Monday, March 23, 2015

The command transmission and an introduction to protectors

In the command transmission, the guru or teacher commands one of the protectors or one of the protector's attendants to take care of the student. 

What is a protector? How do they function? I'll write more about protectors and protector practice the future, but for today, it's sufficient to say that protectors are representations of how the direct awareness that is our human heritage acts in our lives to create conditions conducive to practice and to clear away conditions that undermine practice. 

That sounds beneficial, right? We have a big powerful force on our side. Beneficial perhaps, but not necessarily benign. 

In today's world, almost everyone, students and teachers alike, relate to practice in terms of the horizontal dimension, that is, of how practice can improve our lives or resolve psychological or social issues. For example, I recently received an email asking if I wanted a review copy of a book by a couple of well known Buddhist teachers. The email described the book as "an eye-opening book that addresses the problem of how to become rich and powerful while doing good." This is straight materialism. It's not even spiritual materialism.

The horizontal dimension focuses on our lives in society, our relationships with others and our identity and sense of who we are in the world. In my own training however, practice was always about the vertical dimension, understanding what we are (which means going beyond our identity in society) and experiencing life directly or, at least to the extent possible, free from the distortions of conditioning (karma), habituation (samsara) and conceptual knowing.

The work of protectors is to bring this vertical dimension into our lives. As expressions of the non-conceptual knowing that cuts through culture and conditioning, they are not particularly gentle. First your phone rings. If you don't answer the call, there is a knock on your door. If you don't open it and start your journey, the door is broken open. If you still don't go, your home is destroyed. And so it proceeds. Your life is steadily taken apart until you start relating to the direct awareness that has been calling you. This is but one way the protectors create conditions conducive to practice and clear away conditions that undermine practice.
In his introduction in The Great Path of Awakening, Jamgön Kongtrul says that Mind Training in Seven Points "contains limitless instructions that stand firmly in the sutra tradition yet have some connection with the tantra tradition." A good example is Tokmé Zongpo's enigmatic prayer:
If it is better for me to be ill,
Give me the energy to be ill.
If it is better for me to recover,
Give me the energy to recover.
If it is better for me to die,
Give me the energy to die.

This prayer is clearly is not about how to make your life better. It is about how to be in your life completely and how to receive and be with whatever life brings you. In this way, it definitely has a vajrayana or tantric flavor. 

Dogen, the founder of the Soto Zen tradition, points to something similar when he writes:
To study the Buddha Way is to study the self. To study the self is to forget the self. To forget the self is to be actualized by myriad things. When actualized by myriad things, your body and mind as well as the bodies and minds of others drop away. No trace of enlightenment remains, and this no-trace continues endlessly.

This is the vertical dimension. It is at right angles to any effort to improve your life or become a better or happier person. 

To return to the command transmission, when the teacher commands the protector or an attendant to look after you, your teacher is introducing you to the vertical dimension. In receiving that transmission, you are taking on the spirit of Tokmé Zongpo's prayer: put me in touch with whatever will bring me into the direct experience of life itself, free from culture and conditioning. 
Such an intention, of course, means that you are prepared to face the deepest and darkest areas within you, those patterns and beliefs that developed in the course of your life to insulate you from the shocks and terrors you could not face at that time. You are prepared to question and see through the fundamental beliefs from which the fabric of society is woven. You are prepared, or at least willing, to step beyond the only kind of knowing that you know into a mystery that you can experience directly but never put into words. 
Thus, when you consider practicing vajrayana, do so not because you think it will bring you understanding and capabilities that will make you or your life better, but because it is a calling, a calling that you must answer -- whatever it brings you, wherever it takes you.

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Transmission in Vajrayana, reading of texts

Empowerment, initiation, transmission. Initially intended as methods to prepare students for various practices and teachings, they are often used nowadays to deny students access to those same practices and teachings. In the next few newsletters, I want to throw a little light on this topic by describing the forms of transmission in the Tibetan vajrayana tradition, their origins (as much as we can determine) and what they might look like in today’s world.

In Tibetan vajrayana, there are five levels of transmission: command (བཀའ), spoken transmission (ལུང), permission (རྗེས་གནང་), energy wave (བྱིན་བརླབས་), and great initiation (དབང་ཆེན་). In addition, in connection with most deity practices, transmission has three components: empowerment (དབང་), spoken transmission (ལུང) and instruction (ཁྲིད་).

I’ll discuss all of these in the next few newsletters. This week I’m going to start with spoken transmission (ལུང) . The word for spoken transmission is lung (pronounced to rhyme with hoong, not hung). It is the word for prana, energy, specifically the energy associated with the breath. The student, sitting in the presence of the teacher reading the text, receives the energy of the teacher’s attention while he or she read the book.

In India when vajrayana was evolving, a book consisted of a stack of dried palm leaves on which the text was hand-written. The Indians did not have a durable medium (such as paper), nor a method of mass production (such as a printing press or a wood-blocks) until much later. Consequently, books were rare and precious items, carefully handed down from a teacher to his or her principal student. They were fragile and most of the time simply disintegrated after a few generations. The lack of durable materials was one reason that Indian Buddhism never developed the same cohesion and standardization of texts and curricula that developed in Tibet and China where paper and wood-block printing made mass dissemination possible.

To transmit the contents of a text to students, the teacher read the text while they listened. This is the origin of the spoken transmission. The teacher might comment on the book as he or she read it. For the student, this might well be the one and only time that he or she would hear the whole book. Obviously, rapid and accurate memorization was a highly valued talent. Ananda, for instance, had a “phonographic” memory. He was regularly consulted to repeat what Buddha Shakyamuni had said on various topics. Most sutras start with the phrase “Thus have I heard. Once the Buddha was…”, a literary conceit that ostensibly certified that the sutra originated with Ananda speaking from his memory.

The tantras (texts that contained vajrayana teachings) were often written in coded language, their contents arranged discontinuously with unrelated material intentionally inserted. These steps were taken to prevent those who had not received the transmission from being able to read the texts or understand them as they were intended. This practice of making texts difficult to read or understand continued into the Tibetan tradition. For instance, in the poem I just translated in A Trackless Path, Jigmé Lingpa says, “In this age of strife, these vital instructions for the great mysteries/Are mingled with the authoritative writings  of the analytic approach.” 

The spoken transmission took on even greater significance in the vajrayana context. During the spoken transmission, the student learned how to understand the coded language, the correct sequence in which to read the book and what material was extraneous. Thus, the spoken transmission of a text served two purposes. It provided an energetic transmission of the meaning of the text and it provided a precise and correct understanding of the text itself. 

In Tibet, with paper and wood-block printing, copies of books were available to virtually every student who needed one. In addition, spoken transmissions for the large number of texts preserved in the various Tibetan traditions resulted in the texts being read so quickly that no one could even follow what was being read, let alone absorb the meaning. More and more emphasis was placed on the energetic aspect of the transmission. Increasingly, a kind of mythology developed that you couldn’t study or benefit from a text without such a transmission. Yet the sheer mass of texts involved reminds one of McLuhan’s principal that every new development creates its own negation. If your attention wandered during the hours and hours of high speed reading, did you still receive the spoken transmission? What if you had to leave for a few minutes?

In today’s world, when it comes to spoken transmission, many more questions arise. Is an audio or a video recording of a spoken transmission a spoken transmission? Is it possible to give a spoken transmission over the phone? What about streaming audio or video? When a text is translated from one language to another, what happens to the spoken transmission?

These are questions that only the authorities can answer. In the meantime, new possibilities are opening up every day. With the wealth of material available in digital and electronic form, with communication by telephone, recording and video, there are any number of ways we may hear the words of a text. Many teachers post their recorded teachings online where they are listened to by thousands of people whom they have never met and many among those thousands of people benefit from listening to those recordings. Clearly something is happening and, from all indications, something very good is happening. 

What counts is the understanding that arises in your own experience. The most important question is: how do you find the courage, confidence and resilience to engage the challenges you will inevitably encounter in spiritual practice? Spoken transmission may play a role here, but that is for you to decide.