by Thekchok Dorje
If you don’t want to be caught by many sectarian traps in Tibetan Buddhism please utilize your intelligence! This is the most profound advice given many times around the world by His Holiness Dalai Lama. In other words – be smart!
Buddhism is 2500 years old and Tibetan tradition more 1100 years old. This is large and complex religion with many philosophical schools, traditions, branches, variations and sects. To be able to avoid sectarianism one need to learn how to find true Dharma. This is not easy, many of sectarian teachings are taught for centuries.
Below is my attempt to explain a little about this topic in simple words. I will also try to address some other difficult topics related. Hope it will be useful especially for new Dharma practitioners.
1. Major Buddhist traditions (=yanas =vehicles):
Classification according to Tibetans is:
Hinayana does not exist anymore on the Earth.
Theravada tradition is much more than Hinayana and should not be identified as such.
Mahayana divides into two sections: Mahayana of sutras and Mahayana of tantras (Vajrayana).
Zen tradition is much more than Mahayana of sutras, but roots are there.
Dzogchen is Vajrayana too, as lower of 9 Dzogchen sub-yanas are in fact tantras.
There is strong tendency in Tibetan schools to glorify Vajrayana and discredit “lower” (as they say) yanas, by pointing out that only Vajrayana can bring you to full Buddhahood in one life time. They call Mahayana and Theravada lower methods and say it’s for people with lower capacities. This is wrong thinking and very sectarian. Do you guys honestly think that senior monk of Theravada – who memorized whole Pali Canon of sutras and can give full explanation from his memory – has less capacity than Vajrayana practitioner who can barely chant one rosary of mantra daily? Yes methods are different for different kind of people, but none is superior – this is wrong way of thinking.
All Buddhist traditions were taught by Buddha Shakyamuni and all leads to enlightenment.
Actually there is less known concept of Ekayana (one vehicle) which says all traditions are in fact one path which leads to full enlightenment.
Also according to tantric vows (samaya) Vajrayana practitioners should respect all teachings of Buddha with the same regard.
Warning signal – if teacher or fellow practitioners are saying their Yana or Dharma is better, superior or higher than others – this is a warning of sectarian manipulation.
2. Schools of Tibetan Buddhism
There are many. In general we distinguish 5 major schools – they contain many branches and sub-traditions:
- Nyingmapa (called also old school),
All schools of Tibetan Buddhism have their roots in ancient Indian University of Nalanda. Therefore as often spoken by Dalai Lama – Tibetan Buddhism is in fact – Nalanda Buddhism tradition. Some schools were enriched later by teachings of many great masters – therefore differences.
– Bon is spiritual non Buddhist tradition of Tibet highly influenced by Dzogchen teachings.
HH Dalai Lama says this about Bon: „Bon is Tibet’s oldest spiritual tradition and, as the indigenous source of Tibetan culture, played a significant role in shaping Tibet’s unique identity. Consequently, I have often stressed the importance of preserving this tradition.”
Warning signal – if teacher or fellow practitioners are saying their tradition or Dharma is better, superior or higher than others – this is a warning red alert of sectarian manipulation.
3. The highest Dharma systems according to Vajrayana:
- Madhyamika – middle way – means of Dharma studies to achieve highest realization via knowledge, study, contemplation and meditation,
- Mahamudra – great seal – gradual path through meditative experience,
- Dzogchen – great perfection – immediate path through direct meditative experience,
All systems bring the same result but from different angle. Achieving one brings realizations of all of them at the same time (quote from 3rd Karmapa’s Prayer of Mahamudra) – therefore there is no better or worst system.
Warning signal – if teacher or fellow practitioners are saying their system or method is better, superior or higher than others – this is a warning red alert of sectarian manipulation.
4. “Don’t mix”
This is spoken very often to new Dharma practitioners by fellow practitioners, who believe mixing teaching of one tradition with other traditions can harm beginners in this way that they cannot comprehend and can get crazy, or offend Dharmapalas (powerful spirits – protectors of Buddhism).
Well, but we are smart people… We came to Buddhism because we seek knowledge and enlightenment. Most of us finished at least secondary school, with more difficult subject than differences between Tibetan traditions or deities.
Just learn from different teachers – there is no danger really! Be smart! Dharmapalas will be happy if you get wiser!
At very advanced level of meditation techniques yogis/yoginis often choose one path or tradition, but this is due to simple practical reason – there is no time to practice something else, there is a lot to do anyway on one path.
Warning signal – if you hear “don’t mix” traditions – this is a warning red alert of sectarian manipulation.
Bodhichitta or „enlightenment-mind” is the mind that strives toward awakening and compassion for the benefit of all sentient beings.
This is one the most important teachings of Buddha. The most important for all traditions actually. Theravada too trains to develop compassion. But of course major focus is in Mahayana (including Vajrayana).
There is no Vajrayana without Bodhichitta! Whoever tells you otherwise is manipulating you.
Techniques of tantra are adopted for purpose of faster realization of soteriological goal of Bodhisattva. No other way around. There is relative and absolute Bodhichitta, second one are teachings about Sunyata. As 3rd Karmapa wrote – “In expressions of loving kindness, the truth of its essential emptiness is nakedly clear. This unity is the supreme unerring path”. Therefore emptiness of absolute Bodhichitta does not justify lack of compassion on relative level.
Warning signal – if you hear that Vajrayana or Dzogchen is above Mahayana or that compassion is for sentimental people – this is red alert of sectarian manipulation.
This can be one separate topic on the issue.
Who can be Guru?
Classification based on seniority:
- Fully ordinate monk,
- Senior monk/nun,
- Senior yogi practitioner,
Classification based on studies:
- Acharya – Master of philosophy in Buddhist studies,
- Geshe/Khenpo – PhD in Buddhist higher studies,
Classification based on level of spiritual realization:
- Lama (teacher) – usually person with great meditational experience,
- Tulku – person to be recognized as reincarnated master – who was Guru in previous life,
- Rinpoche – title given to some Lamas, Geshes, Khenpos or Tulkus when they achieve high level of realization (Please note – some tulkus are called Rinpoche out of respect despite their level of realization).
How to recognize authentic Guru:
Buddha advice how to recognize a good Dharma teacher – Udayi Sutta: About Udayin
Qualities of a Mahayana Guru:
One versus many:
There is no rule that you need to follow only one Guru, on the contrary you can learn from many Gurus, and after sometimes if you wish to choose one and follow him/her closely – choose one who was the most kind for you (generosity of Dharma) and treat all others with respect and gratitude.
Warning signal – typical red alerts:
“Don’t follow other teachers, only me”
Asking for money for personal use,
asking for money for supporting his/her activities,
I don’t have to mention obvious like criminal activities, sexual abuse etc.
In all traditions of Buddhism lineage is essential. This way we are certain that transmission of original Buddha teachings are passed in unbroken lineage until today. Therefore always ask teachers or Guru about his lineage and how it connects to Buddha. In general most of lineages will be well known and have large number of representatives so you can easily check. Be cautious about Gurus who claim they have direct visions or teachings from Buddha. This may be true on occasion (for example Tibetan termas) but often can be false. Gurus who actually have direct transmitions and visions are either Tertons (one of former 25 disciples of Padmasambhava) or they achieved high level of spiritual realization through their previous effort, therefore it’s easy to check who they study with before and what they achieved.
Warning signal – if you hear that teacher had visions from Buddha or deities, but it rather ordinary person without curriculum of previous effort and Buddhist education in sutras and tantras – this is red alert of sectarian manipulation. The same goes for Gurus who claim they don’t need lineage or their lineage in new.
As HH Dalai Lama often says, Buddhists should have smart devotion, based on observation and experimentation. He goes even further by saying “spy on your Guru”. Only if you are 100% sure he keeps conduct, right ethics and his/her teachings changed your mind – only then give rise to devotion. Any other kind of devotion is like standing on thin ice, simple step can crack it.
Devotion towards Buddha, Yidams, Dakinis, and Dharmapalas should be based on understanding that they represent enlightenment qualities of our own mind.
Warning signal – if you hear that you should have faith and no need to study, develop compassion or meditate – this kind of Buddhism becomes just simple deity worshipping and this is red alert of sectarian manipulation.
The samaya (Tib: damtsig) is a set of vows or precepts given to initiates of an esoteric Vajrayana Buddhist order as part of the abhiṣeka (empowerment or initiation) ceremony that creates a bond between the guru and disciple.
Samaya vows are very important, to keep them correctly is a path itself. Every empowerment have samaya, whenever they are explained in details or not. Please always ask teacher about samaya connected with specific empowerment and ask for details if necessary. Make notes on samaya and remember them every day and try to keep pure.
There are two behaviours which one can meet from teacher in regards of samaya:
- teacher may not want to explain samaya before empowerment and after surprise student with sudden commitment,
- teacher can give too many samaya especially in regards of daily practice or mantra repetition, so that one will have to commit certain amount of time every day to fulfil these commitments.
I wouldn’t say these are signals of sectarian manipulation but something to consider and be cautious about. Keeping many samayas may become difficult if you are lay practitioner and need to work or help family.
Warning signal – if teacher is giving you samaya to do which are against Bodhichitta vows this is red alert of sectarian manipulation. Samaya should enrich your love, compassion and wisdom, not go against them.
Dharma or teachings of Buddha are very profound. However Dharma cannot be understood without teacher. So there is a dilemma – whom to trust more? Our own intuition and understanding or trust teacher who explains Dharma?
His Holiness Dalai Lama says that these days it is rather difficult to find pure authentic spiritual teacher therefore he says trust more written Dharma – scriptures – sutra, tantra and commentaries. On the other hand he also says, that Buddhist logic and practice is based on concept that Dharma scriptures are unmistaken. He suggests personal investigation, and through experimentation to find out whenever Dharma scriptures are correct. This is pretty much scientific approach.
Warning signal – Guru’s teachings must be based on written Dharma (with exception of personal meditative experience). Always ask for source of teachings, which sutra/tantra or commentary. If Guru cannot point the exact source but still claims this is Buddha teachings – this is red alert of sectarian manipulation.
11. Sangha and „Dharma police“:
Sangha or gathering of practitioner is wide term and is both used to describe Arya Sangha – precious beings like great Bodhisattwas etc. as well as just gathering or practitioners monastic, yogic and lay.
There is common misunderstand in regards of treating monastic as Sangha, but yogic or lay not. Well actually this is Theravada view. From Vajrayana point of view Yogi and lay practitioners are sangha too, and often keeps samaya vows which are the same noble as monastic.
“Dharma police” is term used to describe senior practitioners who have an urge to control whenever you fulfil your commitments or not. Checking your samaya and your ethics. Please don’t let them! This is none of their business. How you keep samaya and what you do is a matter of your own mind and eventually your Guru. Nobody else have right to ask you about that.
Warning signal – if you feel your fellow practitioners are taking too much interest in what you are doing or not doing, and try to influence this or control – this is red alert of sectarian manipulation.
12. Degeneration age and dooms day:
Yes we are living in degeneration age (sometimes called Kali-Yuga) which has significant impact on our emotions and perception, however we should not blame cosmos for our wrong doings. Samsara is suffering no matter what Yuga or age is. We can achieve enlightenment in whatever Yuga, it doesn’t matter.
Some teachers in the west love to overuse information about Kali-Yuga making from it something similar to biblical apocalypse or any other dooms day – because it’s catchy and westerners loves this idea. In fact we don’t know if we will be breathing in next 10 minutes, worrying about dooms day makes no sense at all.
In fact in some sutras Buddha explained that if someone develops true compassion during degeneration age, their accumulated merit is million times bigger than doing the same during different age (source required).
So real practitioners see degeneration age as opportunity, not disaster. Please remember this!
Warning signal – if teacher or group talks about degeneration age too extensive, like they would like to put people in depression – this is red alert of sectarian manipulation.
13. Tibetan people:
Tibetan people are indeed very nice, ages of Buddhist tradition is in their blood. However they are still people with emotions and karma. Yes there are holy Tibetans but there are also murderers and criminals among them – like in every other nation.
Also not all Tibetans practice Dharma, not all Tibetans have any knowledge about Dharma too. Just be wise, not naïve.
No warning signal
14. Tibetan cause:
Since we praise Dalai Lama we are a little bit involved in Tibetan cause, whenever it is about independence of the country or human rights. However being involved in Tibetan cause should not generate hatred or anger towards Chinese people. And it is abuse to call all Chinese people responsible for Tibet sufferings. This is misunderstanding and very harmful for our Chinese brother and sisters.
No warning signal
15. Monastic charities:
When we offer our money to western charities we are checking very well organization and cause, aren’t we? We won’t give $1 without making sure it’s for legitimate cause. Why wouldn’t we do it in case of Buddhist monastic charities? Somebody wearing robes doesn’t make that person honest and good. Charities should be visible and have their financials or annual report of activities published or available to be investigated if requested. Honestly friends don’t be naïve.
No warning signal
16. Dharma business:
We are often milk cows for all Dharma related businesses including teachings itself. There is this wrong understanding about westerners – that we need to pay to appreciate something. That is so wrong. Based on that wrong understanding we are milked since 1970ties founding private fortunes in India and other countries. I’m not talking about golden roofs of monasteries. I’m talking about families of teachers living like millionaires. In Asia Buddhist events are often sponsored, people give money to allow others to come to the teachings for free. That’d be great if we could promote this in the west too.
Warning signal – if your teacher or group is asking too much money for teachings or events – without good justification – this is red alert of sectarian manipulation.
17. Dangerous sects:
Yes – they are there – there are dangerous Tibetan Buddhist sects – therefore please remember about this guide and check. Be smart!
I will not name and shame any group here, but if you search for dangerous Tibetan Buddhist sects and teachers you will get enough information.
Author: Thekchok Dorje; European Dharma student and Vajrayana Rime practitioner since 1993
Special thanks to Thekchok Dorje, who’s running the Facebook page „Mahakala“ where you find the original source. With his consent this text is available here too and in future also translated in German.