharma?

Everything good you have experienced in this life has been through the kindness of others, please appreciate this at some point and make what little is left of your life meaningful.

This afternoon, an excellent Yogi Loppon is again giving up his free time to instruct you individually in a genuinely profound practice, yet you are sitting there thinking of excuses so you can go drinking instead. People would kill to have a percent of the opportunities you have, make something of them before it's too late!

All the pleasures you are chasing are as reliable as mist on the mountainside, they are like ghosts that will only lead you to the lower realms again. Stop taking yourself so seriously, remove the stick from your ass and actually do something for others. Writing self-indulgent, faux pious crap like the above is helping nobody. However should you even for a few minutes sincerely make an effort to wish to make your life for the benefit of others there will be some value it, and your life will become meaningful.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Box fresh mind

A number of years ago my teacher told me that "mind is essentially always fresh". I'm paraphrasing, but the point is that if we make an effort to be mindful, live in the present and be aware, even the most mundane experience is experienced as new fresh and somewhat miraculous.

no words

Thursday, January 20, 2011

All the good shit is going to end too!

When talking about impermanence, there is often a tendency to talk about mortality and change in a somewhat physical sense. Being aware of the unique, fleeting and brief, opportunity for Dharma practice, and even Buddhahood, that a human life provides us with is essential, however sometimes it seems the more subtle and equally essential stuff is overlooked.

Faith is essential for practicing Dharma. This might piss some of the "Buddhism isn't a religion" crowd off, but life isn't always how we want it. Faith is a mental state/experience.

Most of the traditional Tibetan practice commentaries classify faith in the following ways; clear faith, aspiring faith, trusting faith and irreversible faith.

Renunciation is also essential. Again a mental state, attitude or experience.

Devotion is another of these and for those of us pretending to be practicing the Vajrayana path, it is as essential as the above.

Compassion, essential for all vehicles, but particularly Mahayana, whether in the form of Vajrayana or sutric forms, is yet another mental state, attitude or experience.

All of these are mostly non-physical, although they can manifest physically in the form of tears etc, however they are primarily experienced as mental events.

Bearing in mind how important they are, it's worth cherishing, nurturing and valuing them whilst we have them for they too are impermanent and as reliable as a chocolate tea-pot.

We are often able to let go of loved ones, fun and pleasant experiences, possessions and so forth by having some understanding of impermanence, however how aware of the transience and unreliability of our mental experiences are we?

For those with some mental stability and good karmic propensities for faith and so forth this is probably less of an issue. However for people like me who barely understand the concept of renunciation on an intellectual, and thus superficial, level, it's a bit more problematic. In my own case, I basically have right now to use the limited faith I have as going on my actions in this life, it's unlikely it will arise in the future, even if I happen to be born human, which again is unlikely.

Whatever we experience mentally seems to be transient at a much quicker rate than the physical experiences of transience we have. This difference is somewhat false and irrelevant, however on a meditational level it's useful to be aware of. However distracted, excited or drowsy we feel, however unclear our visualisation, none of this is solid or fixed, so getting too involved in it or being discouraged or overtly enthused by it is pointless and probably counter productive. I realise it's unhelpful to view meditation as "productive", but I couldn't think of another word.

In his awesome "Creation and Completion", effectively a how2yidam commentary, Jamgon Kongtrul points out that both clear and foggy visualisation have the same basis. If we remember this, we are less likely to get discouraged and say "fuck this bullshit" and walk away from practice during the rare moments when we are actually inspired to do it.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Next week sees my birthday. Birth is the beginning of death, death is the beginning of birth. Both entail inevitable suffering, as well as plenty of ways of generating future suffering.

Saturday, January 15, 2011

How to practice Buddhism without being a retard Redux

I've combined the two part rant about uptightness and excessive seriousness into one post for convenience. It's sort of a satire of Lojong.

Point One: Remove the stick from your ass.

One of the most common issues with Western Buddhists, both those who 'convert' and those born into it is a strong tendency to take the Dharma, and more worryingly themselves, way too fucking seriously. See previous entries for examples of me doing exactly this.

Taking shit too seriously is a guaranteed way to become tense. When various authentic teachers talk about "practicing like your hair is on fire", or as my teacher told me in retreat "practice like you are fighting for your very life", they mean this in the sense of practicing consistently and genuinely, NOT becoming uptight, humourless and puritanical. The Tibetan word "brtson-’grus" (Sanskrit Virya) is variously translated as "effort," "vigor," "diligence," "zeal," or "energy.", however the best explanations of it I've heard have also imply a sense of joy, or joyous effort.

A few years ago Gyalwa Karmapa gave a teaching to a group of Westerners and people from Taiwan, in other words classic "stick up ass" people. He was teaching how to do Vajrasattva practice, and he explicity stated that Vajrasattva was smiling because people are practicing the Dharma. Similar sentiments are expressed in numerous commentaries.

Even myself as someone who barely knows the real meaning of taking refuge, can attest to the importance of relaxing and not posturing in relation to practice. We start where we are, and if that means laughing at jokes about the Holocaust then we do that. Pretending to be "nice" is self-deceit and hypocrisy and won't benefit ourselves, let alone the limitless beings we are pretending to want to lead to liberation.

In A Brilliant Sun, Patrul Rinpoches commentary on the Bodhicaryavatara, he explicitly talks about "the courage of resting when tired". Laughter and a general sense of lightheartedness go a very long way to making practicing our mind relax which is essential for meditation.

Point Two: Nobody gives a shit about your Scout badges, so don't show them off.

Having done three year retreat, having your picture taken with the Dalai Lama, wearing Ngakpa shawls, being fluent in Tibetan/Pali/Sanskrit/Clingon or having a letter saying you are a Tulku, Lama or whatever does not make you special. To quote one particularly pretentious asshole:

You're not your lineage. You're not how many empowerments you've received.
You're not the Lama you claim to have. You're not the contents of your book collection.
You're not your fucking mala. You're the all-singing, all-dancing, intellectually speculating, orientalist asshole of the world.

If you have encountered authentic teachers and Dharma, this is fucking awesome and you are extremely lucky. If you have done this and are actually putting this to use and practicing, I prostrate to you and aspire to be like you one day. When master Kagyu troll Trungpa spoke of "spiritual materialism" he was referring to how it's very easy to fuck up and let practice build and maintain ego, rather than destroy it, but in this case it's much more coarse than that.

Sitting around telling people how close you are to whichever awesome Lama, which empowerments you've received, how long you've spent in retreat and similar is just a Dharma themed pissing contest. You will probably benefit beings and your practice more by posting pictures of your cock on the internet along with your phone number. You never know, that consort you've been looking for might contact you.

On the puritanical front, meat, or rather non-meat eating springs to mind. If you don't then great, there are far more reasons to avoid meat, according to all three vehicles, than to eat it, but preaching about it and feeling superior about it probably destroys the benefits accrued from it. Also if you do eat meat, don't be a faggot and make a big thing out of sayihg mantras, or pretending to do Powa when eating it. Seriously that is embarrassing. The same goes for drinking etc.

Point three: You are still in the material, so called real world.

Western Buddhism is generally a white middle class hobby, much in the same way a lot of left-wing political activism is. In the context of Vajrayana, there has also been some historical precedent for this, both before and after it left India.

Being in a position of privilege where you can actually help people, but not doing so due to general laziness of procrastination, lacking renunciation and/or compassion or the very common situation of laziness of self-deprecation, can only really be remedied by ourselves, by watching our own minds, being mindful of whatever shit is going on and dealing with it accordingly. Claiming to be practicing compassion, in a conventional sense, not anything as profound as Bodhicitta, whilst sitting around watching the world burn and very real people suffer, seems grotesquely hypocritical. You have some capacity to help others right now, even if it's just making an unhappy stranger smile in the street.

Point four: It's ok to fail.

The word practice means just that, it's something you do and as your experience grows, hopefully something you become better at. Hopefully Western Buddhists will become better at practicing the Dharma, rather than being good at being Tibetan, Thai, Japanese or whatever nationality they relate to via their particular school of Buddhism.

We're not going to be perfect right away, for example, whilst Tibet produced some amazing practitioners, through most of Tibetan history from the first transmissions up to an including the present day, most Tibetans know fuck all about Buddhism, especially Vajrayana. All we can do is do our best and practice diligently without becoming uptight assholes or despondent because we're not having auspicious dreams/seeing deities or whatever.

The Buddha taught suffering and it's cessation. Most of us have no idea how much we are actually suffering, or how much future suffering we are setting ourselves up for, however if we have some appreciation for the notion of kindness, maybe we can also extend that to ourselves and walk our respective paths with a sense of joy and ease.

Point five: Stop chasing Ghosts.

In a meditative sense this could mean stop clinging to the past. More broadly it means not being so involved in everything, including a conceptualised idea of our practice. Obsessing over numbers of prostrations, recitations or whatever is unlikely to help you or anyone else. This is one of the few things I can attest to from personal experience. In the words of someone with a slightly lesser beard than mine:

Thou shalt not return to the same club or bar week in, week out just 'cause you once saw a girl there that you fancied but you're never gonna fucking talk to.

The Buddhist cliche of living in the "now", being present and all that other mindful and awareness stuff is for your own good, right now. Whether you are barely interested in the Dharma or you are practicing the most profound practices of the Vajrayana, this is something that brings immediate fruits.

Point six: Fuck your snowflake mentality.

Buddha taught 84,000 methods for overcoming the suffering or cyclic existence, however most of us don't have a clue how much we are suffering. Every time we suffer, or rather become aware of suffering, bring attention to the fact that this is the living reality of everyone. You are not special and insisting you are won't help others and with some tragic irony will only prolong and fuel your own pain.

Point seven: Your teacher doesn't give a shit about your drama.

There are thousands of people who have a sincere interest in the Dharma, but do not have a teacher. Yet morons who get access to the greatest living teachers have a tendency to insist on wasting everyones time with irrelevant questions about their relationships and minutae of their personal lives. This is a pretty natural consequence of samsaric mind, so getting angry at these people, people like me, is pointless.

Point eight: You are your own Final Boss of all this.

Whichever vehicle you are practicing, ultimately you are responsible for yourself, your actions and your practice. In the Vajrayana and some other approaches, the teacher is essential, but this doesn't mean an abdication of responsibility. People are very good at showing all manner of outward signs of Guru devotion, but how good are they at investigating the qualifications of the teacher? Being famous doesn't make someone a qualified teacher btw.

Point nine: Make sure the stick doesn't return to your ass.

So you've been practicing for a number of years, received the highest empowerments, done several long retreats and been given some titles. Why still so uptight and angry? This reminds me so much of the stories of Patrul Rinpoches students who did Ngondro 100 times or more. No matter how good people tell you you are, if you take shit too seriously you are still mired in the eight worldy Dharmas and need to maintain the foundation, if it was there to begin with.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Lack of anonymity is ego identity.

Buddhism, as opposed to Dharma, has been used to construct and bolster bullshit like national identity and nationalism. It still does this in some cases, most ironically with the whole Free Tibet crowd.

In the West, where Buddhism is mostly a white middle-class ego accessory, or in the case of "serious", by their own definition, practitioners, a hobby involving various rituals, buying ethnic shit and doing stuff we don't really understand.

When it comes to the online world this seems to be magnified somewhat. Opinions are given gravitas on the basis of who said it, rather than what was said. This is very sad and seems adharmic in some way.

Lack of anonymity is ego identity. Ego identity is yet another fetter to tie us to samsaric suffering, the degree of which we are mostly blissfully ignorant of.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

The role of the Guru in Vajrayana

This is more or less my MA dissertation from a few years ago. It's in no way going to help anyone with actual Dharma practice, nor am I posting it to enter into any sort of discussion, academic or otherwise. I had problems with the footnotes so they might be in a weird order. The pretentious poetry was not part of the original submission.

When looking at almost any aspect of Tibetan Vajrayana1, the figure of the Guru seems omnipresent. In the popular imagination, the Tantric Guru (bla ma), has an easily recognisable cultural icon on par with prayer flags and the yeti. This is due to Tibetan society being so closely linked with the Tibetan interpretation of Vajrayana. What constitutes an authentic Guru in Vajrayana, and how this has developed both in India and Tibet, is quite a considerable question, or rather series of questions. With the Tibetan diaspora and the subsequent rapid geographic spread of Tibetan Vajrayana, this issue might also have contemporary relevance outside its traditional geo-cultural sphere. This paper aims at exploring those questions with the focus primarily being on the actual role of the Guru, both in a cultural and more pastoral context, although it is difficult to completely separate these two. Examples from several lineages are used in an attempt to give as comprehensive an overview as possible and a deliberate effort has been made to look at both old translation (rnying ma) and new translation (gsar ma) schools.

The Tibetan traditions generally attempt to legitimise and validate themselves by referencing back to their Indian forebears, particularly when it comes to the transmission of Tantric initiations (dbang), where the transmission between a live teacher and student is essential. This referencing back to India is not limited to the tracing of Tantric initiation lineages, but also manifests in the commentarial written tradition, where for example Jamgon Kongtrul extensively references The Fifty Stanzas on Guru Devotion by Asvaghosa, when writing about the student-teacher relationship (Kongtrul 1999: 44). Thus looking at the Indian pre-cursors is essential to any investigation of the role of Guru in Tibetan Vajrayana.

From Indian Tantric Guru to Tibetan Lama.

Vajrayana Buddhism emerged and developed during turbulent times in medieval India. This may well have influenced the diversity of both ritual practice and teachings styles, a trend of diversity which continued into Tibet.

Davidson describes medieval Indian Vajrayana as “the most politically involved of Buddhist forms” (Davidson, 2002: 114). This is a fair description when one considers the royal patronage which supported the vast monastic institutions such as Nalanda and the importance of Vajrayana, and other rituals, in the life of the royal court. It’s worth noting that some Buddhist rituals, not only those which were explicitly tantric, may have developed specifically as a means of ensuring royal patronage and protection in competition with the Brahmanical tradition, a theory which is put forward by Professor Bronkhorst in Greater Magadha: Studies in the Culture of Early India.

The influence of royal patronage on Buddhism in general, but specifically on Vajrayana Buddhism is non-disputable. Even today Vajrayana liturgies for rituals such as Mandala offerings use the language and imagery of a Medieval Indian court, mostly that of the Pala dynasty. The Mandala offered, whether physically present or visualised in meditation, contains the symbols of a Chakravartin2. These symbols, also known as the seven possessions, are explicitly royal symbols recognisable as attributes of earthly rulers, with the wheel representing the law, both secular and Dharmic, wish fulfilling jewel representing royal wealth and so on (Kongtrul, 1977: 96-105). The other symbols known as the eight auspicious symbols, representative of the Buddha, and the eight auspicious objects3, representative of events of the Buddha’s life, are presented together with the seven possessions of a Chakravartin consolidating the link between spiritual and secular rule and authority.

Similarly, the link between Vajrayana and the royal courts is played out in the Abhisheka rituals of tantric empowerment or consecration as the ritual itself tends to be very similar to a royal consecration or enthronement. Depending on how elaborate a particular empowerment is done, it could look like a direct replica of a coronation ritual. However at this point it’s crucial to note that tantric empowerments are quite varied affairs and seem to have been so at various points in history. For example Abhayakaragupta describes a fairly elaborate empowerment (Skorupski, 2009: 21-32), which has overt royal overtones. In contrast to this Davidson describes the use of an empowerment visualisation as a “purificatory baptism” in which the coronation paradigm is completely absent (Davidson, 2002: 124). As the ritual described by Davidson precedes Abhayakaragupta by at least four hundred years, it is clear that both the elaboration of rituals and their royal, or other, paradigms are something that is dynamic and constantly changing depending on numerous factors. This process of development and change can be noted further when one looks at the Tibetan tradition, particularly the emergence and development of the hidden treasure (gter ma) tradition of Padmasambhava. In the Tibetan tradition there are at least five types of empowerment, described by Stephan Beyer as “transmission of lineage and authority”, which range from the fairly conventional “lineage of initiation, textual transmission and instruction” to the more esoteric in origin such as the hidden treasure tradition (Beyer, 1978: 399).

Whichever type of Vajrayana empowerment or transmission one looks at is obvious that the performance of these rituals was a key part of the Guru in India and something which was transmitted to Tibet. However the extent to which Indian Tantric Gurus served as a model for the development of the tradition goes somewhat beyond simply this function and it is also worth looking at the reported behaviour of Indian Gurus who later became revered in Tibet. Here again there are links to politics and royal patronage in the form Devaraja, effectively a cult of divine kingship where the king is seen as either a direct incarnation, or at least representative, of a particular divinity (Davidson, 2002: 129-130).

King Indrabhuti is probably the most important Indian Buddhist example of this phenomenon. Compared to previous Buddhist rulers he is accredited with more than simply being an ‘ideal’ ruler and protector of Buddhism, such as Ashoka. Taranatha4 elevates Indrabhuti to the status of Vajrapani, one of the three principal Bodhisattvas of the Tibetan pantheon. It is important to note that the way this story is presented emphasises the tantric concept of enlightenment in one lifetime. In the case of Indrabhuti, this is illustrated by a worldly ruler becoming the incarnation of the deity responsible for the tantras (Ray, 2001: 116-122). Here the notion of divine kingship is expanded upon greatly from simply being one of patronage of the Buddhist teachings, to actually being the authority on them. This is highly problematic particularly as there is the obvious issue of political power and religious power being mixed. The potentially lethal mix of politics and religion is something which Taranatha himself will have been aware of , and is something that historically has been an issue in Tibet. This potent mix of politics and religion embodied in one person is something that was very much taken up in Tibet, firstly with the importation of the Devaraja idea. The king Songtsän Gampo was considered an incarnation of Avalokiteshvara (spyan ras gzigs), whilst his wives were incarnations of Tara (sgrol ma).

In somewhat of a contrast to the royal and monastic “establishment Vajrayana” is the Siddha tradition, a tradition which was to have a profound effect on the spread and development of Vajrayana in Tibet. The Siddha tradition is important when looking at the concept of the Vajrayana Guru as it gave rise to a vast amount of literature and provides an alternative to the courtly establishment Vajrayana, which still maintained links to “kings and courts” (Davidson 2002: 171). The Siddha tradition contains a lot of explicit clues as to why Guru-devotion became as heavily emphasised as it did in Vajrayana generally, and particularly how it developed in Tibet. The centrality of the Guru in Siddha hagiography is pointed out in Ray’s description of them:

The siddhas were men and women who, in their pretantric lives, often found themselves in situations of great distress, dislocation and suffering. For them as Gautama Buddha, ordinary life held no hope of relief and no ultimate promise of satisfaction. Typically, they encountered a guru who accepted them as disciples and admitted them into Vajrayana practice through the Abhisheka, or initiation liturgy. Subsequently, they spent many years practicing intensively. Sometimes their practice was carried out in cremation grounds or in solitary retreat.
(Ray, 2000: 85)

In the many popular hagiographies of the Siddhas, the moment where they meet their Guru is portrayed as the most crucial and pivotal point in their spiritual careers. Both Tilopa and his disciple Naropa are seen as being somewhat stuck in their practice until they meet their Gurus. In both cases they are also seen to leave establishment Vajrayana in favour of practicing as unattached yogis. In the case of Naropa a more overt challenge to establishment Vajrayana can be seen as he is generally presented as having held a high and prestigious position at Nalanda, rather than as a middling monk who turns to tantra. Naropa is also presented as having undergone a twelve year apprenticeship of hardship before being granted any instruction from Tilopa. These include things like stealing food from people who subsequently beat him up (Konchog, 1990: 55-89). Renouncing privilege in favour of a potentially harder, yet more fruitful spiritual path is a common theme in the Siddha tradition, and obviously mirrors the traditional life story of the Buddha.

Padmasambhava, or Guru Rinpoche, is an example of a Siddha who involuntarily leaves royal life for the charnel grounds. Of all the Indian Siddhas he is probably the most important in terms of serving as an archetype which shaped the later Tibetan developments. The widespread popular fame and appeal of Padmasambhava as well as his connection with the hidden treasure tradition makes separating the myth from reality. The account of his life according to Yeshe Tsogyal (ye shes mtsho rgyal) is a pretty standard presentation of his life. In her account he is made to leave royal life and the kingdom after accidentally killing the son of an influential minster. He then meditates in charnel grounds before going off to receive teachings and empowerments in order to emphasise the importance of having a teacher5.

Master Padma reflected, “Although I am a self-appeared Nirmanakaya, to show future generations the necessity of a master, I must act as if seeking all the outer and inner teachings of Secret Mantra from the learned and accomplished masters of India.”
(Yeshe Tsogyal, 1993: 41)

King Trisong Deutsen (khri srong lde btsan) then invites Padmasambhava to Tibet in order to establish Buddhism there. This is due to local gods causing problems during the construction of Samye temple. The portrayal of Padmasambhava as an exorcist is very important as exorcism of various types, such as Chod, later became one of the most important functions of the Lama, especially in the Nyingma (rnying ma) tradition, which will be looked at in more detail later on. The Indian ideas of Devaraja and royal patronage are also imported, or solidified at this point with the king being seen as an incarnation of Manjushri ('jam dpal). Whilst a lot of Indian ideas about the role of the Guru generally and the relationship between royal patrons and their religious beneficiaries are laid out in this story (Yeshe Tsogyal, 1993: 55-75), it is important to remember that this text is from the hidden treasure tradition which will raise obvious questions about authenticity. However that Padmasambhava, or rather a legacy attributed to him, had a massive influence on how Vajrayana developed in Tibet is not in dispute. In fact so popular is the cult of Padmasambhava in Tibet, Nepal and Bhutan that he is often described as a second Buddha.

Padmasambhava iconography is varied due to him being presented in a variety of forms, however the most common is the form known as the “Lotus Born” (pad ma byung gnas). As with any Vajrayana iconography, every detail is charged with symbolism. The symbolism of the clothing is of particular relevance in this case, with the white inner robe represents the tantric vows, the red monastic robes representing the Vinaya vows and the royal blue representing the Bodhisattva vows.

Siddha figures who travelled from India to Tibet propagating Buddhism hold an important place in the Tibetan Vajrayana Guru-pantheon not only for having supposedly brought Buddhism to Tibet and for providing an archetype of sorts for the development of an indigenous Siddha culture, but also as they legitimise the Tibetan Lamas and the institutions which developed around them. As mentioned in the introduction, this is something which has wider implications with the spread of Vajrayana in the wake of the Tibetan diaspora. Tibetan Tulku lineages and teaching lineages of specific practices always emphasise the importance of lineage going back to India.

What are your credentials?

Considering the emphasis on the importance of a Guru in the context of Vajrayana Buddhism, it is logical to assume that a similar level of importance and attention is given to what makes a person qualified as a Guru and the process by which a practitioner determines the authenticity of a potential Guru. Due to the variety of lineages and overall decentralised nature of Vajrayana, this could potentially be an area for widespread abuse and corruption and it is fair to say that this has and does happen. In an attempt to safeguard against false teachers simply citing names of their teachers and lineage, various ideas have developed. We will not look at how the student-teacher relationship is established and entered into.

To understand the at times seemingly overemphasised importance of the Guru in Vajrayana we need to understand the concept of ‘byin rlabs’. This word has no direct English equivalent, but has been translated as blessing, grace, consecration, inspiration, stream of empowering energy and flowing blessings. One of the most influential meditation teachers of the 20th Century, Kalu Rinpoche, likened ‘byin labs’ to a powerful electric current flowing to the practitioner from the Buddha, via the Guru and lineage (Kalu Rinpoche, 1995: 21). There is some implication of this blessing or empowering energy flowing in a wavelike fashion. However it is interpreted it is clear that it is seen as something ongoing and not simply a one off event received during a formal empowerment ritual (dbang). In fact requesting ‘byin labs’ is a common part of all Yidam meditation liturgical texts, and it is also often found in other prayers too, as it is seen as really being what powers the spiritual progress and realisation of the practitioner.

In spite of the formality, etiquette and seemingly cultic devotion sometimes presented in Vajrayana, it is crucial to note that the reception of ‘byin labs’ is not a purely passive experience on the part of the practitioner either. To benefit from the ‘byin labs’ the practitioner must obviously have confidence in the practice itself. Whilst one would assume this to be present to the point of being the reason for seeking out a Guru, it is important to note that there are numerous less spiritual reasons why someone might go through this process which we shall explore later.

In addition to confidence in the efficacy of Vajrayana, the practitioner must have an understanding of, or at least the potential to understand the pure view (dag snag). This pure view is basically the development and maintenance of the attitude of seeing oneself, and others, as the deity which one has been initiated into with the external world being the corresponding Mandala (dkyil khor) and external sounds as the corresponding mantra. All of this is done within the view of emptiness (stong pa nyid) as simply replacing the mundane world with a ‘divine’ world and leaving it at that would not be liberation. According to Padmasambhava:

During post-meditation, you realise everything to be empty, without self-nature. Free from attachment to or fascination for the experience of emptiness, you will naturally progress beyond meditation and post-meditation and be free from holding a conceptual focus or conceiving of attributes, just as clouds and mist spontaneously clear in the vast expanse of the sky.
(Padmasambhava, 1999: 144)

Devotion to the Guru is also something which the practitioner must maintain as an indispensible part of the view, which makes serving as an object of practitioners devotion one of the main functions of a Vajrayana Guru. This devotion to the Guru is an integral part of the keeping of samaya (dam tshig). Samaya can refer to specific samaya vows that come with initiation into different deities and levels of tantra and as a general term for tantric sacraments (Davidson, 2002: 198). Whilst some tantric texts claim that there are over ten million samayas to be kept (Kalu Rinpoche, 1995: 59), it is more commonly asserted that there are fourteen root downfalls which the practitioner must guard themselves against. In Tibet it appears that the traditionally most emphasised aspect of samaya is the relationship the practitioner has with their Guru, with seeing the Guru as inseparable from the Buddha (Gampopa, 1998: 74).

Before entering into a formal student-teacher relationship it is crucial that the aspiring yogi knows what they are letting themselves in for. The same could be said for the Lama in question, although having gone through the process one would assume they are very aware of the risks. Reflecting this, most of the writings on the student-teacher relationship focus on what qualifies someone as a Guru, how to examine them and how to follow them. That being said, there is general consensus on the importance of both student and teacher examining each other before as samaya works two ways, with the severest consequences for all parties involved. Padmasambhava states as follows:

When the master neglects examining the disciple, he forms Dharmic links with unworthy people. The disciple who fails to examine the master forms a Dharmic link of no substance. Even practicing will yield no result, when lacking the blessings of the Dharma. The master and the disciple who do not keep the samayas are like calves yoked together falling into an abyss. Reaping the reward of the hells, there will be no chance for liberation. Masters and disciples, do not act like this but examine each other.
(Yeshe Tsogyal, 1993: 183)

When it comes to examining and following the Guru, there exists extensive advice in the Tibetan commentarial tradition. We will now examine some examples of these, firstly Gampopa6(sgam po pa) . Whilst Gampopa is in many ways most famous for being a student of the Yogi Milarepa (mi la ras pa), it is important to remember that he came from a very strong Kadam (bka' gdams pa) monastic, and somewhat Sutric, background which is apparent in his text The Jewel Ornament of Liberation. Gampopa lists four types of Guru; ordinary, Bodhisattva, Nirmanakaya and Sambhogakaya, although he goes on to state that the ‘ordinary’ is the most useful for most people (Gampopa, 1998: 72). Moral conduct and knowledge of Buddhist teachings according to the Mahayana as well as realisation, compassion and kindness are the main criteria of a teacher according to Gampopa:

The spiritual master can dispel doubt because he has profound discriminating awareness. His words are acceptable because his action is pure virtue. He explains the primary characteristics of afflicting emotions and of their purification.
(Gampopa, 1998: 73)

He then goes on to describe how the practitioner should approach the relationship, using the traditional medical analogy of seeing themselves as the patient, the practice as the medicine and the Guru as the doctor. There is also the view that actually practicing the teachings is the best form of service to ones Guru, which shows a way of thinking which might hint at the place in the popular imagination his followers would come to occupy7(Gampopa, 1998: 73-75).

The 19th century Dzogchen (rdzogs pa chen po) master, Patrul Rinpoche (dpal sprul rin po che) devotes a chapter of his Words of My Perfect Teacher, to the process of examining and following a Guru. His description is much more detailed than Gampopa’s which is interesting as the text is really a commentary on the preliminaries of the Longchen Nyingthig (klong chen snying thig), whereas Gampopa’s text is effectively a prototype of the gradual path literature (lam rim) which one might expect to be more detailed than a practice commentary.

The section on examining the teacher gives lots of examples to illustrate the points being made and stresses the importance of the potential teacher having purely kept pratimoksa8, Bodhisattva and samaya vows, being learned in sutras, tantras and shastras as well as ritual practices. Unsurprisingly he also names impartial love and compassion as essential qualities for any teacher to have, which should be such that “he loves each one like his only child” (Patrul Rinpoche, 1994: 138). Interestingly he devotes almost as much time to describing the types of teachers which should be avoided, something which Gampopa does not even mention. It would be naive to assume that this difference in approach means that there were no charlatan teachers around at the time of Gampopa, but eight hundred years later they were commonplace. Patrul Rinpoche is associated with the mid 19th century non-sectarian (ris med) movement of Eastern Tibet, which partly developed as a response to growing suspicion between schools, and it is possible that a climate of suspicion would provide more opportunities to fraudulent teachers. Despite the lengthy coverage of the dangers of false teachers, Patrul Rinpoche concludes his advice on examining a potential teacher by extolling the virtues and ultimate benefits of following a genuine teacher, even if it is something that happens unintentionally;

Such a teacher is equal to all the Buddhas in his compassion and his blessings, Those who make a positive connection with him will attain Buddhahood in a single lifetime. Even those who make a negative connection with him will eventually be led out of samsara.
(Patrul Rinpoche, 1994: 143)

After this he continues with a section on how to follow a Guru, which is amply illustrated with stories of how past practitioners followed their Gurus. Despite Tibet having a considerable amount of home grown examples by the time of Patrul Rinpoche, he still uses Indian examples of student-teacher relationships, such as Naropa and Tilopa. The native examples he uses are not from his lineage, which indicates his appreciation for the non-sectarian approach.

Jamgon Kongtrul Lodrö Thaye (jam mgon kong sprul blo gros mtha' yas) was a contemporary of Patrul Rinpoche and is also generally regarded as one of, if not the main, founders of the non-sectarian movement9. A prolific writer, he wrote extensively on what qualifies someone as a Guru and the overall process of mutual examination between a prospective student and teacher. He follows a classification of types of teacher in the same way as Gampopa, also quoting Gampopa, but goes into considerably more detail in terms of what qualifies someone in terms of pratimoksa, Bodhisattva and Tantric vows. Interestingly he emphasises the importance of meditation in considerable detail, which again is typical of the non-sectarian approach (Kongtrul, 1999: 38-50). Like Patrul Rinpoche, he also warns of the dangers of following false teachers.

These, and other, descriptions are all well and good; however there are certain potential problems that need to be noted. Firstly the economic situation of the individual and the geography of Tibet could have combined to create situations where the practitioner did not have access to a wide range of potential Gurus or indeed the advice as to how to examine them. The Tibetan social role of the Guru, which will be discussed later, along with cultural norms that developed, would possibly create situations where the requisite level of access, let alone the opportunity to ask questions, might well have been impossible. Even if someone was a monk of some standing, the bureaucracy and political climate of a particular monastery could restrict the freedom of movement of individual monks. Ironically the lives of the writers we looked at above to some extent bear this out. Gampopa for example was former doctor who came to monastic life after the death of his wife and children (Mackenzie Stuart, 1995: 21-25). His late arrival into the monastic system and his previous career as a doctor could imply that he had the financial freedom to study and practice rather than becoming part of the machinery of running the monastery. Whatever the exact circumstances, he also left the monastery to seek further instruction from Milarepa and whilst this move is normally portrayed as something that happens as a result of him having gone as far as he can within the system, it is not unlikely that an element of frustration at the system also motivated his move. Patrul Rinpoche also seems to have shunned institutional life, preferring instead to move from place to place, emulating the Siddha lifestyle. Kongtrul was also somewhat unhappy about aspects of institutional monasticism, such as the overt reliance on titles. Whilst he had warned about false teachers previously, his autobiography is far more candid and seemingly pessimistic when reflecting on the decline of monastic and tantric discipline:

The causes of all these situations is said to be the four ways in which moral failings occur – that is, due to ignorance, lack of respect, heedlessness, and a plethora of afflictive emotions. First, as for ignorance, if most of those who are given the titles of a lama or tulku nowadays haven’t the slightest clue about the three levels of ordination – about what constitutes the guidelines to be observed or the various degrees of infractions, transgressions, or violations that can be incurred – how can we expect the rank and file monks to know? Second, although someone might not have a deeply held lack of respect for the training, without any knowledge there can be no real respect; and those who, worse still, deliberately flout their ordination are committing and egregious mistake. Third, it is necessary to cultivate heedfulness, mindfulness, and alertness, for if one is able to do so, one’s physical, verbal and mental behaviour falls under the sway of heedlessness. Fourth, people born in these times of spiritual degeneration10 are subject to afflictive emotions that are growing steadily more powerful, so people for the most part are under the sway of one or another of the three emotional poisons11. Due to such flaws, I myself am constantly plagued by the nagging dread that there is no destiny for me, but some lower state of rebirth.
(Kongtrul, 2003: 253)

His apparent disillusionment with the monastic establishment and its inherent corruption caused by politics and sectarianism may very well have come about as a result of his experiences when joining Palpung12 (dpal spungs) monastery. Kongtrul had received ordination at Sechen (zhe chen), a Nyingma monastery, he was forced to re-take ordination at Palpung due to it being a Karma Kagyu monastery. Whilst this would obviously have made him painfully aware of the politics and sectarianism within the institutional system, his later being ‘recognised’ as an incarnate lama for purely political reasons will have further consolidated his distrust for the established order of things (Kongtrul, 1994: 31-34). Considering he was originally born into a raised in a Bon family before converting to Buddhism, it is obvious that these experiences must have been extremely painful for him, whilst at the same time serving as encouragement for him to attempt to pursue a more ‘pure’ spiritual life in retreat, although his fame and renown somewhat interfered with this as he felt “things truly have not turned out as I planned” (Kongtrul, 2003: 276).

Bearing in mind the Indian Siddha tradition and other factors, it is clear that corruption in monastic institutions is not something new which developed in Tibet, however the ‘institutionalisation’ of lineages of incarnate Gurus in the form of the tulku system will have tied less than spiritual matters to the role of the Guru on a more personal basis and certainly consolidated these issues. This is hardly surprising if one takes the view held by Taranatha and others that Vajrayana developed as a “strictly nonmonastic tradition” (Ray, 2000: 86).

The post examination role of the Guru.

Once a practitioner has examined a potential Guru and entering into a student-teacher relationship is seen as feasible, and indeed desirable, by both parties, the process of empowerment and practice can begin in earnest. As mentioned previously, tantric empowerments with a royal paradigm developed in India. This approach was transmitted to Tibet where it developed further. In general, Tibetan Vajrayana empowerments can be divided into three parts: the actual empowerment ritual (dbang), the reading transmission (lung) for the practice liturgy of the deity to be practiced, and the meditation instructions (tri), this is what to visualise and when, depending on the specific practice involved, this would include both the development (bskyed rim) and completion (rdzogs rim) stages. How elaborate the actual empowerment is will vary, but it will always include vase empowerment, secret empowerment, knowledge-wisdom empowerment and speech empowerment. The role of the Guru here is to effectively give the practitioner permission and ability, through the power of ‘byin rlabs’, to meditate on himself as the deity with the view of understanding the union of appearance and emptiness, the permission and ability to meditate on the union of sound and emptiness through receiving and reciting the mantra of the deity and also to meditate on the union of emptiness and compassion through the mind of the deity being given (Bokar Rinpoche, 1991: 50-51). Depending on the lineage13 and nature of the empowerment being given the practitioner might have to first complete Ngondro (sngon 'gro), the Tantric so-called preliminary or foundation practices, which act as preparation for advanced conventional Vajrayana as well as for Dzogchen (rdzogs pa chen po) and Mahamudra (phyag rgya chen po). In general Ngondro begins with the practitioner contemplating the Four Ordinary Foundations (blo do nam shi), which are precious human birth, impermanence, karma and the suffering of conditioned existence or samsara ('khor ba), common to all schools of Buddhism. The purpose of these is to engender renunciation with conditioned existence, which in a Vajrayana context will be essential for sincere practice. After these come the Four Extraordinary Foundations consisting of taking of refuge and engendering Bodhicitta 100,000 times whilst performing prostrations, followed by purificatory meditation on Vajrasattva (rdo rje sems pas), merit generating Mandala offering and finally Guru Yoga (bla ma'i rnal 'byor ), which are also done 100.000 times each. The role of the Guru and the ‘meditational’ relationship between the Guru and the practitioner varies slightly between these practices. Throughout all of these practices, the Guru plays an important role. As the Guru is the primary object of devotion in Vajrayana, he or she will be visualised in the form of the central deity14 in the refuge tree visualisation during prostrations whilst taking refuge. Similarly, Vajrasattva is identified with the Guru and during the Mandala offering, the Guru is part of the field of merit to which the practitioner offers the Mandala. During these practices the Guru is predominantly seen as an external source of help, although at the end of each session the Guru is visualised as dissolving into the practitioner, as ultimately, according to Vajrayana theory, all sentient beings are inseparable from their own inherent Buddha nature, and the Guru is simply showing them this. It’s important here to point out that these practices are far from something that only belongs to Ngondro, for example the Mandala offering will be part of any empowerment or teaching as it is the only thing which is “worthy enough to be given to a master who bestows an initiation, a priceless gift whose price is therefore infinite” (Beyer, 1978: 168).

The Guru Yoga practice by its very nature is much more explicitly linked to the student-teacher relationship. The purpose of this practice is to increase devotion which is supposed to facilitate the receipt of blessing ‘byin labs’ as well as helping to maintain the samaya. According to Vajrayana theory this practice is also where the practitioner receives the four empowerments, which are seen a pre-requisite for realising the four bodies of a Buddha15. Not only is devotion on the part of the practitioner seen as essential for reception of the Guru’s blessing, it is also the gateway to the realisation of Dzogchen (rdzogs pa chen po) and Mahamudra (phyag rgya chen po).

Devotion is the most suitable state of mind and emotion to open ourselves completely. It is an emotion which is very pure, very clear, open, awake and strong. It is not confused, disconnected or disturbed. If we can create or rekindle our devotion, it is the state of mind which is the most suitable for meditation. Many masters achieved true realisation through devotion, because when you feel devotion, your mind is completely open, ripe and ready for the realisation of your true nature. When you are in a state of devotion, you cannot be angry, jealous or proud. You are totally without any of those negative emotions, therefore you are in the right state of mind. Usually the real Mahamudra experience, the real insight or realisation, is always said to come through devotion.
(Ringu Tulku, 2008: 51)

The emphasis on devotion to the Guru in Vajrayana can be summarised as above in the context of meditational practice, but it is important that there are also a myriad of social and cultural factors which come into play. Whilst Vajrayana teachings emphasise the importance of using ones precious human life for practice, the reality is that historically relatively few people had the opportunity to do so. As we have seen from Kongtrul, even monastic life is full of distractions and thus no guarantee of the chance to practice, and it is to some of these distractions we next turn our attention.

The socio-cultural role of the Guru in Tibet.

It has already been pointed out by Bronkhorst and others that Buddhism had acquired a variety of ritual roles relatively early, due to a need to ensure survival in competition for sponsorship with Brahmins and others. The royal paradigm in Indian Vajrayana further proves this point. The role of the Lama in Tibet not only inherited many of these rituals and the royal paradigm, they also developed several of their own. Whilst popular opinion, particularly in the West, often seems to want to portray the closeness of Vajrayana Buddhism with Tibetan culture as the result of hundreds of years of Tibetan piety, the reality is somewhat more complicated than that.

Before looking at the political factors which prevented Kongtrul and others from fully giving their time to the practices of Vajrayana mediation, it is worth looking at some of the duties which were taken up by Tibetan Lamas in relation to the laity and worldly affairs. These are those rituals which not directly related to the attainment of Buddhahood, described by Samuel as ‘pragmatic’ and relating to ‘folk religion’ (Samuel, 1993: 176).

Divination known as Mo is one of the most common rituals a Lama may be asked to perform. The way the ritual is performed can vary greatly, but some common methods include the use of a ritual mirror16 (me long), prayer beads and the casting of dice. The exact method used is seemingly unimportant as the whole process relies more on the Lama performing the ritual being able to read the signs which appear through the interdependence of all phenomena (Samuel, 1993: 191). Whilst it would be easy to dismiss this practice as on the periphery of Tibetan religious life, however it is anything but as this type of divination is used before deciding the course of action in all manner of things ranging from business affairs to marriage and other family related matters, as well as for consultation on medical matters, and is one of the most commonly requested activities performed for Lama on behalf of the laity. Mo divination may also be consulted for more seemingly religious reasons such as searching for the re-birth of a tulku, the building of a temple, or when to commence a retreat.

Other more elaborate systems of predicting the future have also formed part of the Lama’s role, including various systems of astrology. Whilst astrology could seemingly be an easy target for criticism from Buddhist purists it’s worth bearing in mind that it is something that has a very strong tradition in Buddhist cultures in general continuing up into modern times to the extent that it can have governments engaging in massive building projects on the basis of astrological advice (Harvey, 1990: 172). When one takes examples such as this and the number of high ranking Lamas involved in astrology it is clear that it is something that functions on more than simply a ‘folk religion’ level. The third Karmapa Ranjung Dorje (rang 'byung rdo rje) composed a text on astrology17 in relation to the Kalachakra (Karma Thinley, 1980, 56), which went on to influence the Tsurluk astrological tradition which developed at Tsurpu (mtshur phu) monastery, and which is still used extensively in the Karma Kagyu tradition.

The most well known form of Tibetan divination is probably that of the use of oracles, with the Nechung (gnas chung) state oracle being the most famous of these. This oracle is the main one consulted by the Dalai Lama and the Tibetan government, a process which continues in exile (Samuel, 1993: 195). Whilst having pretty obvious shamanic and probable pre-Buddhist roots, the process of the medium being possessed by the deity who is being consulted, slightly resembles the idea of self-identification with a deity in the form of Yidam meditation. As with many pre-Buddhist practices absorbed into Buddhism, there is a legitimising narrative relating to Padmasambhava taming spirit known as Pehar, making it a protector of the Dharma and practitioners (Pearlman, 2002: 94). Some might see an irony in the main protective deity of the Tibetan Government, who are Gelug, having such strong and obvious Nyingma roots in terms of both the narrative and the monk who is subject to being ‘possessed’ by Pehar, although according to Dowman, the Nyingma continued the practice after it had been taken over by the Gelug at the time of the fifth Dalai Lama (Dowman, 1988: 67). Despite the politically lofty position of the Nechung oracle, the consultation of oracles is still very much within the remit of ordinary people using them for answers to non-political questions (Samuel, 1993: 195).

At this point it might be worth mentioning a type empowerment not directly related to meditational practices known as ‘Tsewang’ (tshe dbang), which translates as life or long-life empowerment. These are quite interesting as they are effectively a combination of the ‘folk religion’ practices and the more practice related Vajrayana empowerments. A Tsewang takes a similar form to other empowerments, and are understandably mostly given in relation to deities associated with long life and good health, such as Amitayus18(tshe dpag med) and White Tara (sgrol dkar); however the motivation on the part of the recipients is generally somewhat different from the practitioner requesting empowerment.

The power the master magically transmits to his disciples is the power of long life, and not the power of contemplation; and when a delegation of lay people approach a high lama to request his performance of this ritual – and the life of any high lama is a constant succession of such requests – they have in mind not so much his bestowing of authorisation and capacity for their future practice as the exercise of his magical powers to prolong their lives.
(Beyer, 1978: 375)

Another very commonly requested ritual which somewhat strides the ‘folk religion’ and more official Vajrayana is the severance practice of Chod. The basic premise of Chod is for the practitioner to offer his or her body to “Tantric deities, local gods and demons” (Samuel, 1993: 477), which is intended to aid in the ‘severing’ the ego, and thus nurturing Bodhicitta and the path to enlightenment. In the context of ‘folk religion’ or the Lama performing the practice on request, it is generally done, from the point of view of those requesting it, as a way of dispelling demonic influence, particularly in the context of healing and is also often performed as part of funerary rites. Davidson suggest a possible Zoroastrian influence on Chod (Davidson, 2005: 291); which combined with the overall ‘Shamanic’ appearance of the ritual goes some way to explain why it has not been free of criticism from the monastic establishment. One does wonder how much of the criticism of this practice was simply the result of chauvinism, in the almost exclusively male monastic establishment, manifesting against a seemingly powerful practice derived from a powerful woman. Beyer comments on the deep reverence for Chods founder, Machig Labdron (ma gcig lab-sgron) in the Drukpa (brug pa) Kagyu lineage (Beyer, 1978: 47), however, this reverence is also true in other Kagyu and Nyingma lineages, and the first Karmapa Dusum Khyenpa (du gsum mkhyen pa) spent time with her which indicates he received teachings from her18. In response to establishment criticism and misogyny of this practice it is worth remembering the non-monastic origins of Vajrayana in general and to recall the root samayas, one of which specifically forbids the “Disparaging of women, either by mental attitude of considering women to be lower than men, or by verbalising these opinions” (Kongtrul, 1999: 48). Whatever the origins of Chod, it developed and grew in popularity in such a way that it came to be practiced within all the main lineages and became “loved and respected throughout Tibetan Buddhism as a wisdom Dakini” (Ray, 2000:185). This growth in popularity was probably the result of a combination of the practice being seen as useful for both Vajrayana and ‘folk religion’ purposes. However the practice of Chod or any other Vajrayana meditation for personal reasons, other than what Samuel calls the “Bodhi Orientation” (Samuel, 1993: 223) or enlightenment for the sake of all sentient beings, is seen as highly negative. Something which Jamgon Kongtrul explains at the start of his Chod commentary:

I bow to the Lama and Prajnaparamita, the Great Mother. That which is known as the Mahamudra of ‘Cutting off the Object’ is the wisdom view of the second turning. By the Mantrayana conduct for training awareness associated with taking the unwanted and trampling the causes of evil; understanding gos and demons as one’s own mind; and knowing the equality of self and others, ego-clinging can instantly be cut. If one does not understand this and hopes to tame demons for the sake of food, fame, or profit, and views one’s own illusory appearance as the enemy, then by counting HUNG HUNG PHAT PHAT one engages in a rough, superficial conduct. Known as the ‘reversal of Chod’, it is a very frightful mistake on this path. From the start, one’s mind should be pointed in an unmistaken direction.
(Kongtrul, 2007: 35-36)

Kongtrul’s criticism of Lamas performing various rituals for the laity for the wrong reasons is by no means unique to him, in fact some of the most celebrated Lamas in Tibetan Vajrayana history have been highly critical of what they would see as practice carried out for the wrong, or worldly, reasons and overall corruption amongst individual Lamas and the established monastic order.

All of the rituals the laity would request Lamas to perform, would be paid for, or sponsored, in the hope of not only gaining the immediate benefits such as good health, but with the longer term hope wish to generate ‘merit’ (bsod nams) or positive karma. In fact, there could be a great deal of competition to sponsor any given ritual, depending on the reputation of the Lama leading it (Mills, 2003: 131). Mills suggests that this competitive element to sponsoring religious events is due to the laity viewing different Lamas as having higher or lower levels of spiritual ‘power’, it should not be discounted that the motivation may just as much be a case of wanting to be seen to sponsor such events, effectively a Tibetan case of ‘keeping up with the Jones’s’. Whatever the motivation, the fact is that performing rituals became, and still is, a source of financial income both for monasteries and individual Lamas. In the example Mills uses to illustrate this point the believed superior power of a particular Lama seems strongly dependent on him being a Tulku, however in many cases being a Tulku or other institutionalised Lama would not always guarantee more sponsors as many of the wandering or hermit type practitioners are believed to be particularly powerful (Samuel, 1993: 288).

In a somewhat beautiful irony, the fiercest critics of money making Lamas have often been those who gained the greatest reputations themselves. Often these critics were not just hermits or wandering practitioners, but also those who followed an unconventional Siddha lifestyle often involving being non-celibate, drinking alcohol and often appearing quite fierce. Amongst these Drukpa Kunley ('brug pa kun legs) is one of the most celebrated, both in Tibet and other Vajrayana countries such as Bhutan. A Mahamudra master, Kunley would often mock the establishment and hypocrisy within it through satirical songs (Dowman, 2000: 53-58), but is also said to have taken more direct action, such as this following incident at Drepung ('bras spungs) monastery:

The next day when the monks had assembled, the Lama brought a donkey by the ear, covered him with a red robe, and sat him down at the end of the line of monks. ‘What is this!’ exclaimed the Moral Guard in wrath.
‘This is my friend with the good voice,’ Kunley told them, kicking the donkey to make it bray. The Guard chased him away with sticks, with the Lama shouting over his shoulder to them. ‘You people care more about chanting than meditation!’.
(Dowman, 2000: 64)

Whilst the above story sounds like a socially extreme act, this sort of Gadfly like activity and attitude became relatively widespread, and continues up to the present20, and in the process gaining the acceptance and often praise of more conventional Lamas such as the Karmapa21 praising Kunley for revealing his desire for a woman in the crowd at a teaching he is giving (Dowman, 2000: 75-76).

Samuel places Milarepa and Tangtong Gyalpo (thang stong rgyal po) in the same category of Tibetan Siddha as Kunley (Samuel, 1993: 303); however it’s important that whilst they may both have been unconventional in their own ways, they didn’t achieve similar ‘notoriety’ as they are perhaps more often remembered for their extreme asceticism and bridge building respectively.

Patrul Rinpoche was also highly critical of the performance of rituals carried out with less that sincere motivation on the part of the Lamas involved:
Lamas and monks who profit from the offerings of the faithful and the possessions of the dead22 should have as the very soul of their practice something more than an evaluation of the quantity of meat, the thickness of cheese, and the quality of the offerings they are getting. Whether they are sick or already dead, the moment is crucial for those beings. For the latter have no refuge from their suffering. They need to be caught and secured by the love and compassion of the lamas’ Bodhicitta, and the sincere desire to help.
(Patrul Rinpoche, 1994: 274)

The very existence of fierce criticism of the financial orientation of many ‘folk religion’ rituals from a wide range of Lamas at all points in Tibetan Buddhist history suggests that there were indeed many Lamas who were corrupt, however it does not imply that these same critics felt the laity should in any way be denied these rituals even if they themselves were requesting them out of a sense of worldly concern. Motivation is generally seen as key in Buddhist ethics and as such if a ritual is performed in the context of the ‘Bodhi Orientation’ as far as the Lama doing it is concerned, then the motivation of the sponsors is less of an issue as they are at least potentially contributing to their own store of merit.

Politics and religion, an unhappy combination.

As we have seen, individual Lamas could gain a reputation which might make them the object of frequent requests for a wide array of rituals to be performed on the basis of their own perceived prowess. This situation could be complicated considerably if they were associated with a particular monastery or tulku lineage, with all manner of other duties being associated with a particular Lama as a result, and depending on the patronage, location, lineage and other factors, a particular monastery could become very rich with political influence well beyond its physical boundaries. With wealth and power somewhat built into monasteries, the issue of who controls the monastery becomes a potential minefield of intrigue. Both the tulku system and the hereditary succession practiced in Sakya and some Nyingma traditions would theoretically address this issue, however as the dispute over who is the current Karmapa and other disputations over authenticity of tulkus shows, this is not the case. Of these two systems, the tulku system could easily appear to be the most open to manipulation and abuse by those in power, however many tulkus have come from poor families with no political influence. This is something which will have made those in power nervous as Davidson points out:

By the middle of the twelfth century, there eventually developed the understanding that a clan may own and occupy important denomination centres, where the members of other clans could train but where unlikely to become its successors. The legal basis was clear in these cases, for succession was based on blood. Conversely, the idea of unrelated land inheritance was a murky area in Tibetan life, and the occasional presence of non-aristocratic Tibetans (such as Dusum Khyenpa) at the head of monasteries must have made such as possibility rather jarring for traditionalists, who were already feeling assaulted by the rapid shift in institutional life.
(Davidson, 2005: 290)

The unhappy mix of politics and religion, for some, is something that seems to have occurred on a regular and ongoing basis in the history of Tibet. Chinese and Mongolian competition for control over Tibet at various points also affected the roles of various prominent Lamas in various ways. The Gelug domination of Tibet from the seventeenth century until the Chinese invasion was to some extent consolidated by their adaption of the tulku system, in the form of the Dalai Lamas and the Panchen Lamas, as it was a way of bridging the gap between the Siddha type Lama and ‘establishment monasticism’ (Samuel, 1993: 497-498). However as the reign of controversial sixth Dalai Lama Tsangyang Gyatso (tshangs dbyangs rgya mtsho) illustrates, this was not always an easy gap to bridge, nor a guarantee of a simple and strife free political life, if such a thing exists. Tsangyang Gyatso was probably killed on the orders of Lhazang Khan for political reasons (Stein, 1972: 85) and his short life before this was one of tension from being somewhat unwillingly involved in a complex political life rather than being able to pursue spiritual matters23, as his own poetry shows:

Pink clouds
Hide frost and hailstorms;
He who is half-monk
Is a hidden enemy of the Dharma.
(Dhondup, 1981: 89)

As well as showing personal unhappiness, Tsangyang Gyatso’s life shows that the tension between the Siddha approach and ‘establishment monasticism’ was not necessarily that easily resolved, and we are again reminded of Vajrayana Buddhism’s non-monastic origins.

Whilst it could be tempting to describe the politicisation of the Lamas role as purely a centralised Gelug phenomenon, this would be hugely naive and inaccurate. The second Karmapa, Karma Pakshi (karma pak shi), spent time at the court of Kublai Khan and engaged in various activities outside the strictly religious sphere, such as encouraging the release of prisoners. However, to avoid potentially stirring sectarian rivalries, he avoided promoting his own Karma Kagyu school over others and also encouraged non-Buddhists to keep their religious commitments (Thinley, 1980: 50). Despite trying to avoid conflict of any kind, court intrigue and rivalry between the Kublai Khan and his brother Mongka Khan led to unhappy circumstances:

The new Khan’s soldiers detained Karma Pakshi and subjected him to various indignities and tortures24 such as burning, poisoning and being thrown off a cliff, but in the face of this brutal treatment he manifested the compassion of Avalokiteshvara and the natural freedom of a mahasiddha. Karma Pakshi’s realisation of the unborn and undying nature of mind mean that his captors were unable to harm him. Eventually he expressed great pity for their confusion.
(Thinley, 1980: 51)

Political activity and involvement by Lamas obviously could be said to have some precedent in relation to the royal paradigm and India, but it is also worth remembering that the Tibetan dynasties were somewhat legitimised by what Ray calls “heavenly origin of the first Tibetan kings” (Ray, 2000: 365). Whatever the origins of a particular lineage, the potential for political involvement seems to have been, and still is, something which could take up a Lamas attention and time. However, the motivation for a particular Lama to engage in political activity is hugely variable. Lamas who were responsible for large numbers of monasteries and monks would have clear economic and practical reasons for political involvement to maintain these institutions, and thereby continuing the influence of these institutions. Whilst it could look like involvement in politics is motivated by either practical need, or even outright desire for wealth, it is also possible that there could be more philosophical reasons behind it. The closing of the Jonang monasteries is sometimes portrayed as the result of ‘heresy’ (Samuel, 1993: 403-404) and sometimes as purely a political event resulting from war that had “nothing to do with sectarianism” (Mullin, 2001: 207).


The role and activity of the Vajrayana Guru is one that has been extremely varied since its inception in medieval India, through its transmission to Tibet, and through its subsequent development in Tibet. This variety is the result of the non-centralised non-monastic origins of Vajrayana and the continued transmission and practice of it outside centralised monastic structures. However the institutionalisation of Vajrayana in India, and particularly in Tibet, probably helped Vajrayana Buddhism spread as widely as it did. The flexibility within lineages, such as the Shangpa Kagyu (shangs pa bka' brgyud), has meant that lineages have survived within the monastic establishment without having their own institutions. Similarly, decentralisation has also ensured the survival and spread of practices that became practiced across lineages, such as Chod. Tsangyang Gyatso is probably an extreme example, but a good one to illustrate that despite the tulku system generally favouring centralisation it was by no means a guarantee of any given Lama following the wishes, political or otherwise, of those around them.

In relation to the types of ritual activities that go with the role of Lama, there is as we have seen a great deal of variety in motivations and reasons for requesting them as well as for performing them. Considering the plethora of non-meditational practices performed by Buddhist monks in Indian courts it is not surprising that this is something that has continued into Tibet and beyond. To really say whether performing a particular ritual should really come within the remit of a Lama is truly impossible as the relationship between them and the laity has evolved over time and depends on a number of factors. If one takes the view that Vajrayana practice is an extension of Mahayana Buddhism, then one can say that as long as the ritual in some ways is done with compassionate, or Bodhi, motivation with the view of somehow improving the spiritual lives, both current and future, of those requesting them, then they are somewhat authentic or in accordance with Dharma. However, at this point it is important to remember that Buddhism started out as, and essentially is, a path of renunciation. The lifestyles and behaviour of people such as Milarepa, Jamgon Kongtrul and Patrul Rinpoche serve as a reminder of this. As such it is clear that the foundational part of the role of the Lama should be to follow this whilst encouraging and helping other to do the same. Patrul Rinpoche talks of this in terms of the ‘skilful means’ approach of a Lama who is fully enlightened still carrying out purification practices and studying (Patrul Rinpoche, 1994: 263). To summarise the religio-cultural role of the Lama we can say that it is to practice Vajrayana Buddhist rituals, give teachings and empowerments according to the needs and abilities of his students and to act as an example for how to practice.

The socio-political role of the Lama is somewhat more complicated as it depends to a great extent on the political influence of a particular lineage and other factors. This side of things is also something which we can see changing. Historically the Dalai Lamas have been Tibet’s political rulers, however in exile the current Dalai Lama has instigated extensive reforms of the Tibetan political system encouraging a form of representative democracy. Similarly the 17th Karmapa, Orgyen Thinley Dorje (orgyan ‘phrin las rdo rje) has been radically active in ecological issues, including the strict banning of meat in all Karma Kagyu monasteries25 and sending out detailed guidelines for how monastic communities can cut carbon emissions and general waste. He has also been involved in championing the re-institution of full ordination for nuns within the Tibetan tradition.

One can say that the role of the Guru in Vajrayana Buddhism has always been a diverse one which has changed and interacted with the circumstances in which it has found itself. This ability and willingness to change and adapt is perhaps such an obvious feature of Buddhism that it can be easily missed. It is the simple understanding and acceptance that all things, including Buddhism itself, are impermanent and subject to change.

1. For the sake of simplicity, the term Vajrayana will be used throughout this paper and also covers the terms Mantrayana.
2. (khor los sgyur ba'i rgyal po) A universal monarch associated with spiritual kingship.
3. The Eight Auspicious symbols representative of the Buddha are: A parasol representing the Buddha’s head, fish representing Buddha’s eyes, vase representing Buddha’s throat, lotus representing Buddha’s tongue, white conch representing Buddha’s speech, knot of interdependence representing Buddha’s mind, victory banner representing the form of the Buddha and the wheel representing the teaching of the Buddha. (Khenchen Thrangu Rinpoche, 2004: 56-57). The Eight Auspicious objects relating events in the life of the Buddha are: A mirror, vermillion dye, and white conch, medicine from an elephants brain, durva grass, bilva fruit, yoghurt and white mustard seed. (Kongtrul, 1977: 114)
3. Taranatha was an exponent of the Jonang school, which was persecuted by the Gelug, with Taranatha’s monastery being taken over, admittedly long after his death.
4. This dramatic acting out of finding a teacher is something which later became institutionalised in the tulku (sprul ku) system of finding Nirmanakaya teachers, where the training and education of the young tulku is seen as simply a display of skilful means intended to inspire and benefit others, rather than a necessity for the tulku themselves.
5. Gampopa (1079-1153) was a student of Milarepa (mi la ras pa). Four of the Kagyu schools, Karma Kagyu, Barom Kagyu, Tsalpa and Phagdru are traced back to him.
6. The Kagyu lineage is often referred to as ‘the practice lineage’ due to the emphasis on mediation and retreat over academic study.
7. Vows relating to personal liberation, these can be lay or monastic.
8. Jamyang Khyentse Wangpo ('jam dbyangs mkhyen brtse'i dbang po) is generally seen as a co-founder.
9. There are lots of references to this idea of the teachings of the Buddha declining in Buddhism generally, but particularly in Tibetan Vajrayana. The secret treasure tradition (gter ma) for example always presents itself as somewhat of a response to this.
10. Ignorance, hatred and desire.
11. This monastery, seat of the Situ incarnation lineage, was visited by Patrul Rinpoche.
12. Generally one ‘complete’ Ngondro is required for Anuttarayoga (bla na med pa'i rgyud), however it is somewhat dangerous to make sweeping statements about this firstly due to the pragmatic approach of Buddhism in general. For example the Sakya (sa skya) approach is to give Anuttarayoga empowerment before the completion of Ngondro as part of the Lamdre (lam ‘bras) approach. Secondly, Ngondro not simply a one off practice, in fact some people complete it several times in their lives (Kongtrul, 1977: 22).
13. Nyingma lineages have Guru Rinpoche, Kagyu and Sakya Lineages have Vajradhara (rdo rje ‘chang) as the central figure, whilst the Gelug have Tsongkhapa (tsong kha pa).
14. Nirmanakaya (sprul sku), Sambhogakaya (longs spyod rdzogs pa'i sku), Dharmakaya (chos sku) and Svabhavikakaya (ngo bo nyid sku).
15. I’ve used the term ‘ritual mirror’ as this type of mirror is commonly used in the purificatory rites of many empowerments and Sadhana practices. The mirror is also symbolic or the mind in the Mahamudra and Dzogchen approaches.
16. The Compendium on Astrology (rtsis kun bsdus pa).
17. The Sambhogakaya aspect of Amitabha ('od dpag med), due to Amitabha being seen as the Dharmakaya of Padmasambhava, Nyingma and Kagyu tsewang are generally given in the context of Amitayus.
18. Karmapa Dusum Khyenpa also is said to have meditated heavily on the female deity Vajrayogini (rdo rje rnal ’byor ma), who is central to Karma Kagyu practice (Thinley, 1980: 41-44).
20. Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche is often said to have acted in very unconventional ways (Samuel, 1993: 348).
21. It doesn’t say which Karmapa, but it was probably the 7th Karmapa, Chodrak Gyatso (chos grags rgya mtsho).
22. This refers to the custom of using the belongings of the dead for making offerings and sponsoring religious practice for their benefit.
23. Whilst Tsangyang Gyatso refused to take full ordination, much of his poetry has strong religious themes.
24. Karma Kagyu oral legend claims Karma Pakshi was hung by his beard and took a vow never to have a beard again. Succeeding Karmapas have all been clean shaven.
25. This event took place on 3/01/07 at the Kagyu Monlam in Bodhgaya. A transcript is available from www.shabkar.org


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Buddha of the three times, Dusum Khenpa, bless me and those like me who are wandering in the wilderness of samsara that we may meet our spiritual guides face to face in this life and without delay.
Bless us that any frustration and confusion felt at not haveing access to authentic teachers may lead to renunciation and compassion rather than the following of false guides.