The learning relationship in contemporary Vajrayana

Coauthored by Charlie Awbery (aka Rin’dzin Pamo, author of this site) and David Chapman and cross-posted to our sites Vajrayana Now and Vividness.

We wrote this page to support Guru vs. the Learning Relationship, the seventh and final discussion in Evolving Ground’s foundational series with the Stoa.

Vajrayana is attractive as an approach to Buddhism that affirms the value of everyday life, and aims to enjoy and enhance the real world, rather than to reject and escape it.

However, Vajrayana is said to be the most advanced and difficult of all Buddhist approaches, and entirely impossible without extensive instruction from a lama. “Lama” is the Tibetan translation of “guru,” and gurus have a bad reputation in the West now—often deservedly so.

The need for personal instruction in Vajrayana is, in our experience, not just institutional gate-keeping, but a practical, functional requirement. It’s tempting to think you can do it yourself, but you can’t. At any rate, we couldn’t, and we are unusually good at taking the initiative and figuring things out on our own. We don’t know anyone else who has succeeded solo either.

A relationship with a lama/guru seems necessary, but it is unacceptable for most people now. This has been the greatest obstacle to the development of a form of Vajrayana suitable for contemporary people, culture, and society.

This page is about a new framing of that problem, and a new conception of Vajrayana learning relationships, which offers a way forward. We’ll start with a discussion of learning relationships in mainstream modern Buddhism, and then in traditional Vajrayana, before describing the new model.

Learning relationships in Consensus Buddhism

By “Consensus Buddhism,” we mean the sorts most commonly available in the West. It could also be called “mainstream modern Buddhism,” and is what most Westerners think of as “Buddhism” unless they’ve done quite a bit of reading. In fact, it’s a mixture of elements from several Asian Buddhist traditions, mashed up with bits of Western philosophy and psychology. Although there’s some Vajrayana influence, Consensus Buddhism rejects most Vajrayana specifics.

Consensus Buddhism has three conceptions of learning relationships: egalitarian peer groups; teachers as dispensers of information and generic advice; and “the traditional guru model.” Each is inadequate for contemporary Vajrayana’s transformative potential.

Peer group learning is simple and needs no justification. It is a significant upgrade compared to learning on your own from books and experimentation. It sounds very nice and unthreatening, so it’s the most many people want, and most Consensus Buddhist organizations offer opportunities for it.

Peer group relationships are rarely adequate, on their own, for mastering difficult material. You can’t learn synthetic chemistry by sitting together in a circle and sharing your feelings about chemicals. That doesn’t work for Vajrayana either.

The “traditional guru model” is conceived as the opposite of peer group learning, with a single, special person given absolute arbitrary authority.1 That is easy to understand, and appeals to many people who do not want to take responsibility for themselves. Some dangers and defects of this model are now generally understood. Consensus Buddhism defined itself, from the beginning, largely as a rejection of traditional models of religious authority.

Nevertheless, in Consensus Buddhism, it’s understood—tacitly or explicitly—that neither an egalitarian nor authoritarian model will work. For decades, this has been an unresolved contradiction, prompting endless circular online debates and agonized essays in the pages of Consensus Buddhist magazines. On the whole, it is assumed that if these are the extreme ends of a spectrum of power dynamics, the right answer must be a point somewhere in between—as egalitarian as possible, though!

In practice, Consensus Buddhist groups do have structured, unequal roles, with teachers distinguished from students. The typical model is a mixture of classroom teacher, therapist, and Protestant pastor.2 The job is to explain doctrines and meditation methods, to clarify the meanings of texts, to give emotional support and practical life-advice, and to instill generic moral instructions.

Since most students are rightly wary of the guru model, most contemporary Buddhist teachers rigorously avoid any such appearance. They display elaborate false modesty, pay frequent obeisance to egalitarian ideals, and minimize their exercise of authority. This charade may limit their effectiveness, impeding students’ learning. Eventually, most serious students (and teachers) become frustrated with such weak sauce. Nevertheless, it may be adequate for the slow, moderate aims of Consensus Buddhism.

Learning relationships in traditional Vajrayana

Vajrayana, by contrast, aims for rapid, radical transformation: in perception, emotion, relationship, activity, understanding, and identity. It offers numerous definite methods for accomplishing that. However, they seem to be inadequate, or at any rate wearisomely gradual, on their own. Tradition holds that sudden transformation is possible, but only when the lama potentiates the methods with magical means.

There seems to be surprising metaphorical truth to this. For Vajrayana, the primary function of the lama in the learning relationship is to “give transmission.” That somehow conveys enduring, transformative, non-ordinary insight. The lama’s job is not to teach in the Western sense—not to give information or technical instruction—nor to act as a therapist or pastor.

What actually occurs is somewhat mysterious, or at any rate difficult to understand conceptually. Traditional explanations operate at the level of myth and magic. Those can be inspiring, but are neither clarifying nor literally believable.

How transmission works differs in different branches of Vajrayana; particularly, in Tantra versus Dzogchen.

In Buddhist Tantra, transmission occurs in the context of specific rituals. To receive non-ordinary transmission, the student must be in a non-ordinary mind state, which the ritual aims to produce. Shamanic methods induce hypnotic flow. Theatrical trickery encourages the student to see the lama as a special being with magical powers.3 Personal charisma, and role-playing interactional dominance and submission dynamics, prepare the student to accept transformation.

In favor of this approach, it can be highly effective, and it does not require much from the student besides willingness to submit and go with the flow. That doesn’t guarantee transmission will occur, but there’s a reasonable probability of it, if the lama and students are willing. The student can be passive and thick as a brick, yet still experience transmission if the lama cranks the power up to eleven. Even if not, the ritual may function as a joyful and involving community celebration.

The obvious risk is that students and lamas may extend the power dynamic outside the ritual context, where it may become unnecessarily constraining, sometimes abusive, unless both are quite careful.

The student’s “do me!” attitude may also leave them unable to find the non-ordinary state without the presence of the lama, and unable to apply non-ordinary insight outside the ritual context.

Having experienced transmission, the student should engage diligently in the Tantric methods, potentiated by that experience. Reasonably rapidly, the methods may re-produce the same non-ordinary state; allow additional insight; and enable transformational everyday-life application. But, not without considerable hard work! Lazy students would rather keep going back for another hit of the lama’s ritual power, and this may become a disempowering, addictive cycle.

We said that transformational transmission is likely if a student and lama are willing. In fact, many people find Tibetan rituals flat and dull. That may be because the student is not actually up for transformation, and is only there out of idle curiosity or something. It may be because the lama is incompetent. It may be because the lama doesn’t want transformation to occur, and deliberately avoids it by keeping the energy level low and making the ritual long and boring.

The relevant ritual is called wang in Tibetan, which literally means “empowerment.” Mostly lamas don’t want to empower most students. Charitably, they may believe students aren’t ready. Realistically, they may also want to hold their power close. This is very traditional. Tibet was a caste-based society, and Vajrayana was mainly reserved for the aristocratic upper castes, because it produces mundane personal power as well as spiritual transformation. Accordingly, wang is typically nerfed. It is used as a fund-raising event, and as ceremonial affirmation of the secular power of the theocracy, and is engineered to not empower participants in any practical sense.

Although we respect all branches of Vajrayana, we emphasize the style of Dzogchen over Tantra. Dzogchen is attractive as a clear, simple, sane approach based on discovering the non-ordinary nature of “ordinary” mind. That contrasts with Tantra’s baroque rituals, shocking imagery, and reliance on gods, demons, and miracles. We love those, but they are off-putting for most people, and not necessary.

From the Dzogchen point of view, Tantric empowerment is crude and artificial. The Tantric lama uses brute force and a fixed set of cheap tricks to blast through the student’s avidya—their stubborn “non-seeing” or “unenlightenment.” That may be enormously valuable, and necessary at first, to give the student an initial taste of the electric, sacred, vajra world. It is limited because it can’t communicate any specifics about that world, or how to work with it. It’s just shoving you into it, BLAM.

Dzogchen has a different model of transmission.

Non-ordinary awareness is undifferentiated, impersonal, and fills the entirety of spacetime. Non-ordinary awareness is also kaleidoscopically varying, intensely personal, and purely situational. These are the same, and also different.

Accordingly, Dzogchen transmission communicates the unchanging-ness of being by pointing to its manifestation in a fleeting moment. (Charlie explains what that is like in a Do Explain podcast with Christofer Lövgren.) The Dzogchen teacher can rely on no method for pointing it out, because no two moments are the same. The Dzogchen student can look for no particular sign that transmission is intended, but is open to the possibility of transmission in every interaction.

That requires looking past the apparent mundanity of the moment—and of the teacher. Every form of Vajrayana seeks to see all situations as sacred. Whereas Tantra imposes special, divine vision using technical apparatus, Dzogchen recommends that you just be that by dropping the pretense that anything is ordinary. There is nothing to do, other than be here now, interacting with the teacher in whatever way the situation naturally calls for. This is the essential nature of the learning relationship in Dzogchen.

Learning relationships in Evolving Ground

Every learning relationship is nested within a social and cultural context. We cannot, and should not want to, emulate details of those of premodern Buddhism. What contemporary social arrangement would support the essential aspects of the Dzogchen learning relationship?

Evolving Ground is an answer to that question. Evolving Ground is an organization co-founded by Charlie Awbery (one of the authors of this page) with Jared Janes. It combines common contemporary modes of learning with an innovative framing of the essential Dzogchen learning relationship. In the first category, it includes peer learning groups in a supportive community, classroom-style interactive teaching, and practice labs that explore and trouble-shoot particular Vajrayana practices.

In Evolving Ground, transmission occurs primarily in what it terms a “coaching” relationship. This is dissimilar to all of the models typically considered in Western Buddhism (egalitarian, classroom teacher, therapist, pastor, and guru).

This model separates the irreplaceable functional role of the lama from the culturally-specific social role, and dispenses with the latter.

The term “coaching” is not traditional in Buddhism, but it does significantly resemble the traditional Dzogchen learning relationship:

These parallels are quite striking. However, the theoretical presentation in this write-up is a conceptual analysis of what arose spontaneously from relational practice. Charlie’s familiarity with traditional forms was influential. Evolving Ground’s learning relationships emerged naturally from the experience of working intensively with many students. Drawing on this experience, Charlie and Jared developed multiple forms of learning relationship over the first few years in Evolving Ground.

  1. 1.We put “the traditional guru model” in scare quotes because there is no single such model. “The guru model” as popularly understood in the West derives mainly from Hindu Advaita gurus of the 1970s. It is pretty different from the several models practiced in Tibetan Buddhism. We don’t advocate any of these, but it is sometimes important to recognize that they are not all the same.
  2. 2.The analogy with Protestant pastors is interestingly exact. Protestantism is theoretically based on a radically egalitarian rejection of priesthood. It’s supposed to be a do-it-yourself religion. Since that doesn’t actually work, Protestant institutions designate religious professionals who perform most of the functions of priests, but insist that they are not priests, just regular folks.
  3. 3.In terms of a Christian distinction, Tantric lamas are priests, not mere pastors. Lamas’ primary function is non-ordinary, and they must be non-ordinary people. As priests, they have the power to preside over a miraculous ritual of transformation, in virtue of special metaphysical qualities derived from apostolic succession conferred by a ritual of ordination. Pastors just organize and inform a community.