Here, I focus on three aspects of this gap. How do we regard the sacred? What is the place of practice in our lives? How do we live our practice? My intention is doing so is to lay out enough of a map that you don’t fall into the gap.
Most of us grew up in a culture steeped in two of the Abrahamic traditions, Judaism and Christianity. These traditions define our culture, including the foundations of our political and legal systems. The collection of religions that belong to the Abrahamic tradition evolved out of a religion that originally inspired a semi-nomadic desert tribe in the Middle East struggling to survive famine, floods, wars and enslavement. By contrast, the collection of religions that belong to the Buddhist tradition evolved out of the experience of a single renunciate, the heir to a small kingdom in Northern India who abandoned a life in society and sought a way to be at peace in the face of the challenges every individual faces—old age, illness and death.
Another way to look at this difference is to consider three questions that any spiritual tradition must answer:
- How do I relate to the sacred?
- How does the sacred take expression in life?
- How do I live in a way that embraces the sacred?
The Abrahamic traditions regard the sacred as something that is other, not human. How do I relate to it? The answer is “Obey,” as we can see from the accounts of Adam and Eve, Abraham and Isaac, to Jesus, Paul, and on to the Koran and the writings of Mohammed. Because the answer is to obey, a lot of attention and energy goes into the interpretation of the law, that is, exactly what constitutes obeying.
The second question is about the way the sacred takes expression in our lives. Christ’s life, for instance, is an account of what happens when the sacred takes expression in the world. It is killed, or, more accurately, the person is killed. Because God is regarded as other, those who experience God in themselves are generally regarded with suspicion and in more than a few instances died at the hands of the society in which they lived. In other words, if the sacred is present and active in you, it is not safe to live in conventional society. Thus, the answer here is “Outside of conventional society.”
This tension between the sacred and society leads to the third question, “How do I live in a way that embraces the sacred?” In the Abrahamic traditions, the answer to this question has often been, “We have to create a new society, one which embraces the sacred.” Such societies are necessarily theocracies. The priests hold the power. Historically, they have been authoritarian, if not totalitarian, and we see these tendencies today in the more fundamentalist branches of the Abrahamic traditions on both the right and the left of the political spectrum.
In Tibetan Vajrayana we find quite different answers to these three questions because the sacred is not regarded as other. It is regarded, for lack of a better term, as our own nature, as what we are. Our experience of being that is distorted and obscured by biological, emotional and cultural conditioning (what is traditionally referred to as karma). Thus, the answer to the first question “How do I relate to the sacred?” is “Recognize it as your own nature.” For the second question, “How does the sacred take expression in my life?” the Vajrayana answer is “Nothing else matters.” In other words, your life is oriented around what you are. The conventions of society have to be taken into account, of course, but the center of your life is about being what you are, a non-conceptual knowing that is not based in the conventional. Finally, for the third question “How do I live in a way that embraces the sacred?” the answer is “I trust it, and let it unfold.” You do not try to create a new society. Instead, you have complete confidence that your nature is such that whatever arises in your experience will release itself, just as clouds appear and disappear in the sky.
Those of you who are familiar with Vajrayana, particularly the Nyingma tradition of Dzogchen, may recognize that these answers are exactly Garab Dorje’s Three Lines that Hit the Nail on the Head. They are usually translated something like:
Recognize your own true nature.
Choose the state of presence. (or Be absolute about one point.)
Continue in the state with confidence in liberation.
However, I recently tried to work out a rendering that conveys the energy and directness of the Tibetan:
There! This is what you are.
There! Nothing else matters.
There! Just go—it unfolds.
Some may argue that my comparison is unfair, as it compares the exoteric schools of the Abrahamic tradition with an esoteric school (Tibetan Vajrayana) belonging to the Buddhist tradition. My reason for making this particular comparison is that it reflects the gap most of us have had to negotiate. We started from our conventional lives, not from prior mystical training. The way we think and reason is based on exoteric spirituality, or on its secular expression. Yet we are drawn to or are already engaged in the highly esoteric practices of Vajrayana. Granted, in the mystical schools of the Abrahamic traditions, we find more common ground, but the sense of the sacred as other is still prevalent and what we call our own nature in Buddhism is usually regarded as a gift from God.
If you try to practice Vajrayana with the view that the sacred is something other, you will resist or deny the validity of experiences in which there is no other. If you try to practice Vajrayana using methods intended to disrupt reactive patterns, yet your try to hold onto your relationship with conventional society, you will at best dance around the edges and at worst end up in serious trouble. As the energy developed in practice disrupts the reactive patterns with which you relate to life, if you are not clear about what is important to you, your health and sanity will be threatened. If you try to practice Vajrayana to make a better conventional society or to make your own life better, you are not trusting the natural clarity of your own mind.