As students of Tibetan Buddhism studying under Geshe Dorjee, who studied under an illustrious lineage of teachers, we have access to a rich source of information and instruction. All of us know this, and all of us have shown unceasing gratitude for his presence here in Fayetteville. Our community is growing steadily, we are constantly pushing our limits, and we are learning at a rate that most of us would have scarcely believed possible before Geshe la arrived.
He is a catalyst of immense proportions. And we have all responded in kind, with an equal and complimentary energy, in my opinion.
As his students, we also have responsibilities, and I believe that we have honored those responsibilities with grace and intelligence.
My own sense of responsibility toward Geshe la has changed and developed over the eight years since I met him in 2004, and I thought I might take a moment to share some of those changes with you.
To do that, I want to talk about a few of the obstacles I've encountered over the years, and what they look like (in case you encounter them), and how I've dealt with them (in case you decide you need to deal with them.) Many of these issues are old indeed and began when I first encountered Asian spirituality as a boy on a drug-store book-shelf—a paperback introduction to Hinduism with an incredible picture of Shiva on the cover.
As the years passed, I read a little bit, and I learned a few things. Like: Tibetan Buddhism belongs to the Mahayana tradition of Buddhism. It does not belong to the Hinayana, or Theravadan school. But the Mahayana school does include a Vajrayana practice, and some people claim to practice Vajrayana who don't, and some who claim to know very little about it are actually doing it.
I got an email last year from an American who didn't know if he were going to be able to come to see the Dalai Lama, even though he lives in Little Rock and even though I had free tickets for him, because of the demanding nature of his "HYT vows." I had to think about it too—it stands for Highest Yoga Tantra.
And so it begins . . . classifying, segregating, partitioning, relegating—one practice belongs to this part of the world, and one to this part of the world, and she does this one, and he does that one, and all of this is based on what we presume to be an accurate, historical understanding of what the Buddha taught.
While I believe it is very helpful to understand the historical reasons that we use terms like Hinayana, Mahayana, and Vajrayana, and even more helpful to know why we are doing this practice and not this practice, I also believe that for many beginners, like myself, there are pitfalls here. It's easy to become obsessed with the labels and categories, and to forget the species of thought that those labels and categories represent. If you can peer beneath those labels, I think it's only logical to expect that the ideas they represent will be complimentary, and even relatively consistent. After all, they arose from the mind of a very talented thinker and practitioner: Buddha Shakyamuni.
But Buddha had never heard of Hinayana or Mahayana or Vajrayana. And he'd certainly never heard of Buddhism. He figured out four profound and essential truths about the human mind at age 35, and he spent the next 45 years trying to tell anyone who would listen what he had discovered. And the implications of what he had discovered. Like all teachers, he varied his teaching methods according to the abilities of his students. If you read his discourses, he seems to be a very responsible teacher, insisting on developing the techniques that will maximize his chances of successfully delivering his material to his students. That's how you defined a good teacher in the 5th century BCE, and that's how you define one now.
Three months after Buddha died, a Council of his closest followers convened and recited from memory his teachings, his suggested rules of conduct, and his longer discourses. These were approved by those who had been there, and they were gathered together into five collections called Nikayas. The teachings then were transmitted orally from teacher to student.
But none of these teachings were written down until the first century BCE, fully four hundred years after the Buddha died. And these ideas would not arrive in Tibet for another 600-700 years. So by the time Buddhism finds its way into Tibet, the Buddha had been dead for over a millennium. That his teachings were still vital, specific, and accurate, and still existing in an oral tradition for that length of time, testifies to their great power and clarity.
Buddha discovered world-changing things about the human mind, but that's not the half of it. He was also able to communicate those discoveries clearly, concisely, and memorably. To have both of those talents is exceptional.
In my next posting, I'll talk a little bit more about the significance of these insights for our own daily practice.