The Parable of a Black Snake

3891
2019-08-12
AUTHOR: Khenpo Tsultrim Lodro Rinpoche
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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Many of you may have heard of Rongzom Pandita or Rongzompa (1012-1088). He was one of the two greatest scholars of the Nyingma school of Tibetan Buddhism, the other being Longchenpa.

When Rongzompa was just two or three years old, he could already speak Sanskrit fluently without ever being taught by anyone, not even his parents could understand. Around that time, Atiśa (980-1054) was in Tibet propagating the Dharma. His parents, wishing to enquire about their son, took Rongzompa with them to see Atiśa. Atiśa told the parents what their child spoke was Sanskrit, an Indian language. Subsequently, Atiśa held Rongzompa in his arms and engaged in a heated debate with him. Afterward, Atiśa said he was no match for the kid as Rongzompa was the emanation of two preeminent Indian panditas (scholar masters).

Rongzompa and Longchenpa were not only accomplished masters in their own right, but they also left behind substantial treatises on the Nyingma teachings that made tremendous contributions to the Nyingma lineage. Longchenpa’s works such as The Seven Treasures and Seminal Quintessence in Four Parts are the go-to books for anyone seeking to learn Dzogchen; they are supremely precious teachings and well-known as well. Rongzompa lived some nine hundred years ago. Although his works were mentioned in his biography, some were damaged badly and lost forever due to poor printing technology at the time; hence, no more than four or five of them can be found today. Rongzompa’s works focus mostly on Vajrayana and Dzogchen. Among them, there is one treatise which is succinct in style, less than two pages long, but rich in content, with a somewhat peculiar title The Parable of a Black Snake. Using a snake as an analogy, it presents a comprehensive analysis of the different levels of view going all the way from the Lesser Vehicle to Dzogchen.

THE MAIN TEXT

The parable goes like this: A child threw a colorful cord into a cistern when the adults were out working. When they came back home, they found something in the cistern that looked like a snake. On this, the family members expressed five different points of view and behaved accordingly. The author, taking each person’s viewpoint and behavior as indicators, reflected on the differences between the Great and the Lesser Vehicle, Exoteric and Esoteric Buddhism, the Outer and the Inner Tantra, and lastly, the Inner Tantra and Dzogchen.

Without a doubt, everyone saw the same scene but, importantly, each person perceived it differently.

View #1—Lesser Vehicle

The first person, thinking it was a real snake, panicked and tried desperately to throw it away. But actually what he saw was not a snake, not even a shred of snake skin. It was all because he mistook the cord for a snake that he acted out of fear to get rid of it.

This example alludes to the Vehicles of Srāvaka (hearer) and Pratyekabuddha (solitary awakened one). The Pratyekabuddha Vehicle is further divided into two schools, Sarvāstivāda and Sautrāntika. All of them are generally referred to as the Lesser Vehicle of Buddhism.

The Lesser Vehicle holds that the only non-existent phenomenon is the self of the individual; everything else in the world, including all external objects, some mental elements, and the movement of physical and mental phenomena, truly exists. As practitioners of the Lesser Vehicle take afflictions to be real, they face more challenges trying to eradicate afflictions as well as having to observe more precepts, and take an overly cautious approach to handling any issue. These aspects are broadly discussed in the chapter “Wisdom” in Shantideva’s The Way of the Bodhisattva and in The Great Exposition of the Stages of the Path (Lamrim Chenmo).

View #2—Great Vehicle

The second person did not think it was a real snake, only the form of a snake. That is to say, if one didn’t look closely, it appeared like a snake but was in fact a cord. Even so, the person was still somewhat afraid of the image of a snake, which not only prevented him from touching it directly but made him look for other ways to dispose of it. This behavior alludes to the Madhyamaka school of the Great Vehicle (Yogācāra was not mentioned in this text).

Madhyamaka holds that all physical and mental phenomena are non-existent, empty and illusory like a dream. From the standpoint of absolute truth, all phenomena are without self, empty and luminous; but in relative truth, one should still be mindful of afflictions and exercise discretion in one’s conduct. The view of Madhyamaka is that afflictions can be transformed into the path of Dharma when bodhicitta and the view of emptiness are fully developed; otherwise, like the image of a snake, afflictions can still cause harm even if phenomena are immaterial and empty in nature.

In The Ornament of Clear Realization and the Prajnaparamita sutras, methods are often mentioned for transforming afflictions into the path. One of them is bodhicitta; for example, unwholesome deeds such as killing, stealing, sexual misconduct, and lying are no longer deemed unwholesome if committed out of bodhicitta. Another method is gaining realization of emptiness; with this wisdom as a basis, afflictions stop being afflictions and are turned into the path naturally. Thanks to bodhicitta and realization of emptiness, afflictions are made useful; otherwise, in trying to fight afflictions head on, one could come upon harm, even end up in the three lower realms.

View #3—Outer Tantra

The third person took a look and knew right away the object in the cistern was not a snake but a look-alike; he also knew that no harm would come to him even if he touched the snake-like object directly without anything to assist him. However, due to habitual tendency, the image of a snake still terrified him greatly. Thus, he could not bring himself to touch the cord but dared others to throw it away.

Note that these are examples from India. During the time of Sakyamuni Buddha, there were primeval forests everywhere in India and vipers abound. In the Vinaya texts, we often find cases of a venomous snake hurting or killing people, also records of a snake crawling out from underneath a bed or dropping from the ceiling. So the Indians at the time were very much scared of snakes. Nowadays, the forests around Rajagrha have all disappeared and the perception of a venomous snake is not so scary any more.

The example here represents the view of the Outer Tantra in Vajrayana.

The complete views and practices of the Outer Tantra are available in Tibetan Buddhism. I think some of the tantric teachings translated in the Tang Dynasty and that of Japan are part of the Outer Tantra, but I am not totally sure as I have not studied the Chinese tantric texts. Although the Outer Tantra is also Vajrayana, compared with the Inner Tantra, there are still quite some differences.

What is the view of the Outer Tantra? Firstly, in terms of realization of emptiness, the Outer Tantra and Madhyamaka are basically the same. Then, by practicing the generation stage (this is very different from the generation stage of the Inner Tantra) and reciting primarily the mantra of Vairocana, a practitioner can subsequently transform the ordinary body into the saṃbhogakāya body of the buddha. This is a rather distinctive view of the Outer Tantra. Even though practitioners of the Outer Tantra know ultimately this world will turn into the pure mandala of the buddha, they are unable to visualize this the way it is taught in the Inner Tantra. Nowadays, the yab-yum statues and some of the thangkas of wrathful deities that we see are only found in the Inner Tantra; they don’t appear in the genuine Outer Tantra.

We all know that the Buddha transmitted the Dharma to followers according to their capacity and guided them on the path step by step. The Outer Tantra, having also empowerment, the practice of generation stage and so forth, is part of Vajrayana, but it lacks the view of the Inner Tantra. Hence, practitioners can only visualize themselves as they are in the present world (though sometimes they also visualize themselves as buddha), then visualize the buddha and the yidam in front and recite mantras. The Outer Tantra offers many ways to recite mantras; it is of the view that one can attain buddhahood by way of mantra recitation.

When followers of the Outer Tantra practice in retreat, they are very particular about personal hygiene, keeping a vegetarian diet, and washing themselves three times a day; the focus is on one’s conduct, and they do very well in this respect, but less so in the practice. Actually, the more one is fixated on the particulars of behavior, the more likely problems in practice will surface. The higher the state one reaches in practice, the more likely some improprieties may appear in one’s conduct. Naturally, impropriety does not mean wrongdoings such as killing, stealing, lying and so on are casually tolerated. You can get a better understanding of this from the life stories of the eighty great siddhas of ancient India.

View #4—Inner Tantra

The fourth person came back, took a look and knew it was just a cord in the cistern, not a snake, although it looked like a snake. Nor did he think the snake-looking thing would hurt anyone. He then picked up the cord and said, “What is there to be scared of? Where is the snake? This is just a cord!”

This refers implicitly to the Inner Tantra excluding Dzogchen. From the standpoint of Dzogchen, there is still a small problem with his view. Although he knew it was only an image of a snake, he was still attached to the notion of a snake. He acted this way deliberately to show he was not afraid.

Special Features of the Inner Tantra

Note that, in the Inner Tantra, the practices of ngöndro (outer and inner preliminaries), the specific main practice, the six paramitas, etc. are no different from the other categories of tantra or even that of sutra. However, some uncommon practices and conduct of the Inner Tantra are unique.

Take the example of afflictions such as greed, anger, jealousy, arrogance, etc. The Lesser Vehicle considers these negative emotions to be real; hence, in order to obliterate them, one must be armed with substantial opponent powers, or one may sustain real harm, which is a frightening prospect. The Great Vehicle, having understood more deeply the truth behind afflictions, does not think afflictions, the so-called five poisons or three poisons, have real property. But even so, in the illusory world, one still cannot face the truth directly but must rely on other external conditions such as bodhicitta to transform afflictions into the path. The Outer Tantra holds that afflictions are neither real nor fundamentally impure; instead, the five poisons can be transformed into the five wisdoms of the buddha, given certain conditions; without the right conditions, one is still afraid to confront afflictions directly. It is only in the Inner Tantra that the practitioner finally attains a profound state of realization.

Today, the complete lineage of the Inner Tantra can only be found in Tibetan Buddhism. It prevailed in India up until some eight or nine hundred years ago; when the Tibetans went to India to learn Buddhadharma, it was already difficult to come upon traces of the lineage. In ancient India, practitioners of the Inner Tantra were very discreet, the reason being that India at the time was a very complex place with people holding myriad and opposing views everywhere, a condition ripe for intense argument to erupt easily. Even Sakyamuni Buddha checked his words carefully when propagating the Dharma.

When the Inner Tantra came to Tibet, there were very few religious sects around, only Buddhism and Bon. Those who practiced the Lesser Vehicle also practiced the Great Vehicle simultaneously, and the Great Vehicle practitioners also took up Vajrayana practice at the same time. This tradition is upheld even today in Tibet. Therefore, the Inner Tantra practice in Tibet is not as secretive as in ancient India but kept relatively open.

After many Buddhist temples were destroyed by Islam, not only tantra, which was not openly practiced in India, but also many lineages of the sutra tradition of Buddhism disappeared altogether as a result.

Nonetheless, Vajrayana was propagated in Tibet and the lineage of Tibetan Vajrayana kept intact and pure. As Vajrayana places great emphasis on pure lineage, requirement for oral transmission is absolute in order to stamp out false teachings. For the same reason, many strange terms are used deliberately in the Vajrayana texts so that only realized vajra masters can explain what they mean. Another feature of Tibetan Buddhism is to clarify questions through debate; any viewpoint, even just a sentence, can be traced back to its origin in these debates until finally it is proven the bona fide words of the Buddha. Thus, the doctrine of Tibetan Vajrayana is totally reliable.

It seems that the Inner Tantra is not found in the esoteric Buddhism of either Tang Dynasty or Japan but in Tibet only. So I think only authentic practitioners from Tibet really understand what the Inner Tantra is about; they are the real authority on this subject. Other than this group, no one else is qualified to define what Vajrayana is, no matter how grand a title one carries.

The view of the Inner Tantra is different from other schools. Simply speaking, in terms of the view on emptiness, all the schools from Prāsaṅgika-Madhyamaka up to the one below the Inner Tantra basically uphold the same idea, namely, to realize the truth of emptiness beyond all conceptual elaborations. But the Inner Tantra is notably different in one aspect: the sutra system holds as its supreme view that the appearance of all phenomena is exactly the same as we see it, that ordinary people take it for real while in fact it is spurious; the Inner Tantra views all phenomena as illusory not only in reality but even from the standpoint of appearance—the stars, mountains, and rivers are not what we perceive but are manifestations of the pure mandala of the buddhas.

Actually, the sutra system also acknowledges the tantric view, just that it was not emphasized by the Buddha in his teachings to people of lesser capacity. In some texts, sutra assents tacitly to this view, claiming that when bodhisattvas attain the eighth bhumi, three transformations or three pure states take place. One of the pure states is purity of the five sense organs. When the five sense organs are purified, we see all things, including this world we are living in, as sublime as the Western Pure Land of Amitabha or the Eastern Pure Land of the Medicine Buddha. The Buddha told us in fact this world has always been this way, and has never changed. Because ordinary people have afflictive and cognitive hindrances, the true reality of the world is thus obscured. Upon reaching the eighth bhumi and having the five sense organs purified, only then will we see reality as it is. So, what is that reality? It is the mandala of the buddha, says Vajrayana. The Buddha expounded this clearly in many sutras, such as in the teaching of the Vimalakīrti Sūtra on dependent arising.

The Inner Tantra accentuates at the outset that this very moment is already the buddha’s mandala, whereas the sutra system agrees tacitly that this will be the case when bodhisattvas reach the eighth bhumi, but it is not something that gets mentioned initially.

Of course, the mandala of the buddha also has different levels of significance. For instance, Sukhāvatī of Amitabha or the pure lands of the Five Buddhas, which manifest in forms and colors, are deemed at the lowest level. Normally, a buddha statue with head, face, hands, etc., representing the nirmāṇakāya of Sakyamuni Buddha, the sambhogakāya of Vajrasattva, or the dharmakāya of Samantabhadra, is a provisional buddha whose manifestation serves to guide certain sentient beings to the path of liberation. From the Vajrayana perspective, it is not the real buddha and the buddha’s mandala. However, compared to sutra, it is already a very definitive representation of the buddha and the mandala.

In this analogy, because the person did not take the cord for a real snake nor fear the image of a snake, he grabbed the cord deliberately and threw it out. Similarly, as practitioners of the Inner Tantra perceive all phenomena as immaculate and pure, they also consume the five meats and five nectars on purpose.

Under normal circumstances, the five meats and five nectars offered in certain practices are not for the public eye. Although these practitioners no longer differentiate between pure and impure in their minds, and are fully capable of receiving the five meats and five nectars, other people lacking the knowledge of their meaning may not accept, or worse, form the wrong view as a result. It is to protect the virtuous roots of other people that Vajrayana practitioners still follow the precepts of the Lesser Vehicle to regulate their own conduct in public or in general.

Why do practitioners of the Inner Tantra accept the five meats and five nectars? Like ordinary people who are scared of snake, they also have fear toward the five meats and five nectars due to the dualistic notion of something dirty or clean. But times have changed. For many, the five meats are no longer an issue, while the five nectars may still be rather difficult to accept. However, in Central India during the time of the Buddha, no one would ever eat any of the five meats, since they were considered dirty and vile. Unlike people today who dare to eat anything, even human flesh, we are at a loss for words to describe how utterly disgusted people were with the five meats in those days.

On the other hand, the state of a realized practitioner is completely different. Post meditation, in the mind of a genuinely realized practitioner, all phenomena are pure; there is no notion of things like the five meats and five nectars. Moreover, from the standpoint of realization of emptiness, all is illusory; nothing is real. In order to strengthen or deepen these two insights, the practitioner will accept the five meats and five nectars directly and thus come to a profound realization that all dualistic notions of “clean” and “dirty,” and the like are only one’s attachment. Actually, accepting the five meats and five nectars is not a common practice of the whole Inner Tantra, but only a special feature of Mahāyoga.

Common Questions on Tantric Practices

Some may ask why practitioners of the Inner Tantra need to accept the five meats and five nectars if they have already attained a high state of realization. The reason is because doing so can help them make even greater strides in the practice so that they are able to overwhelm discriminating thoughts swiftly.

It is like chöd, the kusali chöd practice in the preliminary that cuts through the ego. However, kusali chöd is not considered a standard chöd practice. The real chöd practice has its own complete set of initiation and sadhana; it is in essence a prajnaparamita practice, also a sublime practice on emptiness in the sutra system. But a few skillful methods offered in chöd differentiate it somewhat from the exoteric practice. For instance, after receiving empowerment, chöd practitioners go intentionally to the dreaded charnel grounds, no less than 108 such places, to actually train themselves. These charnel grounds are not just ordinary charnel grounds but the most terrifying ones that are frequented by ghosts and non-humans. After arrival, practitioners need to use their own power of meditation to infuriate these evil spirits. And they must refrain from using Guru Yoga or other such practices for assistance, since Guru Yoga can instantly quash any interference, e.g., the creation of terrifying scenes, from the evil spirits.

Why do they have to do this? The reason is that attachment to self is not easily detected even if it is like our own shadow. The moment a terrifying situation arises, however, it gets completely exposed: “Oh, this is it, I’m gonna die this time....” If we know how to handle the situation with wisdom, attachment to self can be eliminated right then.

Additionally, practitioners must also go to the mountains where ghosts and spirits reside—places that ordinary people dare not damage even a blade of grass. They purposely make a mess of the place, pollute the springs guarded by the dragons, or go to the dragons’ territory to annoy them; once the dragons are angered, the weather turns stormy within an hour with hail and torrential showers, thunder and lightning. Attachment to self also emerges suddenly; if meditation can be practiced at this point, it is very effective in cutting through the attachment.

Take another example. If one has a bad dream at night but does not know it is a dream, one will be as terrified by circumstances in the dream as by the same events in daytime; whereas if one knows one is dreaming, even jumping from the tenth floor of a building will not stir any fear. By the same token, genuine practitioners having attained realization of emptiness perceive no difference between things appearing in dreams and during the day. Aiming to quickly destroy attachment, they deliberately accept the five meats and five nectars which originally are regarded as defiled; it is not unlike jumping from the tenth floor of a building in the dream on purpose. Doing so lends particularly obvious effect on cutting through attachment and no harm to their practice either. From the standpoint of self-benefit, this is a very good practice. But from the summit of Dzogchen looking down, this is still an attachment: if all are illusions, why bother doing anything intentionally? No need. Nonetheless, compared to the exoteric practice, this is already much advanced.

Although it is mentioned in both Fundamental Verses on the Middle Way and Introduction to the Middle Way that ultimately we must cut through all attachment, there is no one effective way to do that except to practice step by step—this starts with the generation of renunciation and bodhicitta, then the practice of emptiness over a long period of time; ultimately the goal can be reached this way.

Unlike the sutra system, tantra offers a rich selection of skillful means that combine the doctrines of renunciation, bodhicitta and emptiness with the uncommon tantric practices to achieve results much faster than would otherwise.

Some may question if practitioners have eliminated all attachment, does it mean they are free to commit unwholesome deeds like killing, stealing, lying and sexual misconduct? Of course not. Vajrayana stresses that practitioners in their realized state do not have attachment to the discriminating notions such as sentient beings, killing lives, or good and evil, but other beings still harboring such attachment will be hurt by the unwholesome actions. So, a genuine practitioner can never behave this way, nor is it permitted in Vajrayana.

Beginners of Vajrayana need not and are, in fact, forbidden to accept the five meats and five nectars. There is an analogy in the Kalacakra Tantra: Some people can cure their illness and prolong life by taking a medicine called Nectar of Brahmā directly, while others are not allowed to drink it but can only carry the nectar in a gawu box around their neck because they will die if they drink the medicine. Similarly, some people may greatly benefit from undertaking the kind of tantric practices that accept the five meats and five nectars, but beginners who try to do the same will incur much harm with no progress to show for it. Therefore, these practices are off limits to them. If and when we reach a state of realization whereby we perceive all phenomena as a dream, with no attachment, we can then adopt the practices to speed up our progress. Of course, only Vajrayana offers such shortcuts; the other vehicles would find these practices unthinkable, let alone practice them.

How should beginners treat the five meats and five nectars? In Vajrayana, some nectar pills are made with more than a thousand kinds of herbal medicine. By adding a bit of the five meats and five nectars to the ingredients, these nectar pills are suitable for beginners. Naturally, if a beginner still finds such pills repulsive, he or she can refuse them as long as there is no outright rejection of or biased view against such practice, keeping in mind that the adverse reaction is only due to one’s own immature capacity and rather inferior state of practice.

It is clearly stated in the tantric texts that beginners should not do what the yogis do, that yogis not act like realized masters, and realized masters not behave like the Buddha. Beginners aiming to make progress should start by undertaking seriously the practices of contemplating the rare and precious human birth, impermanence of all phenomena, suffering of samsara, etc., and adhering to the precepts rigorously.

Then, how do we classify beginners? Simply speaking, if someone, after swallowing poison that can otherwise kill an ordinary person instantly, is able to easily transform that poison into something harmless with nothing but one’s own power of meditation practice, one is said to have graduated from the class of beginners. We can all measure our own state of practice against this criterion. If we fail to reach this level with our practice, we must be very vigilant with our actions.

Who can actually accept the five meats and five nectars? Those practitioners who are more than just beginners but have not quite reached the highest state in practice, that is, people at the upper middle level, are suitable candidates. According to Vajrayana, practitioners at this level can increase their power of practice with this method.

However, not knowing what Vajrayana is, some people misinterpret, even criticize vehemently, some of the tantric practices such as accepting the five meats and five nectars.

Another common question pertains to the meditation deity (yidam) in Vajrayana, which appears in either peaceful or wrathful form. People in general are receptive to the peaceful deities but presumptuously consider the wrathful deities non-Buddhist. The fact is there is no difference between the two in essence. It is like everyone is happy to worship a gold Buddha statue but feels disgusted with or terrified by the golden image of a demon. But both are made of gold, just in different forms. Likewise, the true nature of the peaceful and wrathful deities are the same—both are enlightened manifestations of tathāgatagarbha, only with different appearances.

The sutra system also acknowledges tathāgatagarbha is luminous and empty at once, but neglects to mention that it may have multiple manifestations. However, we learn from the tantric texts that tathāgatagarbha is the true nature of all phenomena; to ordinary people, it appears as the defiled world we are in; whereas to realized beings, the manifestation of tathāgatagarbha is the mandala of the buddhas—the world of peaceful and wrathful deities.

Why do the deities appear in peaceful and wrathful forms? It is for the liberation of special beings. Normally, bodhicitta is effective in subduing evil beings. When Sakyamuni Buddha attained enlightenment, he overwhelmed Mara’s troops with bodhicitta; but it is only when one has garnered the same kind of power as the Buddha that bodhicitta can function effectively in this kind of situation. Bodhicitta is not useful against powerful demons that are endowed with great blessings from a previous life. As demons are also subject to causality—some due to hatred, others the ripening of past evil aspirations that make them what they are now, which have little to do with renunciation and bodhicitta, only the appearance of wrathful deities can subdue them.

According to the authentic practice of the generation stage, if one intends to practice for ten days, the first seven or eight days should be reserved for the practice of peaceful deities; in the remaining two or three days, one must then change the practice of all the peaceful deities into the practice of wrathful deities. Some may even start with the practice of wrathful deities from the beginning because usually there are less obstacles with this practice, while more hindrances may appear in the practice of peaceful deities if one is not careful. Therefore, the practice of wrathful deities is a faster route to attaining accomplishment.

In terms of appearance, the wrathful deities look even more sinister than ordinary demons. People may easily mistake them for the deities of an evil cult if they do not know what the wrathful deities represent. For example, there is a blazing fire at the back of the wrathful deities and Dharma protectors, but white light at the back of the peaceful deities. Actually, fire here represents wisdom of the buddha—just like fire can burn down everything, so can wisdom cut through all afflictions. In addition, wrathful deities hold in their hands not bowls but human skulls, and the skulls contain not wholesome foods like fruit and grains but red blood. What does it mean? Blood represents desire, and desire is the main cause of ending up in the three lower realms. Drinking the blood represents eradicating completely the desire for samsara.

Those who have received empowerment can read up on the tantric texts to understand the inner meaning of tantric practices more comprehensively. It would be unwise to criticize or refute Vajrayana based on its outward representations simply due to one’s own ignorance. Tantric practices are supremely sublime; for a genuine practitioner, what these practices can achieve in terms of swiftly destroying attachment is quite obvious.

Problems at Hand

Although nowadays lay practitioners of Vajrayana Buddhism in China have strong faith in the Three Jewels and Vajrayana teachings, many of them are not capable of discerning the genuine Dharma and are thus often blinded by the self-proclaimed masters or so-called “living Buddha.” This causes many problems and brings much negative effect on Tibetan Buddhism and Vajrayana in general.

The source of the problem lies with these lay practitioners. First of all, Vajrayana requires a practitioner to examine a teacher for twelve years before becoming a disciple. But these practitioners have not complied with this. Secondly, Vajrayana reiterates once a teacher-disciple relationship is established and empowerment received subsequently, one can only choose to leave, never willfully vilify the Dharma teacher if the teacher is found not qualified later on. However, many people not only fail to comply with the first requirement but also violate the second. Such behavior has already deviated from the tantric standpoint; it can only cause damage to one’s practice and reflect badly on tantra.

These days we often see, either in books or on the internet, fake information made or collected by people bent on destroying Tibetan Buddhism. Some people who don’t understand or have a negative opinion about Vajrayana also try many ways to hurt or attack Tibetan Buddhism. In my opinion, these actions are all meaningless.

Firstly, in our society today, it is absolutely normal to see an individual act recklessly, which however is not indicative of the character of the group or the community that the individual is affiliated with. Besides, does it make sense to hold a religion accountable for the misconduct of a follower? Whether in Tibetan or Chinese Buddhism or other social groups, good and bad members always coexist. Can we portray Chinese Buddhism as a bad religion just because one monk does something wrong? A person’s wrongdoing is just a personal problem, not the problem of a certain school or Buddhism as a whole.

It is very natural for a person to reject or even oppose a view or practice that he or she does not understand. Historically, no new theory, religion or things in general at its inception can escape being questioned or ridiculed, including many scientific theories. For example, there are still ongoing debates on the theory of relativity; the Bohr-Einstein debates on quantum mechanics also progressed over a very long period of time before the theory was finally accepted.

Similarly, when Mahayana Buddhism first emerged, it was attacked by many scholars of the Lesser Vehicle for not being the genuine teachings of the Buddha but a doctrine created by Nāgārjuna; there were all kinds of accusations. Many followers of Southern Buddhism still maintain this view today. Should we think something is wrong with Mahayana because of these dissent? The same happened with Ch’an Buddhism when it first appeared in China; it was derided by all including the emperors and the scholars. But now, we all recognize what a great tradition it is as it has produced so many accomplished masters.

Vajrayana is no exception. For more than a thousand years, Tibetan Buddhism only flourished in the confines of the Tibetan region. Now it is spread far and wide in the world, but not without a cause. Unlike some other religions, we did not exert great effort to propagate Tibetan Buddhism; it just grew naturally to its current state over a relatively short period of time for no reason other than its inherent advantage. If not, would the science-oriented minds in the West so readily accept it?

Nowadays people often like to point out some senior monks or certain Dharma teachers disapprove of Vajrayana. I think their negative opinion is not the issue but whether their disapproval makes sense. It is ridiculous to condemn a religious tradition just because someone is against it.

I once read a Chinese book titled Temptations under the Bodhi Tree, possibly written by a non-Buddhist. The book describes the scandalous behavior of fake monks and nuns in China, and the impropriety of some monastics, but I have never considered it a reflection on Chinese Buddhism or the Chinese sangha as a whole. The contents of the book may not be all true, and at best only reveal the misconduct of a few monks or fake monks; they have nothing to do with Buddhism in China. I think people who attack Buddhism employ a line of reasoning which runs counter to true logic. Therefore, we must treat all Buddhist traditions with the right attitude.

Although I have not gained realization, I do have some knowledge about Vajrayana. In my opinion, some people basically do not understand the real meaning of Vajrayana nor try to learn more about it, but set out to slander or refute Vajrayana whenever the male-female tantric practice or five meats and five nectars are mentioned; they easily run the risk of creating negative karma of denouncing Buddhadharma with such behavior. If they equate the tantric practice of male-female union with sexual intercourse and criticize carelessly, it shows just how ignorant they are about its true meaning. This is a pity. As for those people who do not believe in karma, there is nothing we can do regardless of what they say; but if they are Buddhists who sincerely believe in karma, we would advise against slandering Vajrayana at will. If you are not interested, you don’t need to learn Vajrayana, but never make defamatory remarks about it, as speaking ill words is the cause for committing serious oral karma and there is no way to avoid the resulting bitter fruit in future life.

In Vajrayana, the practice of partaking of the five meats and five nectars is not supposed to be talked about openly; much emphasis is paid on following the proper steps. However, in the hands of a few irresponsible people, this practice has already fallen into complete disarray. You may find on the internet today all kinds of descriptions of the practice that are quite ugly.

I have even heard some so-called tantric practitioners lie to have sex, claiming “if you do the union of male-female practice with me, you will achieve enlightenment.” Please note that if you run into this situation in the future, you must know the person who makes such a claim and the claim itself are both questionable. This is certainly not tantric practice; it is conducting an evil action in the name of Vajrayana. Vajrayana also points out if unwholesome deeds are committed in its name, they are considered more serious than the five hellish deeds. It is very important that we understand this clearly and correctly, and never blindly trust such people and such words.

View #5—Dzogchen

Despite the various views from the family members, the most senior person of the family thought if the object was just something that looked like a snake, why would it be necessary to pull out the cord to show that it was not a snake and that one was not afraid of it? It’s a laughable gesture, totally unnecessary.

This represents the view of Dzogchen. Dzogchen does not entail visualization, specific mantra recitation, the practice of wind and channels, or the five meats and five nectars. In Dzogchen realization, there is nothing to be practiced; the notion of whether or not to undertake practice or gain realization is nothing but attachment. Just ignore.

Note that in tantra, there are two kinds of practice, the body and the mind. The two are closely related—if one focuses on the practice of the body, it can put mind under control, elevate and purify the mind so as to reach enlightenment; if one overlooks the practice of the body, such as the practice of wind and channels (tsa-rlung), but emphasizes the practice of the mind instead, vajra body is equally attainable. The two achieve the same goal with different means. Mind can be explained on many levels. Here, it is used in a general sense, but not from the psychological perspective. In Buddhism, mind has two aspects, wisdom and consciousness; the two are entirely separate. Dzogchen practices only wisdom; consciousness is to be ignored. However, the sutra system never refers to these practices in its teachings, nor to the practice of attaining vajra body, focusing simply on realizing emptiness. This is an inadequacy of both the Tibetan and the Chinese sutra tradition.

This inadequacy has to do with the capacity of the practitioners of sutra. Only suited for the exoteric practice, they may be reluctant to accept the more advanced practices which in turn cannot benefit them either. Therefore, the Buddha taught in accordance with people’s innate ability, giving different levels of teaching to people of different capacity.

Why does Dzogchen not employ the generation stage, primarily visualization, or the completion stage with marks such as tsa-rlung practice? To someone who has actually attained realization of Dzogchen, these are all superfluous, all fabrications that serve to distract mind from its core essence, which are useful only indirectly. This is why other schools need to use many circuitous methods to practice. Dzogchen on the other hand has a knack for direct approach—having grasped the true nature, the essence of mind, i.e., tathāgatagarbha, discriminating thoughts can be eradicated completely. This method of directly pointing out the nature of mind (also the method of Ch’an Buddhism) is the Dzogchen way. Therefore, the authentic Dzogchen practice does not emphasize the generation stage and the completion stage with marks. However, the completion stage has two categories, with marks and without marks. Dzogchen belongs to the latter.

Dzogchen practice is really quite simple. Because it is the practice for the sharp-minded, some parts are a bit similar to the Ch’an practice. But the difference between the two is that one still needs to be trained in some specific practices before attaining realization of Dzogchen; once realization is attained, many practices then become unnecessary.

Practicing Dzogchen can help practitioners not only attain results in generation stage and completion stage but can also go further beyond. But if it is taught prematurely, practitioners can be sidetracked from the main path. Just like Ch’an Buddhism often advises to “let go of attachment,” so subsequently followers stop all the virtuous activities such as life release or recitation of scriptures, thinking all such undertakings are attachment of sorts. Many problems arise because of this. Therefore, there is no hurry to discuss the specifics of Dzogchen right now; especially when not even the preliminaries have been completed satisfactorily, what good is it to delve into the more advanced subject?

If you want to learn Vajrayana later on, you must choose the authentic Vajrayana which can only be found in Tibetan Buddhism. In Tibet, many practitioners from the older generation whose lives were spent entirely on the study and practice of Vajrayana are the real lineage holders. If they don’t know what Vajrayana is, no one does in this world. When there is a chance in the future, those who have received proper empowerment must try to learn some of the classics of tantra, such as The Seven Treasures by the omniscient Longchenpa and Essence of Clear Light (commentary on the Guhyagarbha Tantra) by Ju Mipham Rinpoche, to name a few. Those without prior empowerment should peruse these texts only after receiving the proper initiation. However, before attending the empowerment ceremony, one must be well informed about empowerment and the vajra master; this information is available in The Words of My Perfect Teacher and the discourses in this book.