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.

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