Evolving Ground and the Aro gTér. What's the difference?

Before founding Evolving Ground, I was ordained for nearly two decades. I practiced in the Aro gTér tradition, attending full-time retreats every year since 1996, sometimes for weeks, sometimes months. In 2006 I created the Aro gTér mentoring system and began mentoring students in the program myself. Although I am no longer involved, the Aro lineage deeply shaped my understanding.

It’s natural, then, that I am often asked how Evolving Ground differs.

What’s the same? What’s different?

Both the Aro gTér and Evolving Ground are led by Westerners, and provide communities for learning Vajrayana Buddhism in a contemporary Western context. As further similarities, both aim for simplicity, clarity, and depth in explanations and in practices. Both emphasize the Dzogchen branch of Vajrayana.

The primary difference is that the Aro gTér is much more traditional than Evolving Ground in its outward form.

Non-traditional doesn’t imply weak sauce

Westernized versions of Buddhism are often dumbed-down, unchallenging, and replace Buddhist views and practices with functionally dissimilar elements taken from Western ideologies. Neither Evolving Ground nor the Aro gTér does that.

Both Evolving Ground and the Aro gTér teach straight-up Vajrayana views and methods. Both provide challenging practices, immersive involvement, and far-reaching transformation, for those ready for them.

The Aro gTér offers an almost completely traditional Tibetan style of practice.

Evolving Ground omits nearly all Tibetan cultural elements. That’s not because I don’t like them—I do!—but because they pose an unnecessary obstacle for many people from other cultures.

Evolving Ground offers equivalents to a full range of traditional Vajrayana practices, reinvented for the contemporary context. They are the same as the originals in their principles and functions. They are no less challenging, immersive, and transformative, if you engage in them whole-heartedly. Their contemporary cultural form and delivery makes them more approachable, and more meaningful, for some.

Evolving Ground does not teach anything that is unique to the Aro gTér. Our views and practices draw on those of the broader Nyingma yogic branch of Tibetan Buddhism, within which the Aro gTér is one system among many.

Differing models for learning relationships

A traditional Tibetan model of lama-student relationships is at the heart of the Aro gTér. The student’s devotion to the lama (teacher) is the primary mode of learning and of practice. The relationship with the teacher is the path. The Aro gTér has a set structure for how that should work, within which varying details depend on a student’s interests and the personality and specialisms of the teacher.

Evolving Ground offers a wide variety of learning relationships. For many students, supportive discussions with peers in the community is primary. Some learn from extensive reading of diverse authors—solo, or in our regular book groups. Some attend retreats with teachers from other traditions.

Some students work intensively with Evolving Ground teachers and mentors. In small groups and one-on-one, we provide diverse learning relationship structures for different students, according to their particular needs.

For those who wish it, I have developed a learning relationship form that offers some of the non-ordinary benefits of the committed, traditional Tibetan model, minus some of its potential drawbacks. You can read about that in “The learning relationship in contemporary Vajrayana” and “How to learn Buddhist tantra.” In the final part of Evolving Ground’s foundational series with The Stoa, I discuss the learning relationship with my spouse David Chapman and my co-counder Jared Janes.

Belief, doubt, and disagreement

The Aro gTér teaches and practices a magical world view, in which rebirth and non-ordinary beings play central roles.

Evolving Ground takes no position on metaphysical questions. Some students hold a magical world view; some are scientific materialists or philosophical naturalists; some simply don’t care about any of that.

Evolving Ground encourages personal autonomy, expressing doubt, disagreement, and curious skepticism. The Aro gTér does not.

All of these affect group atmosphere. Aro gTér gatherings are convivial, cordial, occasions, orchestrated by, and oriented towards, communication with the Lama. The normative demeanor is one of humility and respect. Evolving Ground gatherings are lively, immersive explorations. Our normative style of interaction encourages questioning views and self-authorship in path-finding.

No expectation of exclusivity

The Aro gTér welcomes newcomers, but it exists to transmit a single, highly specific traditional system. It expects that, after a period of investigation, students will either commit themselves exclusively to that system, or will look elsewhere.

Evolving Ground offers a supportive, gradual, and self-authored exploration for anyone curious about Vajrayana and how it relates to other traditions and paths, within and outside traditional Buddhism. Many have multiple teachers and practices. Some may choose to practice primarily the specific adaptation of Vajrayana which I develop together with close students, but that is not required or expected.

If you do eventually choose one system as your primary practice, comparing it with others can deepen your understanding of it. The Evolving Ground community will provide informed, cheerful support for your explorations.

Try both and see what you like

Seen from afar, Evolving Ground and the Aro gTér may seem quite similar. Their core content is similar, and the differences may not seem dramatic from reading their web sites.

Perhaps both appear attractive, so you aren’t sure which would be a better fit for you. It’s good to do some preliminary investigation before making a choice. Fortunately, both are open to your checking them out, without obligation. Up close, you will find them extremely different in feel. Chances are, one or the other will be much more to your taste.

Both organizations offer frequent programs open to the public, both in person and in online video groups. You will get the clearest sense if you attend in-person gatherings, or better yet practice retreats, in each. Virtual video meetings are the next best thing. In both cases, some meetings, both virtual and in person, are offered for free.