What do Buddhists like me have faith in? I’ll start with what I try not to have too much faith in.
If we have faith in our Buddhist religion as a inherently existent system, and holy beings as saviors who are inherently different to us — “I am over here inherently unworthy and you are over there inherently pure! Save us!” – we could run the danger of falling into an ancient trap.
Some good karma ripened on me yesterday when I met a gorgeous young Black woman – we got chatting in a café and spent the next three hours together, coincidentally bumping into other friends of mine in the Botanic Gardens, whom we sat down to a meal with. It was a magical afternoon because this person obviously goes deep and is full of joy and ideas, and at one point they exclaimed, grinning (not feeling unworthy at all), “I am God’s child.” I know exactly what they mean. We both got each other. I mention this encounter because my observation has always been that all of us are the same when we’re not grasping at differences, when we’re just meeting heart to heart.
When people grasp at their religion, “Mine is really the true religion!” I think they almost inevitably have to think of followers of other religions or traditions as inherently misguided, if not downright evil. This is nothing new – human beings have been doing it since the dawn of history and in countless previous lives and histories too, evangelizing and arguing and fighting over religion to this day. But, as I try to explain in this article, if we understand how the whole point of Buddhism is to reveal that there is no inherently existent anything, including Buddhism itself, we can avoid this danger. We can deeply love our own tradition while respecting people of other traditions, as Venerable Geshe-la has encouraged us to do.
I’m not saying anyone here does that, by the way, lol. This article has really been brought on by informal conversations with someone who has spent a lot of time in Dharamsala but does not identify as a Buddhist, who was asking me about Guru devotion and its pitfalls. I’ve talked a lot about relying upon a Spiritual Guide in various articles, and thought this was a chance to clarify a bit more about this deep spiritual practice based on some of their good questions.
What do Buddhists have faith in?
So, if things aren’t real, what are Buddhists supposed to have faith in?! The main object of faith or refuge in Buddhism is Dharma, including our own growing experience of Buddha’s teachings; and in particular the Dharma of ultimate truth because that has the power to liberate our minds from all grasping and its attendant suffering. And the main object of faith is also our Spiritual Guide, which makes sense if we understand how they are the one appearing in our lives to explain to us how to realize emptiness.
The practice of relying upon a Spiritual Guide, known as Guru yoga, pervades Mahayana Buddhism, not just the New Kadampa Tradition. And it is easily misunderstood, including by this person who was criticizing the NKT for this practice. So I sent them on a quest:
“As a journalist, if you are interested in exploring this further, you could ask any Tibetan Buddhist (Nyingma, Kagyu, Rime, etc) how they are supposed to view their Spiritual Guide. And you will most likely discover that the reply will be “As a Buddha.” Ask the Dalai Lama or any other Lama you trust how his or her disciples should regard him to gain realizations of the teachings, and see what his answer is. See if you can find a teacher in any Tibetan or other Mahayana Buddhist tradition who doesn’t teach this practice of Guru yoga.
It is very easy to misunderstand this practice if one is primarily intellectually or politically oriented, just as it is easy for non-practitioners to mistake the deep practices of other religions. (One example that comes to mind is judging all those supposedly misguided people worshipping a Middle Eastern man who was born from a virgin, tortured on a cross, and raised from the dead.) But if you take issue with seeing the Spiritual Guide as an enlightened being, even rendering it as a personality cult thing, you are taking issue with an entire religion, not just the NKT.
Guru yoga is meant to be a private view, not a political statement. It is hard to understand at first what Buddha Shakyamuni was intending with this practice of pure view, but relying on a Spiritual Guide is the root of the Mahayana and especially Tantric spiritual path. There are many scriptural references – in one example, Buddha Shakyamuni said in the Condensed Perfection of Wisdom Sutra:
The Conqueror who possesses all supreme good qualities says
‘The qualities of a Buddha depend upon the Spiritual Guide.’
So, to find out more about this, because I accept that this is not an easy subject and can seem weird, you could ask the Tibetans you know: “How would you expect a Buddhist Mahayana or Tantric disciple to view their Spiritual Guide? And why? What is the spiritual significance?””
The language of Guru yoga is easily misinterpreted – for example “The Guru is Buddha”, is a common prayer in all Mahayana practices, across the board. This view is designed to lead to a psychospiritual transformation within an individual’s consciousness. It has nothing to do with how the spiritual teacher appears and functions externally — in fact it is understood that different people will have different views and perceptions. Everything is empty of intrinsic existence; there is no inherently existent Guru. Disciples need to understand the inner nature of this practice – it is very deep – and of course individuals are at different stages of their understanding.
I never once heard Venerable Geshe Kelsang say that he was a Buddha, either while teaching or in private. On the contrary, he often pointed out that he was an old man who cannot even use a computer or a car or speak English properly. He did however sometimes say that his own Spiritual Guide is Buddha Heruka. On the whole, Buddhist teachers don’t proclaim that they are Buddhas because that is missing the point of this essential Mahayana Buddhist teaching – that this is an internal spiritual practice which evolves over time. And for someone to say that their Guru is the most precious for them is not saying that other people don’t have their own precious Gurus – people have different karmic connections with different guides.
I was thinking how easy it is to be over-simplistic and patronizing about other people’s deeply held beliefs and religious practices, as if all the practitioners are somehow vulnerable, stupid, or gullible and seeking a savior. This attitude for example pervades some scientific discourse and is a popular view in atheistic circles. But Buddhists in general, including Kadampas, are not a simple-minded mob. They tend to question things – a lot! Deeply. And all the time! I am still asking question after question after 40 years, which may be why I enjoyed these conversations. There is nothing to fear from questioning what we believe with an open positive mind – it just makes our experience and faith more qualified.
There has never been an official policy of recognizing the divinity of teachers in my tradition, probably because of the dangers of this view being misinterpreted and exploited for political ends; and for this reason the NKT also don’t subscribe to the Tibetan Tulku system. The system that worked and works for Tibetan Buddhists (including all our precious lineage teachers I might add) doesn’t necessarily work for contemporary western Buddhists, who would generally prefer to keep religion and politics separate. For example, the current and previous Dalai Lamas were officially recognized within Tibet as Buddha Avalokiteshvara. Known as “the God King”, they also had a lot of political power over Tibetans, which most Tibetans accepted.
When Venerable Geshe-la passed away last September, he broke with the convention for high Lamas by not opting for embalming or a lasting memorial such as a pilgrimage stupa, but asking instead for his ashes to be disposed of in the ocean. He did not leave instructions for prayers for his swift return, either, as would be typical – I feel that he wanted his disciples to be not so much like children waiting for their father to come back but taking responsibility themselves now for carrying this lineage forward. All this, along with how he set up the whole NKT organization to be democratic and so on, I think shows that Ven Geshe-la had a lot of confidence in the ability of Westerners to gain exactly the same realizations as generations of Tibetan and Indian practitioners before us.
The idea of what actually is a Spiritual Guide is pretty subtle for anyone to understand, and understanding the real nature of the Guru is a huge part of a Buddhist’s spiritual journey. The actual Guru is not like a person we normally think of, but is the omniscient wisdom of great bliss and emptiness. Ultimately the disciple is seeking union with that state of compassion and wisdom, which is enlightenment. The Guru yoga provides the technology for this. It is also a doorway into seeing everybody in a pure, non-deluded way, as a Buddha, including ourselves, so as to manifest our own boundless potential for enlightenment.
Devotion and freedom: how are they compatible?
A legitimate and pertinent question this person asked about spiritual devotion is why anyone with any intelligence would want to engage in it, and whether that entails them handing over their personal freedom.
Guru yoga is an inner practice based on Buddhist refuge that seeks liberation and enlightenment within our own consciousness. Faith is believing there are states of mind, worlds, and beings beyond our ordinary, self-limiting, and suffering point of view, and as such it is a transcending force within our consciousness to break through ordinary conceptions of self, others, and life itself. Far from handing over power, we gain it.
Faith in enlightenment necessitates faith in our own potential for enlightenment. Our mind creates reality, as even quantum physics and other modern disciplines are discovering as we speak. Our consciousness can literally change our brains, for example. Matter arises from consciousness, not the other way around. Everything is dream-like insofar as it depends on thoughts. What Buddha did is explain how everyone can maximize this so as to develop universal love/compassion and omniscient wisdom, thus freeing ourselves from the deep causes of suffering and experiencing a life pervaded by joy, meaning, and benefit.
If enlightenment is possible, or enlightenment is reality as I try to explain in this article, then it follows that people have realized it. When we relate to someone we believe has attained enlightenment, we are relating to their qualities of universal love, compassion, skillful means, and omniscient wisdom, rather than to a personality or even a person. Guru yoga is not a cultish agenda for weakening people. We only rely on Spiritual Guides or, if you like, tune into them as a way to bring out good qualities in ourselves, not to do their bidding or make them famous, etc. It is an internal practice, not an external one.
As for “a leap of faith,” we don’t submit to dogma or brain-washing in Buddhism – rather our faith is based on observation and personal experience, and built up over a long period of time. And as per Buddha’s advice, Buddhists only follow their Spiritual Guide’s advice when it doesn’t contradict the tenets of Buddhism, including not to deliberately harm others.
What are we surrendering?
My friend mentioned “suspension of one’s own sense of truth” and “one cannot at the same time practice complete devotion while also questioning and researching”; but I have found it to be the opposite. Trusting a teacher’s wisdom has given me the tools to explore my own sense of truth from every angle, questioning and researching every step of the way. There is the freedom and indeed imperative to doubt in Buddhism – Buddha famously promoted critical thinking and encouraged his followers to test all his teachings as they would assay gold, never to accept anything or anyone on blind faith, but always on practical experience.
As an annoyingly curious child who always believed there was more to life than what meets the eye, and who always believed in reincarnation much to my parents’ surprise, this is what I have always loved about Buddhism. The real Spiritual Guide winds up being our own increasing wisdom, which just happens to be ultimately inseparable from the wisdom of all enlightened beings.
My friend asked about surrender — and this brings up the whole concept of self or ego in Buddhism, which to my mind is very interesting. We are aiming at surrendering the painful, limited sense of a solid self that is apprehended or held by what is called “self-grasping ignorance”; but we are not about self-negation. We need to cultivate and nurture our free and boundless self, the one that is full of spiritual potential for universal love, goodness, kindness, and wisdom, and for this we take refuge in Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha. We also grow our sense of self to take in all other selves, all other living beings.
Having said all this, Guru devotion is very easily misunderstood, so Venerable Geshe Kelsang suggested that when the teacher is on the throne giving Dharma teachings, it is useful to see them as enlightened so as to receive the blessings of all enlightened beings through them. But at other times we should see the teacher as a regular Sangha member. Then things don’t get weird for teacher or student — we can all “remain natural while changing our aspiration”, as the Lojong saying goes.
I am really happy that over here, in the West, including in this era of #metoo, there is some freedom to hold people in power to account, such as politicians, CEOs, actors, and spiritual leaders. This is not like feudal Tibet, where these things were not discussed or acted upon.
How to establish continuity in Dharma transmission
They also asked me this, again I think an important question:
“What you said about Trijang Rinpoche encouraging Kelsang Gyatso to adapt Tsongkhapa’s teachings for Western audiences has gotten me thinking about the issue of spiritual continuity in Western Buddhism. The deeper, underlying question that I am pondering is: How do Western Buddhists establish continuity in their Dharma transmission when their practice is rooted in a foreign culture and foreign language? Kelsang Gyatso transmitted teachings that had been passed on for generations in Tibet. Now that he is no longer alive, will New Kadampa Buddhists be able to continue the tradition from his books?”
To which I replied:
“The brief answer to your question is that we will be able to continue the lineage with the books combined with the study programs. Through their own study and practice of the books, sometimes over a period of several decades, teachers are passing on the unbroken lineage of scripture and the lineage of realization, ie, their own experience of the teachings of Lamrim, Lojong, and Mahamudra, in the way that previous Indian and Tibetan Gurus, including Venerable Geshe-la, have passed it on previously. Buddhism doesn’t just work for Tibetans. It has a long history of moving from country to country, culture to culture — the Wheel of Dharma, as it is called, is forever turning.”
To summarize this article, the Buddhist practice of relying upon a Spiritual Guide needs to be researched clearly and extensively. This learning helps us to understand it as a path to liberation, not to subservience – the freedom to live up to who we really are, our highest potential.
(Just a reminder – all opinions in this article are my own and don’t represent any official NKT view. If my journalist friend is reading this article, I thank you for all these informal conversations we’ve been having because they’ve helped to clarify my own thinking.)
Would love to hear your ideas.