Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Navigating The New Millenium by Bhikkhu Bodhi

Although our calculation of time's passage in years and centuries carries no more weight against the vastness of the cosmic process than a feather before a storm, still, being human, it is natural for us to nurture hope on reaching the threshold of a new millennium. Adherents of different religions also turn their thoughts toward the new millennium, and as Buddhists we might briefly ponder the question what the Dhamma can offer the world in the years ahead.
From one angle it could be said that what Buddhism can offer humankind today is exactly what it has been holding out for the past twenty-five centuries: an acute diagnosis of the human condition and a clear path to final liberation from suffering. But while this statement is correct as far as it goes, it is not yet sufficient; for it does not take account of the fact that in any age the aspects of the Dhamma to be emphasized, and the way they are to be expressed, must address the particular problems faced by the people living in that age. The Buddha's teaching acquires its incisive relevance, not merely by the cogency of its broad generalities, but by attuning its formulations to the precise problems that loom so large in the consciousness of the particular period in which it has taken root. Thus for the Dhamma to preserve its vitality and strength, it is not enough merely to repeat hallowed formulas inherited from the past, however true they might be in their own right. Rather, we must focus the lens of the Buddha's teaching on the deep problems faced by human beings today and determine how the teachings can help to resolve those problems as effectively as possible. If what the Buddha taught is "only suffering and the cessation of suffering," then the starting point for any convincing presentation of the way to suffering's end must be the specific forms of suffering characteristic of our time.
In the decades of the twentieth century, two manifestations of suffering have become so prevalent that they seem almost the defining characteristics of the modern era. One is an invidious sense of meaninglessness, a feeling of alienation from life, now becoming almost as common in the more modernized quarters of Asia as in the West. The other, most marked in the Third World, is collective violence. The first problem has its locus in the individual consciousness, the second in the relationships among communities at different levels of social order. If the Dhamma is to benefit humanity in the coming years and decades, it must show us a way out of the abyss of meaninglessness and offer guidelines for reducing the frequency and severity of collective violence.
The sense of meaninglessness as a widespread social phenomenon set in with the rise of modern industrial civilization. As each new breakthrough in natural science dealt a fresh blow to the organic Christian world view that had prevailed during the medieval period, human beings could no longer regard themselves as the pinnacle of creation, the beloved children of an all-loving Father who had created the universe expressly as the stage for our unfolding march toward salvation. Instead, under the influence of the mechanistic sciences, we came to see ourselves as chance products of purely natural causes, born and dying in a universe cold and indifferent to our hopes. Our existence was inexplicable in terms of any objective source of meaning. It did not embody any higher purpose than the brute struggle to survive and propagate our genes before death draws the curtain closed on all our restless strivings.
The loss of meaning was further aggravated by the breakup of traditional forms of social order under the impact of industrial capitalism. The rise of the city and the compulsive work routine of office and factory cut the bonds of social solidarity, so that each individual came to see himself or herself as an isolated entity pitted against others in stark competition for dominance. The individual ego thus became the ultimate center of experience and the sole determinant of value. But it was an isolated ego on whom the other-regarding virtues inculcated by religious ethics, such as generosity and self-sacrifice, no longer had any claims. Altruism and restraint were eclipsed by the new creed of self-indulgence, which gave precedence to wealth, power, and conspicuous consumption as the supreme goals of life.
As Western technology and its offshoot, the consumerist culture, spread to the far corners of the world, the breakdown of meaning and the sense of self-alienation became endemic to many lands, and today this sense of meaninglessness has reached a truly global scale. The culture of narcissism, which exalts the reckless quest for self-aggrandizement, has spread its tentacles everywhere, leaving behind the same debris: agitated minds and hollow lives. Bent on quick and easy gratification, we pass our lives perpetually shadowed by a fear that all our achievements are worthless, unable to deliver any deep and stable satisfaction. And when this fear reveals itself, the abyss opens up, the realization that we have wasted our lives in the pursuit of empty dreams. Thus the high incidence of mental illness, drug dependence, alcoholism, and suicide, particularly in the more affluent parts of the world.
It is a telling sign that despite the impressive achievements of science and technology, a culture built on mere mastery over external nature is far from successful in meeting the deep demands of the human spirit. For those adrift in the sea of meaninglessness, the Buddha's teaching offers a sense of meaning stemming from a profound spiritual tradition that combines metaphysical depth with psychological astuteness and the highest ethical standards. Without calling for blind faith in dogmatic creeds or speculative postulates, the Buddha points directly to the invariable universal laws that underlie happiness and suffering. He insists that we can discover these laws for ourselves, simply by clear reflection on our own immediate experience, and he offers us methods of practice by which we can gradually dig up the buried roots of suffering and cultivate the causes culminating in the highest happiness.
His appeal is to immediate experience. We can see for ourselves that suffering prevails in a mind driven by greed, hatred, and delusion, and that happiness grows when the mind is suffused by the virtues of generosity, kindness, and understanding. On the basis of this experimental test, which lies within the scope of any thinking person, we can extrapolate and see that for a mind fully liberated from all self-centered defilements and adorned with perfect detachment, love, and wisdom, happiness and peace will become boundless and irreversible. Thus by showing us the way to inner peace and happiness, the Dhamma offers us an outlet from the abyss of meaninglessness, a way to confer on our lives an exalted meaning and purpose.
The second type of suffering that has become so pervasive in our time is social violence, which still wreaks so much misery across the globe. To be sure, communal violence is by no means peculiar to our era nor a product of modern civilization, but has infected human relations from time immemorial. But what has become so disturbing in the present-day world is the eruption of violence between different ethnic communities that in the past had managed to coexist in a relatively stable degree of mutual acceptance. We have witnessed these outbreaks of enmity recently in the Balkans, Russia, Indonesia, Central Africa, northern India, and sadly in our own Sri Lanka. Violence manifests itself, moreover, not only in the conflicts that rage between groups of different ethnic stocks and communal loyalties, but also in economic oppression, in the widening gap between rich and the poor, in the gargantuan arms industries that thrive on violent conflict, in the sexual exploitation of women and children, in the drug trade, and also in the reckless devastation of the environment, by which we risk ripping away the life support systems that sustain our life on earth.
While Buddhism cannot pretend to offer a detailed solution to all the countless forms that violence takes in the present-day world, the values emphasized by the Dhamma show what is required to arrive at any lasting solution. What is necessary for true peace and harmony to prevail among human beings is not the hammering out of a comprehensive treaty by which the various parties to a conflict compromise their hard and volatile demands. What is truly required is a new mode of perception, the ascent to a universal consciousness that transcends the narrow standpoint of egocentric or ethnocentric self-interest. This is a consciousness that regards others as not essentially different from oneself, which detaches itself from the insistent voice of self-interest and rises up to a universal perspective from which the welfare of all appears as important as one's own good.
We can see the germ of this universal perspective in a principle that stands at the base of Buddhist ethics, even more fundamental to its ethical ideals than the Five Precepts or any other formal code of conduct. This is the principle of taking oneself as the criterion for determining how to treat others. When we apply this principle we can understand that just as we each wish to live happily and to be free from suffering, so all other beings wish to live happily and to be free from suffering; just as we are each averse to pain and hardship and want to live in peace, so all others are averse to pain and hardship and want to live in peace. When we have understood this common core of feeling that we share with all other beings, not as a mere idea but as a visceral experience born of deep reflection, we will treat others with the same kindness and care that we would wish them to treat us. And this must apply at a communal level just as much as in our personal relations. We must learn to see other communities as essentially similar to our own, and entitled to the same benefits as we wish for the group to which we belong. Even if we cannot reach any expansive feelings of love and compassion for others, we will at least realize that the moral imperative requires that we treat them with justice and kindness.
Thus the message of the Dhamma to human beings in the next millennium might be briefly summed up in these twin gifts. In the personal domain it gives us a precisely defined path that confers on life a deep sense of purpose, a purpose grounded in the cosmic order but which can be actualized in one's own immediate experience. In the communal dimension of human existence it holds out an ethical guideline to right action which, if diligently applied, can arouse a conscientious commitment to a life of nonviolence. Though it is far too much to expect that these two blessings will become the common heritage of all humanity, we can at least hope that enough people will accept them to make the twenty-first century a brighter and happier century than the one we are about to leave behind.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Free From Activity: A Teaching From Ajaan Mun

Activityless-ness is the end point of the world, beyond supposing and formulation.

saccanam caturo pada
khinasava jutimanto te loke parinibbuta
The four Noble Truths — suffering, its cause, its cessation, and the path to its cessation — are activities in that each truth has an aspect that has to be done: Suffering has to be understood, its cause abandoned, its cessation made clear, and the path to its cessation developed. All of these are aspects that have to be done — and if they have to be done, they must be activities. So we can conclude that all four truths are activities. This is in keeping with the first verse quoted above, which speaks of the four truths as feet, stair treads, or steps that must be taken for the task to be finished. What follows is thus termed activityless-ness — like writing the numerals 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 0, then erasing 1-9, leaving just 0, and not writing anything more. What is left is read as 'zero,' but it doesn't have any value at all. You can't use it to add, subtract, multiply, or divide with any other numerals, yet at the same time you can't say that it doesn't exist, for there it is: 0 (zero).
This is like the discernment that knows all around, because it destroys the activity of supposing. In other words, it erases supposing completely and doesn't become involved with or hold on to any supposings at all. With the words 'erasing' or 'destroying' the activity of supposing, the question arises, 'When supposing is entirely destroyed, where will we stay?' The answer is that we will stay in a place that isn't supposed: right there with activityless-ness.
This explanation is in line with the aspects of reality that appear clearly only to those who practice, and that people who don't practice can't know. Only when we listen and then practice accordingly until we see and know of our own accord will we be able to understand.
The meaning of the next verse is this: 'Those who have no more effluents extinguish the three realms and are dazzling.' In other words, they have practiced persistence and made an investigation 'bhavito bahulikato.' In other words, they have worked at it and developed it repeatedly to the point where the mind has the strength capable of analyzing and destroying all supposings so as to reach activityless-ness. They can thus gain release from the three realms.
In extinguishing the three realms, arahants don't fly up into the realms of sensuality, form, and formlessness. They stay right where they are. The same was true of the Buddha: When he extinguished the three realms, he was sitting in one spot, under the Bodhi tree. He didn't fly up into the three realms. He extinguished them at the mind — for right there in the mind is where the three realms exist.
Those who aim at extinguishing the three realms should thus extinguish them in their own hearts. Only then will they obliterate activity — the act of supposing — from the heart, leaving just activityless-ness. This is the primal heart, the primal Dhamma, which knows no death.

Monday, May 10, 2010

Jarāmaraṇasuttaṃ (The Discourse on Aging and Death)

This is my first attempt at translating a Pali sutta. My aim is to produce some translations here from the Pali with the guidance of Thanissaro Bhikkhu and Bhikkhu Bodhi's translations, which are according to the norms of english language prose as opposed to the difficult to read chanting format of the originals. I will not knowingly omit or re-interpret any content.

At Savatthi, King Pasenadi of Kosala said to the Bhagavan: "Bhante, is anyone who is born free from aging and death?"

"Great King, no one who is born is free from aging and death. Even those of the warrior caste, the brahmin caste, or affluent householders, wealthy in property and resources, because they are born are not free from aging and death. Even those bhikkhus who are arhats, whose effluents are destroyed, who have lived the holy life, done what had to be done, laid down the burden, reached the goal, utterly destroyed the bondage of becoming, and are freed through right knowledge: even for them this body is subject to disintegration and will need to be laid down.

"The beautiful chariots of kings wear out
this body too decays
but the Dhamma of the good does not decay
so the good proclaim along with the good."

SN 3:3

notes: Bhagavan has a range of meanings including: Divine One, Gracious One, Generous One, Blessed One, Source of Blessings. Sometimes translated as "Lord". Bhante is a term of respect. Sometimes translated as "venerable sir". It is still used to address monks in Sri Lanka.


Sāvatthinidānaṃ . Ekamantaṃ nisinno kho rājā pasenadi kosalo bhagavantaṃ etadavoca – ‘‘atthi nu kho, bhante, jātassa aññatra jarāmaraṇā’’ti? ‘‘Natthi kho, mahārāja, jātassa aññatra jarāmaraṇā. Yepi te, mahārāja, khattiyamahāsālā aḍḍhā mahaddhanā mahābhogā pahūtajātarūparajatā pahūtavittūpakaraṇā pahūtadhanadhaññā, tesampi jātānaṃ natthi aññatra jarāmaraṇā. Yepi te, mahārāja, brāhmaṇamahāsālā…pe… gahapatimahāsālā aḍḍhā mahaddhanā mahābhogā pahūtajātarūparajatā pahūtavittūpakaraṇā pahūtadhanadhaññā, tesampi jātānaṃ natthi aññatra jarāmaraṇā. Yepi te, mahārāja, bhikkhū arahanto khīṇāsavā vusitavanto katakaraṇīyā ohitabhārā anuppattasadatthā parikkhīṇabhavasaṃyojanā sammadaññāvimuttā, tesaṃ pāyaṃ kāyo bhedanadhammo nikkhepanadhammo’’ti. Idamavoca…pe…
‘‘Jīranti ve rājarathā sucittā,
Atho sarīrampi jaraṃ upeti;
Satañca dhammo na jaraṃ upeti,
Santo have sabbhi pavedayantī’’ti.

Thursday, May 6, 2010

Heart Sutra in Chinese, Sino-Japanese and English

Put together by Brad Warner, available here: http://homepage.mac.com/doubtboy/PrajnaParamita.pdf

On Brad, also see this interesting peice: http://approachingaro.org/brad-warner

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Komyozo-zanmai (Samadhi of The Treasury of Radiant Light) by Koun Ejo Zenji

Selections (from the book "Shikantaza"):
I have some earnest advice for those who sincerely aspire to practice. Do not be pulled by a particular state of mind or by an object. Do not rely upon the intellect or wisdom. Do not carry in your hands what you have learned in your seat in the sangha hall. Cast your body and mind into the great komyozo (treasury of radiant light) and never look back.
Neither seek to be enlightened or drive away delusion. Neither hate the arising of thoughts nor love thoughts and identify with them. Just sit stably and calmly. If you do not continue to think, thoughts will not arise by themselves. Just sit as if you were the boundless sky or a ball of fire. Trust everything to the inhalation and the exhalation. Even if 84,000 idle thoughts arise, each and every one may become the light of prajna (higher wisdom) if you do not pay them any attention and simply let them go.
To inhale or to exhale, to listen or to touch, being without thoughts and discrimination is nothing other than the tranquil illumination of the light in which body and mind are one. Therefore, when someone calls, you answer. This is the light in which ordinary people and sages, the deluded and the enlightened, are one.

The Thuksey Rinpoche I Will Always Remember by Kunzang Choden

Thuksey Rinpoche with his mother who is still living

22 April, 2010 - The day before Thuksey Rinpoche came to Thimphu to amputate his legs earlier this month, we had the good fortune to spend some precious time with him. He was critically ill and in great pain, but he received us with his characteristic grace and humility. The only difference this time was that, because he was too ill, he could not get out of bed and physically prevent us from prostrating to him. He was always uncomfortable when people prostrated to him.

Even in his brutally weakened physical state, Thuksey Rinpoche’s face lit up with that familiar shy, all-embracing smile that seemed to come from deep within him. For the next hour we were immersed in the tranquility of his calming presence and blessed by the sanctity of centuries of cumulative compassion of this spiritual son of Pema Lingpa.  

I first met Thuksey  Rinpoche in 1960, when he escaped from Tibet as a nine year-old and stayed with my family for awhile in Bumthang. Thuksey Rinpoche is a few years older than I am. At that time, even in the eyes of children his own age, he appeared shy, quiet and dignified. His monk-attendants kept him away from other children, so we watched him from a distance, with respect and guarded curiosity. Moreover, our curiosity and respect for this reincarnate child grew as we heard and repeated anecdotes about him. One story that made a lasting impression was about his miraculous footprint on a rock in Tibet. According to this story, some children in his village were playing a game of making footprints on a dry rock surface. They would dip their feet in water and make wet impressions on the rock. Little Thuksey Rinpoche joined the game – and without first dipping his foot in water, he made a clear, dented foot impression in the hard surface. For days after hearing this story, we all tried our own game of making foot impressions on rocks, but none of us had any miraculous power!   
Thuksey Rinpoche was not recognized by coincidence; he had to prove himself. Several other claimants said they were the reincarnation of the 9th Thuksey Rinpoche, who had been a Bhutanese. As a first test, all the claimants – all about 5 or 6 years old – were brought to the Lhalung monastery and let loose in the monastery’s compound. While the other children wandered off in different directions, Thuksey Rinpoche is said to have gone straight to the throne of the previous Rinpoche and sat on it. Many other signs favored recognizing him as well. 
Over the years, we would often play outside the house where he was staying when he visited us, hoping for a glimpse and an idea of how a small reincarnate lama would spend his days. But the house was always quiet, and the only evidence of his presence were some remarkable drawings he made that our parents sometimes showed us. As time passed, while we continued to enjoy play and fun -- our entitlements as children -- Thuksey Rinpoche was already taking on the responsibility of  the reincarnate lama; giving empowerments and blessings, performing rituals and traveling all over Bumthang, Zhemgang, Trongsa  and Lhuentse at the behest of his ever-increasing numbers of devotees. 
I can still picture the gentle Rinpoche during his travels: He carried a shoulder bag, his robes would be hitched up to mid-calf, and his feet would be muddied as he walked beside his handsomely caparisoned riding horse. Although riding horses were always provided to him, he always walked, reasoning that the poor animal should not have to suffer for his sake. Sometimes he simply said, “The horse can carry me now, but I will not be able to carry the horse.” As an adult Rinpoche chose not have any permanent attendants who accompanied him or effectively alienated him from his devotees. “Whoever comes and is willing to be with me, it is all right with me,” he would say. 
In fact, Thuksey Rinpoche’s basic philosophy of life seemed to be guided by the phrase, “It is all right.” Rinpoche accepted every kind of situation and ate everything offered to him. He made no demands on anybody. The only critique people had for Rinpoche was that he was too unassuming and too humble. But Thuksey Rinpoche was the epitome of compassionate humility.  
Later, as horse travel gave way to travel by vehicles, Thuksey Rinpoche could often be seen sitting sedately on the back of a power tiller, smiling to people on the roadside and passengers in cars that sped past his ride. It was “all right” with him to use any mode of travel to be with his devotees. Indeed, while his followers eventually included members of the Royal Family, and the powerful and the rich, many of his earliest and most loyal devotees were the humblest members of society. Thuksey Rinpoche was always accessible and available to all, treating everyone the same. In fact, he was actually a little constrained and often uncomfortable with “big” people, but always at ease with the common people. Once a powerful family in Thimphu needed his presence at a death ceremony, but Thuksey Rinpoche could not be contacted. After inquiries, they traced him to a village in Zhemgang. The search team found him sitting in a humble hut, performing prayers for a family there. He declined to come immediately to Thimphu because he had already committed his time to the family in the village.  
Thuksey Rinpoche’s followers grew steadily over the years, not because he changed to keep abreast with the changing times, but because he remained steadfast and faithful to all. In the last few days of his life, even as he lay physically helpless, he was deeply concerned that he could not meet with his devotees. His family and well-wishers restricted visitors because they were concerned that visitors were stressful to Rinpoche. However, his concern was, “They will be disappointed, and think that I am arrogant.” During one of this last dialysis sessions in the hospital in Bumthang, although Thuksey Rinpoche was barely able to sit up in bed, he joyfully blessed all who came to him.   
As diabetes, the disease that gradually but mercilessly ravaged his body, became more advanced, he often said, “I have this chi ni nad“ (“sugar disease”) and that he was dealing with his karma. Why does Thuksey Rinpoche have to suffer such pain? I wondered out loud during our last meeting. Immediately, he answered, “It is his karma,” without a trace of regret or self-pity and with a teasing, playful look on his face.  
At the same time, it was comforting to hear him say, “I need to change this body” – a prophetic statement of a true Bodhisattva, but with the ubiquitous humility of Thuksey Thegchog Tenpay Gyaltshen. As his followers know well, Thuksey Rinpoche would never articulate that he would be reincarnated. But from his simple statement about changing his body, he leaves us with the hope that his reincarnation will come soon.  
Contributed by Kunzang Choden, Tang, Bumthang in Kuensel News

Poem by Yichao

to Layman Red Pine
when your mind dwells nowhere
no corrupting thoughts arise
when you don't cling go the world
suffering and joy have no place to grow
every thought that you think
becomes the cause of life and death
understand impermanence
and find your ever-present body
- Yichao, attendant of Xuyun (the last great Chan master of 20th century China)
2006. quoted in Zen Baggage: A Pilgrimage to China. Bill Porter 2009 Counterpoint Press.

The Moon Viewing Party (Revised 2012)

I was recently at a Zen sesshin led by Norman Fischer in Bellingham where he gave a talk on the following koan. It reverberated in my mind afterwards and I wrote the following in the Greyhound station on the way home:

Here is the case as I remember it:

Mazu Daoyi, Baizhang Huihai, Xitang Zhizang, and Nanquan Puyuan went out to view the full moon.
“What should one do at a time like this?”, asked Mazu.
“It is a good time to cultivate practice”, said Baizhang.
“It is a good time to recite sutras [and make merit]”, said Zhizang.
Nanquan flapped his sleeves and left.
Mazu said:
Meditation returns to the ocean
Merit goes into the treasury
Only Nanquan goes completely beyond.

In Zen symbolism the full moon often represents the awakened mind: the Buddha nature which is luminous, free, and ever present beneath our ordinary grasping mind. The meaning of Mazu's question, in Chan code, is: “At a time when the Buddha mind is evident, what should one do?”

Baizhang answers: “A good time to cultivate practice.” It is a good time to refine our minds further, to remove subtle obstructions to the clarity of our awakening awareness.

Zhizang answers, “It is a good time to recite sutras [and make merit].” This is a more indirect approach to developing awakening. Zhizang believes that the awakening mind must unfold naturally and that the chief obstacles to such unfolding are karmic obscurations. Therefore when the awakened mind does manifest, there is nothing one can do to develop it. One should instead engage in meritorious activities which purify one's karma and the awakened mind will thus dawn naturally. Zhizang and Baizhang have diametrically opposed responses. Zhizhang suggests willful refinement of one's state of mind. Baizhang suggests making merit to remove the obscurations which prevent the awakened mind from unfolding naturally. And what of Nanquan's abrupt and cryptic response?

Nanquan shakes out his sleeves and departs. This symbolizes simply dropping the idea of doing anything in particular and moving on without attachment. Nanquan says, in effect, “Do not cultivate the mind or engage in purification. Simply let things be and continue, neither pursuing nor rejecting.” These three views are reflected in Mazu's poetic response to their answers:

“Meditation returns to the ocean” refers to Baizhang, and is a play on his Chinese name, which contains “ocean”. Meditation is helpful for Baizhang, but...
“Merit goes into the treasury” refers to Zhizong, whose name contains the word “treasury”. Reciting sutras is helpful to Zhizong, but...only Nanquan goes completely beyond. “Going completely beyond” is, of course, the purpose of Zen practice. The other answers are good, but it is Nanquan who embodies Zen.

What do we see through a Jewish lens? The full moon might be equated to the attainment of a direct experience of God. What should one do at such a time? Zhizang says: Deepen it. Refine it. Cleave to it in d'veykut.

Baizhang says: You yourself cannot bring on such an experience. Rather you merited it through your Torah and mitzvot. Increase your study, prayer, and good deeds. Through them you will draw the light of the sh`khina upon you and warrant perceptions of Godliness.

Both seem like good kosher advice, and wise too. What of Nanquan's advice? At first glance his answer doesn't seem to make much Jewish sense. You experience God's presence and you just drop it and move on? You're joking. Equanimity and non-attachment may be the ultimate goals of Buddhism but but they're not the ultimate goals of Judaism. One doesn't treat an experience of God as not better or no worse than any other experience and move on, prioritizing one's freedom of mind!

But perhaps we are reading Nanquan superficially. Does Nanquan really believe that an experience of the awakened mind is no better and no worse than any other state of consciousness? Or is it that he understands that clinging to the experience and trying to perpetuate it is in fact an obstacle to its realization? The awakened mind is not a simple “peak experience” or samadhi, it is the experience of radical clarity and non-attachment itself. Similarly the experience of God's presence is not any particular ecstacy or vision, although these may be included, rather it is a revelation of reality itself and of one's place in it- from a Jewish point of view a revelation of truth.

It seems to me there are two ways to understand Nanquan's approach. The first way to understand Nanquan is that his gesture communicates that any attempt to perpetuate the experience of the ultimate is in fact an obstacle. An obstacle to what? To serving God in the next moment.

Reb Nosson of Breslov points out that one must continuously renew one's service of God. In Devarim 6:6 it speaks of the mitzvot “that I command you today”. Similarly Rashi writes, on Devarim 27:9, that one's serving God should always be as though one were starting anew “today” (Likutey Halachot Tefillin 5:5). The Arizal taught that God does not just renew Creation every day, but every second, and that each second the universe is a completely different universe (The Seven Beggars, p. 12). Therefore one's service must be new every second. It was for this reason that King David was compared to the moon, which is always changing and ever renewed. Like the moon so is life. Thus the Jewish calendar is based on the moon to teach us that we muct constantly renew ourselves and our service of God (Ibid). The insights of the last moment are not the insights of this moment.

A second way to understand Nanquan's gesture is as communicating that when one experiences God, whether in Torah study, prayer, contemplation, in the face of another, or the unfolding of one's life- is that a place where “God is” and other places where “God is not?” Perhaps Nanquan's response is equivalent to a level of d'veykut where it is understood that every experience is God. Thus there is fundamentally nowhere to progress to. A dialogue I had with a (Jewish) Zen teacher comes to mind.

I commented to Peter Levitt, sensei of the Salt Spring Zen Circle, that a Sufi parable teaches that religions are like crafts which carry one to the other shore of a river. Some people disdain such crafts and sink in the water. Some love the crafts so much that they spend all their time maintaining them, repairing them, elaborating them, and forget about crossing the stream. Peter smiled and said, “How does the water cross?”

Water is of course already there. The water is the true basis of one's travel, and God is the true basis of all experience and all practice (or non-practice). God is already there.

So, is Nanquan right then and Baizhang and Zhizang wrong? Dogen Zenji, the great Japanese Soto Zen founder, comments on this case in the Eihei Koroku: “All of them together make a nice moon viewing party.”

Two Essays Posted on The Zen Site:

On the history of Zen in China:
: http://www.thezensite.com/ZenEssays/HistoricalZen/Keeping_It_Real.html
and the life of Hongzhi Zhengjue (including his "conflict" with Dahui):

Tibetan Sectarianism: Of Rivals and Ri-Me

The Rise and Fall of Tibetan Sectarianism

Although Tibet was briefly united under a monarchy in the 7th-8th centuries, for most of its history it has been more like a confederation of tribes under local chieftains. These chieftains, as chieftains will, battled each other for power and resources. This political structure was mirrored in the realm of Tibetan religion. For most of its history the schools of Tibetan Buddhism have battled each other for power and resources, sometimes masking these battles in arguments over legitimacy or doctrine but often times not. In the early 19th century an ecumenical, pluralist movement was born, chiefly under the leadership of Jamyang Khyentse Wangpo (1820-1892) and Jamgon Kongtrul the Great (1813-1899). This movement was not explicitly syncretic, but rather advocated simultaneously for the preservation of each of Tibet's distinct practice lineages and for their equal value. The masters of the Ri-me (Nonsectarian) movement, as it came to be called, traveled Tibet preserving as many teachings and texts as they could from destruction. Partially due to their efforts a greater amount of the Tibetan spiritual literature would ultimately survive the attempted Chinese Communist “reprogramming” of Tibet in the 20th century. In this essay I will examine the structure of sectarian rivalry in Tibet and the birth of the Ri-me movement. I will then discuss its continuing importance today, and the reasons for its apparent triumph as the official perspective of much of contemporary Tibetan Buddhism.

The Origins of Sectarianism (and its negation)

The Buddhism of India left a legacy to its inheritors of a rich feild of competing schools of thought. It also bequeathed philosophical justifications for a pluralistic attitude towards them. Indian Mahayana explained its own developments in doctrine and practice as successive “turnings of the wheel of the Dharma” by the Buddha- a progressive revelation of more and more complete teachings. Some streams of the Mahayana presented a particular doctrine as the highest, and some presented them all as equal parts of one teaching, dispensed by the Buddha according to the various sicknesses of sentient beings. This milieu, in which differing doctrinal standpoints both proliferated and competed on the one hand, and on the other hand were viewed as all being in some way valid, presented the Tibetan inheritors of Mahayana Buddhism with unique challenges. They needed to understand and make their own many differing and sometimes conflicting doctrines. The Mahayana pluralist streak made possible the integration of that plurality due to the view that the different doctrines were different skillful means of the Buddha. Within this general approach, however, there has always been a tendency for different Buddhist schools to rank themselves as the most skillful of the skillful means available, and even at times as the only skillful choice available given the circumstances of the age. In Indian Buddhism Tantra made the claim for itself that it was the most advanced Buddhist vehicle, tailor made for the age in which it was born. Tibet was the inheritor of this late Indian tradition, and it was accepted as axiomatic in all Tibetan schools that Tantra was authoritative. Within the Tantric paradigm, further debate was of course still possible and occurred continuously in Tibet. Different schools held allegiance to different Tantric cycles, to either sudden or gradual practice, or to differing interpretations of the doctrine of emptiness. Some schools adhered to the canon of texts introduced to Tibet in the 8th to 9th centuries, some to the texts introduced in the 10th-13th centuries. Some gave more emphasis to the Nalanda tradition of scholastic Tantricism, others to the direct, experiential teachings of the mahasiddhas.
The resolution of these issues of competition and pluralism took a unique form in Tibet due to its unique adoption of Tantric, or Vajrayana Buddhism as its dominant paradigm. All of the groups that developed in Tibet posited Tantra as the highest skillful means, and while they taught Hinayana and Mahayana doctrines to differing extents, all of them subordinated those levels of Buddhist teaching to Tantric views and practices.The rivalries that arose between the differing schools of Tibetan Buddhism arose largely out of the politics of Tibet. The Mahayana pluralist heritage was not forgotten, however, and would eventually re-arise in the Ri-Me movement. In order to understand how this happened, we will briefly survey the rise of sects and sectarianism in Tibet.

From The Royal Conversion to the Rise of The Sarmapas

The first rivalries to arise in the Tibetan Buddhist milieu arose as a result of the conversion of the royalty of Tibet to Buddhism begining in the 7th century. It is likely that there some degree of Buddhist presence in Tibet prior to the adoption of it by King Songtsen Gampo (c.618-650), but the royal conversion marked a new era for the priests active at court, who had served those in power for centuries with non-Buddhist rituals imbedded in non-Buddhist worldviews. These bonpos, as the priests were called, contested the adoption of Buddhism by the court. Another rivalry resulted from the presence in Tibet of both Chinese and Indian Buddhist monks. Trisong Detsen (Songten Gampo's grandson- c.740-798) reportedly called a debate between the Indian tradition, represented by Kamalashila, and the Chinese side, represented by the Chan monk Hvashang Mahayana. Detsen decided in favour of adopting Tantric Indian Buddhist doctrines as normative and rejected the Chan approach, a decision which likely reflects the political relationship of the three countries at the time more than it does philosophical considerations. After losing ground to Buddhism initially, a Bon counter attack resulted in a non-Buddhist King seizing power and halting Buddhism's officially backed expansion in Tibet. Thus in the first chapter of Buddhisms introduction into Tibet we can already see a pattern emerging which was to remain consistent: rivalry between different religious factions based on political rather than doctrinal considerations.
By the 11th century Buddhism had gained wide spread folk popularity and with the introduction of new translation efforts and a revivified monastic community, it began to flourish again and regain political power. The old Buddhism had lived on in Tibet in the form of folk traditions and lay Tantric practice. The new, reformed Buddhism of the 11th century would come to be dominated by scholars, translators and monastic orders. This led to the third major source of sectarian rivalry in Tibet, the rivalry between the Sarmapas (followers of the new translations) and Nyingmapas (followers of the old translations).

Sarmapas and Nyingmapas

In 978 surviving monks from Amdo and Kham far from the centres of power began returning to Central Tibet bringing Vinaya lineages with them. Others from Western Tibet saught and brought back new texts from India and Nepal (Laird 2006: 73). The prominent Indian pandita Atisha (982-1054) also visited Tibet at this time, and his Tibetan followers became known as the Kadampas. They were renowned for their asceticism, monastic discipline, and dedication to bodhicitta ( the altruistic mind). The Tibetan siddha Marpa (1012-1097) studied with Naropa (1016-1100), an Indian Tantric master who had left Nalanda to pursue a more radical lifestyle. His student, the yogin Milarepa (1040-1123), would in turn teach Gampopa (1079-1153), a monk who systematized the siddha Mahamudra teachings and founded the Kagyu school. The Sakya school can be dated to the founding of the Sakya (“Grey Earth”) Monastery in Tsang, an area of South-Central Tibet. The monastery was founded by Gonchok Gyelpo (1034-1102), a member of the powerful Khon family. The Khon had roots in the old aristocracy of Tibet but were Nyingmapas. Reportedly they became Sarmapas due to the degeneration of the Tantric practices of the Nyingmapas into public ritual drama devoid of proper Buddhist motivations. Gonchok Gyelpo took monastic ordination and became a student of Drogmi, a prestigious member of the new translators. Gyelpo`s son, Gunga Nyingpo (1092-1158) the “Great Sakya” and his sons Lonbon Sonam Tsemo (1141-1182) and Jetsun Drakpa Gyeltsen (1147-1216) were scholars and practitioners who consolidated Sakya as a school. In 1249 Koden Khan, the rising Mongolian chieftain, summoned Gunga Gyeltsen sel Bangpo (1182-1251), known to posterity as Sakya Pandita, or “Sapan” to his court. Sapan, who was widely hailed as a miracle worker and genius scholar, convinced Tibet to submit peacefully to Koden and initiated a priest-patron relationship between Tibet and the Mongolians. In Tibet the Sakyapas created the model of a lama with regional temporal power as well as spiritual authority, a model which logically increased the likelihood of combative sectarianism.
By the end of the 13th century we thus see a situation where the two major Sarmapa schools have been founded, the Sakyapa and Kagyupa, and have gained widespread authority, popularity, and power. The Kadampa tradition, the first of the successful Sarmapa sects, was largely absorbed into the Sakyapa and Kagyupa schools. Starting from the 11th century, the followers of the old translations came to be known as Nyingmapas, and gained in vitality through stressing their allegiance to Padmasambhava and a tradition of rediscovered textual treasures (termas) from his time period, which gave them an ever expanding canon of works to draw from in response to the translation and scholastic works of the Sarmapas. The Nyingmapa treasure texts were criticized as spurious, and their highest practice, Dzogchen, a nondual meditative practice, criticized as being “chinese dharma” a la Hva Shang Mahayana (Reynolds 1996: 215-227). It is reasonable to imagine that these criticisms were based to some extent in an authentic concern to define and defend the true Dharma being brought in from India. It's not surprising that the Nyingmapa treasure texts would be regarded with suspicion, or that the Nyingmapas themselves, Tantric yogis who were generally neither scholars nor monks, would be regarded with suspicion by scholar monks. Previous to the spread of the Kadampas, Sakyapas, and Kagyupas, however, the people of Tibet would generally have given their support to the proto- Nyingmapas. The criticism of Nyingmapa in the 11th-13th centuries was likely a combination of concern for authentic Dharma and a competition over the limited and essential resource of public support. This was the case throughout much of Tibetan history.

Sakyapas and Kagyupas; Kagyupas and Gelugpas

In 1352 the Sakyapas were ousted from power by Gunchub Gyaltsen (d.1364), a local chieftain who declared himself the new viceroy of the Mongols and began re-establishing indigenous Tibetan political and legal customs.Sakyapas and Kagyupas struggled for power with the Sakyapas losing ground as China pushed back the Mongols and Tibet moved towards independence from Mongol rule. Meanwhile a new figure arrived on the scene. In 1357 Je Tsongkhapa (d.1419) was born, a figure whose life work would ultimately have a great impact on intersectarian politics in Tibet. Tsongkhapa was a monk inspired by the early Kadampas who reportedly studied with 45 masters of different lineages and after engaging in deep solitary practice set about clarifying the nature of the true Dharma through his teaching activities and in a series of brilliant philosophical treatises. Tsongkhapa's apolitical nature, charisma, and brilliance brought him many students, including one Gendun Drubpa (1391-1474/5). Drubpa would later be known as the first Dalai Lama. Tsongkhapa and his students quickly became very popular, founding several monasteries including the famous Ganden monastery. Genden Drubpa founded Tashi Lhunpo, which in later times became the seat of the Panchen Lamas. The rising popularity of the reformist Gelugpa (Virtuous Ones) order founded by Tsongkhapa's students caused a backlash and the Karma Kagyupas initiated a violent repression of the Gelugpas. Genden Drubpa wrote a poem where he sang,

These days in our remote mountains
There are many people who uphold their own lineages
While looking down upon other doctrine holders
Verily as their deepest enemies.
Watching how they think and act,
My heart fills with sadness (Mullin 2001: 62).

Thus we see a Ri-Me thought in line with pluralist Mahayana. Ironically, the Ri-Me movement itself would be largely inspired by the doctrinal triumphalism and political repression weilded by later Gelugpas.

The Rise of The Gelugpas
From this period on sectarian violence in Tibet appears to have intensified, as different rulers favoured one school over another. By 1565 the princes of Tsang province were ruling central Tibet, and since they supported the Kagyupas, the Gelugpas were “under constant attack(Laird 138). The second Dalai Lama, who established the process for recognizing the tulkus in his lineage (Laird 139), moved his base of operations to south and central Tibet. The third Dalai Lama, Sonam Gyatso, was born in 1543 near Lhasa. He grew rapidly in power and influence. In 1577, in a replay of history, Altan Khan invited Sonam Gyatso to his court. The resulting relationship between them lead to an increased adoption of Buddhism among the Mongols and an increase in the power of the Gelug tulkus, now known as Dalai Lamas after their Mongol title. In 1589, the fourth Dalai Lama incarnated into the body of the great-grandson of Altan Khan, Yonten Gyatso. He survived only until 1617, dying at the age of 28 from unknown causes. His reincarnation, known to the Tibetans as the Great Fifth, was the true architect of Gelug supremacy in Tibet. Ngawang Lozsang Gyatso (1617-1682) became ruler of the Tibetan nation, sitting on a thrown beside the Manchu emperor and welcomed in Beijing as an equal (Laird 152).
The Fifths relationship with other Buddhist orders is a matter of some controversy. Some contend that he was on friendly terms with the other schools, particularly the Nyingmapa (his father was a Nyingmapa yogin). Although he ordered some monasteries of the other orders to join the Gelugpas, this view argues that this was part of a plan aimed at fostering unity and quelling sectarian rivalries and political instability, and not motivated by sectarian chauvinism or hunger for power. Others contend that under his rule Nyingmapa, Kagyupa, and Sakyapa orders were forcibly converted to become Gelugpas, fostering longstanding resentments which still exist today. Some Gelugpas, Sakyapas, and Nyingmapas do in fact judge the Fifth as being a precursor of the Ri-Me in terms of his spiritual beliefs, but apparently this view is rejected by some Kagyupas (Laird 2006: 165-168). It is interesting to note, as Mullin points out, that it is the Karma Kagyus, the sect that the supported the 5th's rival the King of Tsang who were the Kagyus that were suppressed. The Drikung Kagyupas, on the other hand, were supported by the Fifth and speak kindly of him in their annals. The Fifth also kept a Bonpo lama in his entourage to advise him on Bon interests, protected the rights of Muslims in Tibet, and passed laws outlawing sectarianism. It would thus seem that the Fifth was indeed acting from political rather than religious motivations in his suppression of the Karma Kagyupas (Mullin 2001: 70-77). This also appears to be the case with his suppression of the Jonangpa sect, which we will have to examine in order to understand the background that would determine the shape of the Ri-Me movement.


The now little known Jonang school of Tibet originated with Yumo Mikyo Dorje (b.1027), a Tibetan student of the Kasmiri pandit Somanatha, who taught him the traditions of the Kalacakra Tantra. Dorje was also one of the earliest Tibetan articulators of the approach to Madhyamaka known as shentong, or “emptiness of other”. This view, in brief, holds that the primordial mind of clear light can be established as truly existing, but not any of its contents. In other words, all phenomena are empty of self except the most primordial basis of the mind, which is fundamentally “empty of other”, yet possesses its own nature (Tulku 2006: 193-236). Kunpang Tukje Tsondro (1243-1313), a lineal descendant of Dorje, founded a monastery in South-Central Tibet in the Jomonang area, from which his tradition came to be known as Jonangpa. The Jonangpas continued to grow in popularity and importance, peaking with the Jonangpa scholar Jetsun Taranatha (1575-1635). The Jonangpas, like the Karma Kagyupas, were connected to the King of Tsang, and when the Fifth Dalai Lama came to power he converted their monasteries to the Geluk sect, banned their writings, and sealed their libraries. Some believe the reason for not only disempowering but silencing the Jonangpa sect was their teaching of shentong. The Gelukpas believed this to be a heretical doctrine, and were proponents of rangtong, “empty of self”, by which they held that even the fundamental mind of clear light is empty of self-nature. Many scholars have questioned whether the Fifth's motivations were doctrinal or political. It is hard to believe his motivations were solely based on an aversion to shentong, since explicitly shentong and analogously shentong views occur in the Nyingmapa school, with which the Fifth was on good terms. Thus the facts remin unclear. In any case, the Jonangpa school never regained its prominence in Tibet.

At the turn of the 17th century Lhazang Khan, grandson of the Fifth's political ally and King of Central Tibet Gushri Khan, killed the 6th Dalai Lama and made Tibet a protectorate of the Manchus (Laird 191). The Dzungar Mongols invaded to “liberate” Tibet shortly after, but unleashed such a reign of terror that when the Manchus made a counter-move in 1717 the Tibetans welcomed them. This was facilitated by the Manchus support of the young 7th Dalai Lama. Over the next couple of centuries the Manchus ruled Tibet as a “loose protectorate” and buffer between them and the Mongols while Tibet was rife with internal battles.The institution of the Dalai Lamas was weakened, and a kind of shaky status quo seems to have developed among the different schools. The Jonangpa Kalacakra teachings were absorbed in to the Gelug school through the monasteries they took over, while the Jonangpa contemplative tradition fled to the edges of Gelug influence in Kham and Amdo, where they mixed with Nyingmapas, Kagyupas and Bonpos, influencing their outlooks. According to Ringu Tulku, a modern proponent of Ri-Me, by the time of Jamyang Khyentse Wangpo (1820-1892), the four schools had very little contact with eachother and ignorance of eachother's doctrines flourished. Although individual lamas may have had nonsectarian orientations, the schools in general had became insular and triumphalist. Against this background Khyentse and his student, Jamgon Kongtrul the Great (1813-1899), launched the Ri-Me movement. As Kongtrul wrote,

These days even the well-known lamas and geshes concentrate on their own traditions. Other than knowing a few texts, their pure perception of the impartial teachings of the Buddha is very small...They talk a lot about whether a particular tradition is good or bad, or a particular lineage is pure or impure. Many of them denigrate others' traditions in favor of their own school. Like a one-eyed yak who startles himself, they become unsteady, and without any reason they are full of doubts and lack pure vision, even of their own tradition.
When I was younger, although I had a deep longing for the dharma, I lacked strength in my convictions and was too timid to accomplish my wishes. But gradually the lotus of devotion has opened in me toward all the doctrines and the doctrine holders of the unbiased teachings of the Buddha, and my understanding of dharma has increased. It is due to the kindness of my precious guru, Khyentse Rinpoche, that I have not accumulated the serious karmic consequence of rejecting the dharma (2006: 23).

As Kongtrul writes here, it was his guru Khyentse Rinpoche who transmitted to him traditions from eight practice lineages including all the major schools and repeatedly encouraged him to compile his nonsectarian encyclopaedic collections of Buddhist teachings. These became the basis of the Ri-Me movement. Khyentse was a Sakya lama and Kongtrul a Kagyu, but both of them had a strong base in the Nyingmapa traditions, and discovered, compiled and practiced many Treasure teachings (45). Interestingly Kongtrul also collected Bon teachings and was himself an initiate in Bon lineages. As he wrote,
For the benefit of ordinary persons who harbor conceptual partiality toward specific schools of spiritual philosophy, such as theist or non-theist, Buddhist or Bon, the Buddhas compassion is impartial and immeasurable. For example, [buddhas] manifest to guide theists as gods with forms and attributes that correspond to their religions. In fact, in the three worlds, the victors enlightened activity is present in even the most minor form of virtous spiritual paths (Zangpo 2002: 189).

Jamgon Kongtrul completely rejected sectarianism, equating it with partiality, blindness and cognitive limitation. He wrote: Just as a king overpowered by self-interest/Is not worthy of being the protector of the kingdom,/A sectarian person is not worthy of being a holder of the dharma./ Not only that, he is unworthy of upholding even his own tradition (Tulku 4). One of the most interesting features of the Ri-Me tradition is that it is not syncretic, but rather pluralist (Tulku 2006: 3). The Ri-Me masters took care to accurately preserve the tenets and practices of differing traditions, and set out to show the different practice traditions as free of contradictions, but not equivalent. Kongtrul wrote:

Some people are very fussy about the refutations and affirmations of various tenets, becoming particularly attached to their own versions, such as Shentong or Rangtong Madhyamaka. There are many who try to pull others over to their own side, to the point of practically breaking their necks. When Jamyang Khyentse teaches the different tenet sytems, he does not mix up their terminology or ideas, yet he makes them easy to understand and suitable for the students.

Kongtrul then makes a point key to the Ri-Me view:

In general, the main point to be established by all the tenets is the ultimate nature of phenomena. As the Prajnaparamita Sutra states:

The Dharmata is not an object of knowledge;
It cannot be understood by the conceptual mind.
Kongtrul concludes:

So, the ultimate nature cannot be established by the samsaric mind, no matter how deep that mind may be.
The scholars and siddhas of the various schools make their own individual presentations of the dharma. Each one is full of strong points and supported by valid reasoning...In summary, one must see all the teachings as without contradiction, and consider all scriptures as instructions. This will cause the root of sectarianism to dry up, and give you the firm foundation in the Buddha's teachings. At that point, hundreds of doors to the eighty-four thousand teachings of the dharma will simultaneously be open up to you. (4)

Kongtrul argued that shentong and rangtong differed only over how to best describe the ultimate nature of phenomena (10). He also argued that Nyingmapas texts were as authentic as Sarmapa, and that the four major schools all converged in their description of the ultimate stages of attainment (11-13). Kongtrul's approach proved remarkably appealing, and the literature he created spread widely. Ringu Tulku writes that the compilation and transmission of his Five Great Treasuries as well as the Compendium of Tantras and Compendium of Sadhanas, “broke the isolation of single lineage teachings in the majority of Tibetan schools”(12).

Ri-Me Today

During Kongtrul's life, he transmitted his complete teachings many times to many people, including both yogins and important lamas. He also managed to have them printed on wooden blocks and published during his lifetime. Because of his efforts a large amount of Tibetan teachings from all schools were compiled in one place. In 1959, when Tibetans began fleeing the Chinese invasion, Kongtrul's teachings were available. HH The Karmapa (the head of the Karma Kagyu lineage) and HH Dudjom Rinpoche (the head of the Nyingmapas) gave transmissions of these teachings in India. When Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche came to England in the early 60's, the only Tibetan books he bought were the volumes of Jamgon Kongtrul's Treasury of Knowledge (Tulku 13). Perhaps most interestingly, and most portentiously for the development of modern Tibetan Buddhism, has been the influence of Ri-Me on HH The 14th Dalai Lama. His Holiness has been strongly influenced by several great Ri-Me teachers, including Dilgo Khentse Rinpoche, the great Nyingmapa yogin. Due to the efforts of these teachers and the support of His Holiness, there has been more interchange between different schools of Tibetan Buddhism than ever before. The Dalai Lama has adopted the Ri-Me model and has been receiving and giving the teachings of all schools in their respective traditions and lineages. He has gone on record with the view that the highest Gelug teaching is identical in import to the view of Dzogchen, which is in turn in harmony with the highest realizations of all Tibetan schools. Further, in recent years it has come to light that, much to the surprise of many, Jonangpa traditions had survived intact in eastern Tibet. His Holiness has officially recognized the Jonang as a legitimate school and composed a prayer for the long life of the Jonang school. His Holiness also stresses the legitimacy of the Bon tradition and has come out in support of its teachers and institutions. Clearly then The Dalai Lama should be accounted a great modern Ri-Me.

Closing Reflections

The historical circumstances surrounding the birth of the Ri-Me movement need more study. Khyentse and Kongtrul appear to have acted out of a sense of Buddhist idealism and a love for the traditions which fell outside the net of Gelug dogmatics. Their own unique focus combined shentong, Jonang, Bon, Nyingma and Kagyu traditions. This list is conspicuous for its championing of traditions which were endangered by the historical momentum of Buddhism in general, and in particular by Gelug orthodoxy. After many great lamas fled Tibet in the 1950's and 60's they found themselves living in refugee camps in India where all facets of daily life were a struggle. Unity would have been a paramount concern, and it is to their credit that the leading teachers of all the schools, including HH The Dalai Lama (Gelug), HH Sakya Trizin (Sakya), HH Dudjom Rinpoche (Nyingma), HH Penor Rinpoche (Nyingma), HH the Karmapa (Kagyu), HH Khalka Jetsun Dhampa (Jonang) and HH Lungtok Tenpai Nyima (Bon) have adopted a Ri-Me perspective. In the early years of the Tibetan diaspora, it was apparently largely due to the leadership of these lamas that sectarian rivalry did not tear apart the impoverished and traumatised refugee communities (Tulku 1992: 162-189). It is understandable then why the groundwork laid by Khyentse and Kongtrul has blossomed in the work of the 14th Dalai Lama and other contemporary Tibetan exiles as a unifying ideology.
Throughout Tibetan history, as shown above, the different schools of Tibetan Buddhism have competed with words and sometimes with weapons for resources and power. This appears to have ocurred largely at the institutional level. It is ironic, for instance, that Je Tsongkhapa, the founder of the Gelugpas, lived like a Ri-Me master, seeking teachings from every lineage. Nevertheless, at an institutional level, the ideology of competition and dominance has held sway. The Ri-Me movement provided a counter ideology of pluralism and ecumenicism, an “all for one and one for all” approach. This proved to be exactly what is needed in the Tibetan diaspora, and so has become the prevailing ideology of modern, global Tibetan Buddhism.

Davidson, Ronald M. Tibetan Renaissance. NY: Columbia University Press 2005.

Gyatso, H.H. The Dalai Lama Tenzin. Dzogchen: The Heart Essence of The Great Perfection. Ithaca, NY: Snow Lion 2004.

Laird, Thomas. The Story of Tibet: Conversations with the Dalai Lama. NY: Grove Press 2006.

Mullin, Glenn H. The Fourteen Dalai Lamas: A Sacred Legacy of Reincarnation. Santa Fe: Clear Light Publishers 2001.

Powers, John. Introduction to Tibetan Buddhism. Ithaca, NY: Snow Lion 2007.

Rinpoche, Chagdud Tulku. Lord of The Dance: The Spiritual Autobiography of a Tibetan Lama. Ithaca, NY: Snow Lion 1992.

Sheehy, Michael R. A Brief History of The Jonang. http://www.jonangfoundation.org/essays Accessed April 3 2008.

Tulku, Ringu. The Ri-Me Philosophy of Jamgon Kongtrul the Great. Boston: Shambhala Publications 2006.

Williams, Paul. Mahayana Buddhism: The Doctrinal Foundations. Great Britain: Routledge 2007.

Zangpo, Ngawang. Guru Rinpoche: His Life and Times. Ithaca, NY: Snow Lion Publications 2002.

Tibet's Other Religion

The Curious Case of Bon, The Everlasting Truth

Bon was the second most important religious tradition of Tibet prior to Tibet's invasion by China in 1949. In many popular texts on Tibetan Buddhism it is referred to as the indigenous religion of Tibet which was superseded by Buddhism after Buddhism's arrival in Tibet in the 8th century. The true story of Bon is more complex and ambiguous however, and is an interesting case study in the formation of religious identities and narratives.

Views of Bon
The identity of Bon is contested and controversial. Superficial introductions to Tibetan culture often refer to it as “the indigenous tradition of Tibet” and it is sometimes referred to as animistic or shamanistic in a way that conveys images of a “typical” “primitive” indigenous tradition consisting of superstitious rites and folk beliefs. Buddhism is commonly presented as having battled Bon for supremacy in the 8th century and ultimately won despite a setback in the 9th and 10th century due to a Bon counter-attack. Stories of this process have been immortalized in the life story of Padmasambhava, who reportedly engaged in magic battle with the Bon-connected spirits of Tibet and either subdued them or converted them to Buddhism. Bon is viewed as living on in Tibet in the form of folk religions who have adapted to Buddhist cultural and political dominance.
It might come as quite a surprise to someone who had received this superficial understanding of Bon to discover that Bon is a complex, highly systematized religious tradition with its own seminaries, monasteries, and religious canon, and that its view of itself is quite at odds with the picture in the paragraph above. They might be further surprised to find that Bon, in common with the Nyingmapa tradition of Tibetan Buddhism, holds the highest spiritual practice to be the Great Perfection (dzogchen), a sophisticated nondual Zen-like sudden enlightenment teaching now popular in the West. A look into references to Bon in the works of Tibetan lamas might lead to even further confusion.
One popular lamrim text1 translated into English, Liberation In The Palm of Your Hand, by the early 20th century Gelugpa lama Pabongka Rinpoche (1878-1941), paints a dark picture of Bon. Pabongka Rinpoche warns Buddhists to have nothing to do with Bon teachings, saying they cannot lead to liberation or even reduce delusions. They plagiarize Buddhist teachings but are corrupted by non-Buddhist teachings and borrowings from the “tirthikas”2. It is an “evil system” of “false dharmas” (372). Pabongka Rinpoche quotes a verse ascribed to the great Kagyupa Yogin Je Milarepa (c.1052-1135):
The source of Boen is perverted Dharma.
A creation of nagas and powerful elementals.
It does not take one to the ultimate path.
Boen is a most inferior lineage (373).

Pabongka further considers a view that he says some people entertain: that Bon gods are compassionate emanations of Avalokiteshvara Bodhisattva for beings benefit, and therefore following Bon is not harmful but even beneficial (374). Pabongka disagrees, arguing that by this logic one could justify “imitating the actions of dogs and pigs” since these too might be Buddha-emanations. Rather one should “completely abandon such nauseating and evil sytems as they would discard the stones they use to wipe their arses” (374)3.
Such views of Bon are not universal in the Tibetan Buddhist tradition, however. Jamyong Khyentse Wangpo (1820-1892), the great Sakyapa scholar-practitioner, honoured Bon teachings and even himself wrote down for posterity a Bon account of Padmasambhava's life. This is even more remarkable considering that this version depicts Padmasambhava as being born in Tibet of two Bon masters!4 His disciple Jamgon Kongtrul the Great (1813-1899), a Kagyupa lama important in the Ri-me (No Boundaries) Pluralist movement, included Bon works in the collection of sacred texts he compiled, The Treasury of Rediscovered Teachings, thus insuring they would be officially transmitted along with Buddhist texts when the Treasury was ritually transmitted in the traditional manner. Kongtrul was aware this might be controversial, and defends it with the exact argument Pabongka rejects above:
For the benefit of ordinary persons who harbor conceptual partiality toward specific schools of spiritual philosophy, such as theist or non-theist, Buddhist or Bon, the buddhas' compassion is impartial and immeasurable. For example, [buddhas] manifest to guide theists as gods with forms and attributes that correspond to their religions. In fact, in the three worlds, the victors enlightened activity is present in even the most minor forms of virtous spiritual paths (189).

He further cites to back himself up several great Buddhist lamas of the past who engaged in Bon practices (Ibid.), founders of Nyingma lineages that are important to this day. Contemporarily most Tibetan lamas of importance speak of Bon in friendly terms. The Nyingmapa lama Namkhai Norbu Rinpoche has criticized fellow Tibetan Buddhists who reject Bon teachings (1984:14-17) and HH the Dalai Lama (a Gelugpa) recently wrote a supportive foreword to a book of Bon Dzogchen teachings (Rinpoche 2000). The situation becomes even more interesting when one turns to read how Bon masters themselves describe their tradition.
According to Tenzin Wangyal, the most well-known Bon teacher active in the West, Bon is an ancient pre-Buddhist tradition of Tibet which was first taught “in the human world” by Lord Tonpa Shenrab Miwoche (2000:41). Tonpa Shenrab manifested in this world, at the foot of Mt Meru, in 1857 BCE. He married and had children, then renounced the world at age 31 to practice austerities and teach Bon. He originally taught in the land of Taksig, which some cholars speculate might be Persia or Tazhikistan. He entered southern Tibet through Zhangzhung and taught widely there according to people's capacities, emphasizing the lower teachings of “cause” since people were unready for the teachings of “fruition”. These teachings emphasized “reinforcing relationships with the guardian spirits and natural environment, exorcising demons and eliminating negativities” as well as “practices of purification” for “reinforcing fortune and positive energy.” He prophecied that in time the full scope of his teachings would flourish in Tibet (2000:42). The higher teachings of Bon, those of “fruition”, closely resemble the Nyingmapa yoga, mahayoga, anuyoga and atiyoga teachings (Powers 2007: 508-511). These comprise Tantric sadhanas very similar to Buddhist tantras, and hold the Great Perfection to be the ultimate teaching and view of spiritual practice. Although the deities, mantras and symbols are similar in function to Buddhist versions, they reflect Bon religious culture and differ linguistically and iconographically.
Wangyal goes on to explain that Bon was the dominant tradition in Tibet until Buddhism entered in the 8th century, when King Trisong Detsen instigated a “harsh repression of Bon”. The great 8th century Bon Master Dranpa Namkha, the father of Padmasambhava5, embraced Buddhism publicly but secretly continued to practice Bon. He confronted the King Trisong Detsen, asking him, “Why do you make a dinstinction between bon and chos (dharma)?”6 To save them from destruction, many Bon texts were hidden to be discovered later as Treasures. In the 11th century there was a Bon revival precipitated by the rediscovery of Bon Treasure Texts, and Bon monasteries were established shortly afterwards. With regards to the relationship between Bon and Buddhist teachings, Wangyal views Buddhist teachings as legitimate. This is because Shakyamuni Buddha was in fact a disciple of Tonpa Shenrab. Thus “all Buddhist teachings, whether arising in India or elsewhere, are in fact teachings of everlasting Bon” (54).
Our imaginary explorer of the truth of Bon might at this point find themselves bewildered. Is Bon indigenous to Tibet, or did it enter from Tajik in prehistoric times? Did Bonpos plagiarize Buddhist teachings, or are Buddhist teachings derived from the Bon teachings of Tonpa Shenrab?

Everlasting Bon
In contrast to Mainstream Buddhist and Bon views, the eminent Tibetanist John Powers has recently argued in agreement with most Western scholars that Bon is neither the indigenous pre-Buddhist tradition of Tibet, nor is it the ancient mother tradition from which Buddhism sprang. Records of pre-Buddhist religion in Tibet do not appear to resemble post-Buddhist Bon traditions. Further, there is no evidence of many aspects of the fully developed Bon tradition prior to the 11th century, suggesting that these traditions, which closely resemble Nyingmapa Buddhist traditions, are in fact derived from Buddhist sources.
As Powers notes, David Snellgrove has argued that Bon narratives of origin still may not be without a grain of truth. Snellgrove argues that it is unlikely that Buddhist traditions did not penetrate the Tibetan cultural sphere previous to the adoption of Buddhism by the royal family in the 8th century, and it is quite possible that an older Buddhist tradition had found its way into Tibetan folk traditions centuries before that. Reynolds has argued that the fact that Dzogchen can be found in both Nyingmapa and Bon sources may be connected to the presence of wandering siddhas in the Himalayan regions centuries before Tibet`s official adoption of Buddhism, or in the close connections between ancient pre-Empire western Tibet and the Ìndo-Iranian borderlands, where Tantric traditions are known to have existed. These siddhas may have brought over a meditation tradition based in the nondual sahaja or “natural” yoga of India (226-227). Thus it is conceivable that Bon tradition as we know it, a hybrid of Tibetan, Hindu Buddhist, and perhaps Zoroastrian traditions7, may indeed predate the official adoption of Buddhism in Tibet. Although Bon as it exists now does not resemble records of pre-Buddhist Bon, it should be remembered that those records reflect the rituals of the royal family and its ministers, and cannot be taken as representative of folk traditions far from the centers of power. If Snellgrove`s theory is true the simple classification of Bon as “the indigenous tradition of Tibet” will not hold. It is in fact a competing blend of Tibetan and South and Central Asian religious traditions with a counter-narrative formed defensively against the overwhelming success of the Indian Buddhist traditions introduced in the 8th century. As Per Kvearne wrote:
Both Buddhists and Bon-pos agree that when Buddhism succeeded in gaining royal patronage in Tibet in the eighth and ninth centuries, Bon suffered a serious setback. By the eleventh century, however, an organized religious tradition, styling itself Bon and claiming continuity with the earlier, pre-Buddhist religion, appeared in central Tibet. It is this religion of Bon that has persisted to our own times, absorbing doctrines from the dominant Buddhist religion but always adapting what it learned to its own needs and perspectives. This is ...not just plagiarism, but a dynamic and flexible strategy that has ensured the survival, indeed the vitality, of a religious minority (quoted in Powers 2007: 504).

The Nyingma Connection

The history of Bon is further illuminated by considering the history of the Nyingmapas, with whom they have much in common. The Nyingma school became a self-conscious movement in the 11th century as did Bon. The Nyingmapas consisted of the surviving traditions of Buddhism that were introduced in the 8th century, before a resurgence of anti-Buddhist forces at court disenfranchised them and forced them away from the centers of power. When new Buddhist movements came to the fore in the 11th century and began amassing political power and popular acclaim the Nyingmapas articulated a self understanding which stressed their connection to Padmasambhava, a little known Tantric teacher connected to Trisong Detsen, the greatest of the Buddhist Kings of the early Tibetan Imperium. They claimed Padmasambhava had hallowed all of Tibet for Buddhism, and had buried Treasure Texts to be found by later reincarnations of his disciples. The Nyingmapas thus stressed the non-localized nature of spiritual power in Tibet and were able to continually “rediscover” new texts of practices and doctrines which had full canonical authority. This allowed them to maintain their vitality and authority in the face of the growing power of the Sakyapa and Kagyupa sects in the 11th through 13th centuries. These sects were strongly localized in monastic establishments and drew their authority from new translations of the Indian Buddhist canon. Thus the way the Nyingmapas understood themselves, their sources of authority, and Tibetan history, can be seen to be a way of defending their own legitimacy.
In light of the above it is tempting to view Bon as simply imitating Nyingma practices, but the situation is not so simple. The Bon treasure tradition, for instance, appears to be older than the Nyingmapa treasure tradition8. If we assume that one tradition borrowed the idea from the other, than the evidence suggests that the Nyingmapas may have gotten the idea from the Bonpos, and not the other way around. It is also the case that the Nyingmapas have a strong debating tradition, something the Nyingmapas do not have but the Gelugpas do. Like the Gelugpas, the Bonpos train their monastics to become Geshes, an advanced attainment that is scholastically very rigorous and is based on scholarship and debating skills. This suggests that the Bonpos are not merely Nyingmapas under another name, but have had a more complex genesis9. Another interesting fact is that in some matters the Bonpo monastic rules are more stringent than the Buddhist code, and contain rules one might expect the Buddhist code to have although it doesn't. One example is that the Bon monastic code requires vegetarianism, which is not true of the Buddhist monastic code in Tibet10. This shows that the Bonpos are not merely artful emulators of their Buddhist sibling, but an independent tradition that has drawn its own moral conclusions.


When HH The Dalai Lama speaks of the traditions of Tibet, he now lists five: Gelug, Sakya, Kagyu, Nyingma and Bon. This seems to suggest that Bon is a form of Tibetan Buddhim. That is not what is intended by His Holiness, but it may contain some degree of truth. It is no doubt fair to say that the ultimate definers of a religion should be its adherents however, and Bonpos do not generally identify as Buddhists. They view themselves as a seperate tradition, older in Tibet than Buddhism but likewise an import from outside. They view Bon as an expression of the “Everlasting Bon”, or eternal truth, revealed into this world over 30,000 years ago by Tonpa Shenrab out of his great compassion.

Works Cited

Powers, John. Introduction to Tibetan Buddhism. Ithaca, NY: Snow Lion 2007.

Reynolds, John Myrdhin. The Golden Letters. Ithaca, NY: Snow Lion 1996.

Rinpoche, Pabongka. Liberation In The Palm of Your Hand: A Concise Discourse On The Path To Enlightenment. ed. Rinpoche, Trijang; tr. Mathieu Ricard. Boston: Wisdom 2006.

Rinpoche, Tenzin Wangyal. Wonders of The Natural Mind: The Essence of Dzogchen in the Native Bon Tradition of Tibet. Ithaca, NY: Snow Lion 2000.
Zangpo, Ngawang. Guru Rinpoche: His Life and Times. Ithaca, NY: Snow Lion 2002.
1Lamrim texts are practice guides based on the Lamrim Chenmo, Great Treatise on The Stages of The Path, by Je Tsongkhapa, the founder of the Gelug tradition.
2Tirthika is a Jain term for a liberated sage mentioned in early Buddhist texts. It later came to refer to Hindu yogis in general.
3When I mentioned to Dakshong Tulku Rinpoche, a Nyingmapa lama, he commented in a tone of warning that “Pabongka Rinpoche wrote some strange things. He criticised other religions, which is not good. All religions have value, and one should not condemn the religions of others.”
4In Buddhist accounts Padmasambhava is born in the country of Uddiyana in a lotus, a spontaneous Buddha-manifestation. The Bonpos regard Padmasambhava as a subduer of spirits but not a subduer of Bon.
5Acording to Buddhist tradition he was a disciple of Padmasambhava (Reynolds 1996: 226)
6This question plays on the ambiguity of these terms. Chos originally referred to both Buddhist and non-Buddhist religions in Tibet. Later chos came to translate Dharma, and bon, the name for the priests who ministered to pre-Buddhist Kings, came to be applied to the old religous traditions. For Bonpos, however, the word bon means Truth as the word chos, Dharma, means truth for Buddhists. From a Bonpo perspective the question would translate as “Why do you make a distinction between “truth” and “truth”?”
7Some aspects of Bon cosmology, architecture, and language have similarities to Zoroastrian culture, and Zoroastrian beliefs could have entered Tibet through the Persian cultural area. See Berzin, Alexander. Bon and Tibetan Buddhism. http://www.berzinarchives.com/web/en/archives/study/comparison_buddhist_traditions/tibetan_traditions/bon_tibetan_buddhism.html. Accessed March 25 2008. Tenpa Shenrab is in fact very roughly contemporaneous to the dates some scholars suggest for Zarathustra.