Accessing Vajrayana

At the Buddhist Geeks conference last weekend we had an unplugged Vajrayana get-together.  ‘Unplugged’ is the BGeeks’ term for participant convened breakout sessions. Conference goers suggest themes they’d like to discuss and spend the afternoons in small groups mulling over those topics. It’s a great idea. Some of the most memorable moments of the two conferences I attended were from unplugged conversations.

The unplugged Vajrayana attendees were remarkably varied. There were several long-termers, people who had studied and practiced for between ten and twenty years in depth in one tradition with one primary teacher. They included students of Lama Tharchin Rinpoche, Reggie Ray, Sogyal Rinpoche and Ngak’chang Rinpoche and Khandro Déchen.1 Some had taken vows of samaya2 about as hard-core Vajrayana as you can get. There were also some self-declared newbies, with little or no experience but lots of interest. And there were some in the middle, who had spent some years practicing in one lineage – Shambhala, for example – or were checking out different teachers.

Likewise, the collective experience in the group ranged from about as negative as you can get (leaving after the first hour of a day-long event) to the other extreme (more than a decade of joy, fun, personal transformation, lifelong friendships and support). The range of experiences between those polarities included confusion when faced with the variety and complexity of practices, lack of explanations, feeling ‘fine with the weirdness,’ a desire for more overt contractual agreements with students, and awe at the presence of the Lama. Probably there was much more, but those are the points that I remember.

Despite the differences among us, there was a consensus that Vajrayana is increasingly inaccessible, and I want to focus on this here. There were other points raised, but how to increase accessibility was the most interesting unanswered question for me.

Everyone agreed that the transition from ‘interested in Vajrayana but not practicing’ to ‘regularly practicing with support’ is difficult, but different participants framed the problem differently. Here are the various takes. I am reporting a variety of views and ideas: they weren’t all shared by everyone present.3 Also, you’ll see there’s an emphasis on teachers. That’s because, in Vajrayana, the personal relationship with the teacher is very important:

There aren’t enough enlightened teachers

It takes many years of deep practice to achieve realization (that is, “become enlightened,” the fruit of practice). The current generation of enlightened masters is dying, but there isn’t a new generation that has practiced in so much depth, with as much success. “We need more enlightened lamas of all kinds. For this, supporting yogis in retreat is critical.”  (Being a yogi of anti-social inclination, I think this is a marvelous idea.) Few veritable masters of Vajrayana remain. Therefore geographical accessibility and spending time with a teacher are increasingly difficult.

Finding the ‘right’ teacher is hard

Ideally the connection with a Vajrayana teacher is personal. To guide a student individually a teacher would have to get to know them. It’s hard to find a teacher who resonates personally these days, because teachers have a large body of students. Finding a heartfelt connection with a teacher is rare and takes a lot of work. Sometimes students take Samaya (Buddhist Tantric vows) without really knowing their teacher. But if you don’t want to do that, gaining personal access to the teacher might take a long time and be short and superficial, when available.

Expectations on the part of the sangha/teacher are unclear and unrealistic

Some groups expect you to just get on with a practice without explanation of how it works, how to do it, or what it’s for. Some of the practices are highly complex, but not well explained. One person was asked to make a commitment, but was told she would only know what to expect later.

The relationship between teacher and student, including what a student should expect of a teacher, is not always clearly explained.

Traditional forms of practice are outdated

It’s difficult to sort out what is ‘essential’ from ‘cultural’. What some traditions consider essential appear cultural to others. How do you know the difference? We agreed that there would never be consensus on an ‘essence.’ It’s my view that the dichotomy between essence and culture is misleading, and that a more useful approach is to understand the way a practice works, and its function. Taking this approach could give Vajrayana more flexibility in presentation. If you understand how a practice works from experience, you can see different cultural forms that practice might take.

That’s my synopsis of our discussion of why accessibility is problematic. We didn’t have time to go much further than this. My memory of this part of the conversation might be different to others’. If you were there and are reading this, please do add anything you think I’ve missed out. Unfortunately I had another appointment after the group and had to rush off. I’d hoped to collect some names and contact details.

Of course, each concept has its own solutions: train more lamas, prioritize time for personal contact with teachers in their schedules, give clear verbal and written explanations for each meditation, explain the principles of practice, and so on. These are random examples - I’m sure you could come up with many more, based on the problems presented here. I’m not suggesting that solutions will be easy, either. Some of these could involve years of planning and implementation.

This seems like a conversation that could grow into multiple exploratory routes. I’m sure its already familiar to different Vajrayana communities. One thing seems clear: if we don’t make ourselves more available, Vajrayana could disintegrate into a few pockets of exclusive, inaccessible cliques. What needs to change?

Questions to readers:

Do you agree, or am I unneccesarily alarmist?

Have you personally found Vajrayana Buddhism accessible or not?

How could we be more accessible?

Postscript: I’m aware that I’m delving into the subject here without explaining some background and terminology. Sorry about that. I’ll get around to it, but I wanted to post this while the conversation is still fresh in my mind. If something could be made clearer, please ask.

  1. 1.That would be me and my partner. I’ve been practicing in the Aro Lineage, a Tibetan Nyingma tradition, since about 1995. I’ll scrap this note and get around to writing a bio for the site Real Soon Now.
  2. 2.Samaya are the Buddhist Tantric vows.
  3. 3.I’ve kept the language style and terminology used by the participants. I find language use interesting, particularly connected to systems, results of practice, and accessibility. I might write a separate post on this topic.