This series titled Practical Companion is for intermediate practitioners.
This post covers some sensitive issues in the Buddhist world in regard to the various traditions and methods of practice. How do we know which method is suitable for us? How do we know if we have joined a credible Buddhist organization? How do we know if our teacher is qualified?
Examine our method of practice
Most of us probably learn Buddha Dharma from books, youtube, the internet, friends, teachers, courses, etc. There are so many resources available, but not all who claim themselves Buddhist are Buddhist. Some may contain inaccuracies and some are from dubious sources. Therefore, it is essential for us to authenticate and check before believing, accepting, and practicing what was taught to us.
Vajrayana is a subset of Mahayana Buddhism. A unique practice of Vajrayana Buddhism is the recitation of Mantra and various mental visualization. It is generally agreed that Vajrayana Buddhism came at a later stage in Buddhist history, probably a reaction to religious and social development in ancient India.
Just like Mahayana Buddhism, it propagates the Dharma creatively to help people who are averse to traditional Buddhist teachings. For example, renunciation and abstinence, or Buddha had exited Samsara. The literature in Vajrayana Buddhism is not limited to records of Shakyamuni Buddha’s sermon. Vajrayana masters also produced religious texts based on teachings that they received through their mystical encounters with celestial Bodhisattva and Buddha.
Sceptics are quick to dismiss these Vajrayana text as bogus. I think that is too extreme too. My experience with Vajrayana is limited to Tibetan Vajrayana of the Sakyapa school. However, I found that various important teachings common in the Theravada school is also embedded in the Tantra ( Vajrayana literature)
For example, I used to be terrified by the message of non-self in traditional Theravada texts. Likewise, message of emptiness in General Mahayana text would also throw me into confusion. However, Vajrayana literature managed to help me embrace it with good results. For that, I am extremely grateful to my lama.
When I examine Vajrayana from this perspective, the flexibility of propagating Dharma seems to have been tuned a notch higher in Vajrayana Buddhism.
Vajrayana literature tends to belittle Theravada literature as ‘Hina’ and Mahayana literature as ‘slow’. I think that is a necessary ‘evil’? Let me share my personal journey to explain why.
In Theravada Buddhism, the approach to spirituality is extremely simple and direct. Have you ever read Theravada sutta and then your mind goes, “ ok that makes sense, yah I know that.” That subconscious ego simply brushed it aside as “common sense”. In another word, we do not recognize the precious qualities in those messages. Subconsciously, we are already turning away from the Dharma because it seems too simple. On the other hand, when we read the Abhidharma, we became lost and cannot relate to them because we lack the insights from meditation. When we are taught to observe our breath, we sit without actually meditating. Our mind is constantly agitated and we think we tried our best. Then we doubt what Buddha taught. Subconsciously, we think, “is it really that simple? Maybe there is more to it? Maybe this method doesn’t suit me?”
Then I decided to give Mahayana Buddhism a go. They say that traditional meditation is hard because we have a huge store of negative karma blocking our mind-stream. So we do a lot of repentance prayer and we call out to the Buddha or Bodhisattva that we have an affinity with. So I spend my time chasing after these mystical celestial Buddhist beings. That approach is relatable. It’s like praying to a god? And the ‘necessary evil’ is that we belittle the Theravada approach as ‘Hina’ and not useful? So that we can throw ourselves into our Maha practices. We convince ourselves that we are on a higher course? Since our busy minds function better at prayer than stopping thoughts, Mahayana’s calling out to Buddha method seems to work better. Thus, we say it is a “higher” practice. But if I reflect humbly, it is stronger medicine for a “sicker” me. In that manner, enlightened masters from different traditions smiled knowingly at one another. Think about it, how can an enlightened master create discord amongst traditions and schools?
Although, those repenting and bowing in Mahayana system do help a little bit in subduing my haughty mind, it is still not a strong enough medicine. 😅 deep inside my mind, I am still belittling Dharma with that ‘Oh yeah, I know that’ mentality. I was still looking at the surface of Dharma message and not finding my way internally. Not internalizing the dharma means that I had never really stepped through the Dharma door.
Then I saw a new Buddhist advertisement. Vajrayana Buddhism is a method that offers a rocket-speed vehicle to enlightenment. Yeah! (To give you a better perspective, all that shopping and dharma centre hopping was happening in a span of 5 years.)
Then I discovered to my horror, that this time I need to bow to ‘normal‘ human beings like Buddha and Bodhisattva. Internally I rebelled. Isn’t that guy sitting on a high throne, cosplaying as a celestial being, also a normal human being that eats and shit? Why do I have to pray to him? Is he really a Bodhisattva? Will he give a leg or an eye if someone asked? But on the other hand, I wanted to believe it. The narration that a Bodhisattva had been choosing to stay in Samsara, rebirthing again and again to teach us is too enticing. It is evidence of rebirth and the Bodhisattva ideals that I yearned to witness.
The Vajrayana system requires that we hold that “normal” man, our lama as sacred. Reluctantly, I bowed like the rest of my new community, but secretly I would say my Surangama mantra learned from Mahayana Buddhism. I would pray that if that man is fake, then may Buddha and bodhisattva help me see the truth!
Surprisingly and coincidentally, my lama ‘to be’, tended to turn and look in my direction whenever I start saying my Surangama mantra. Then he would smile in my direction when our eyes locked for a brief moment! All these were happening while I receive teachings from Him. Besides that, I would also be extra critical with whatever teachings being spoken by my lama “to be”. Since I have read both Theravada and Mahayana books and teachings, it became easier to check and authenticate these Vajrayana teachings that were new to me.
As I began to open up and embrace Vajrayana, the ‘necessary evil” to belittle general Mahayana as slow and ineffective also manifest with gusto in my mind. As I reflect back humbly, it is just a more powerful medicine for a sicker me.
The rituals and customary observances in Vajrayana Buddhism are extremely complex. While Theravada Buddhism refrains from ritualistic practices, Vajrayana embraces them with gusto! While Mahayana “calls to” a distant celestial Buddha, Vajrayana invites those Buddhas into your heart and mind.
While immersing myself in my newfound communities, I also began to find various “practitioners” who exhibit worrying traits. I also became aware of bogus masters faking and scamming people in Asia and other parts of the world. That convinced me that the Vajrayana system needed to be tread with care. To be continued.
May all be well and happy.
Core Buddhism – The Dharma Seals