Last time I talked about dukkha, often (mis?)translated as suffering in Buddhism. Harry picked up that thread and elaborated more on it, including the causes of dukkha, and some of the different types. I really suggest if you want clarification on the concept in Buddhism you pop over and read that post.
It looks like Harry and I are going to continue our conversation on Buddhism, due to the length of my response to him I’ve decided for now to split up the next few posts between discussion with Harry, and then my own topics I wanted to cover.
I mentioned that Vajrayana is built upon Theravada Buddhism, we hold the same texts important, the same practices, and have built upon them, expanded, and added more. So anything Theravadan exists in Vajrayana, though it might have a shift in importance or emphasis. Harry asks what is the value of this expansion, beyond the access to really cool magick?
That’s a great point that can be easy to miss. If the Buddha originally taught something resembling Theravada Buddhism, and it was good enough for the Buddha, why did these other forms appear? I would break these reasons down to speed, relevance, and scope.
I’ll freely admit though I got trapped by Buddhism, I originally got involved for the cool magick, I thought I could sneak in, get what I needed, and escape…and now I’m a monk…and a good person… I miss being a heartless asshole…
The first reason is effectiveness. (Note: At this point I’m talking theory, not claiming this as a truth, but as how the tradition frames it because I’m not at a point where I can make such declarations.) The Buddha was able to become enlightened because he had worked for many lifetimes to eliminate his karma and set the stage so to speak. So from that point it only took a few years of work to become enlightened, after many lifetimes of getting prepared. There is a state in Buddhism called Stream Entry, which simply put is when you’ve reached a point where you have at most seven incarnations left, but it’s still a lot of work. It might not take all seven, but from how I usually see it explained it seems like they assume you’ll still be in the game for several more lives.
Now in Vajrayana it’s believed you can become enlightened in this life, as long as you’re born in the human realm (which really just means an intelligent being) and have access to tantra, you can become enlightened here and now. One of the best examples of this is Milarepa, probably my third favourite Buddhist Saint. He wasn’t anyone special, he wasn’t an incarnation of a Buddha, or a previous saint, he didn’t have any glorious past lives, he was a regular Joe. He was also a sorcerer and was raised in a troubling family. Eventually he used magick and killed dozens of people at a wedding, including many family members. Even if you don’t understand karma, I’m sure you understand that murdering a bunch of people, especially family, because you’re angry and jealous is not a good step toward enlightenment. Milarepa realized what he did was wrong, and eventually found a lama, who put him to work, and trained him, and because he diligently practiced and purified himself, he became enlightened.
Milarepa didn’t spend hundreds of lives to get everything set up to become enlightened. He wasn’t a Bodhisattva in human form. He hadn’t been a saint. He was a normal man (as much as a talented sorcerer is normal…well…they are in my life) who committed some horrible acts, but through Vajrayana he dealt with his karma and his impurities and became enlightened in one life. This is the promise of Vajrayana compared to some other forms of Buddhism, you can become a Buddha here and now if you commit to the path.
Now to balance this though Vajrayana is not easy, nor is it really safe, remember the vaapad analogy. It’s the Buddhism where you could potentially screw up your karma the most and make things worse, but it’s supposedly the Buddhism that allows you to become enlightened here and now, no matter what, because of these additional magickal tantric techniques. I’d say going from reincarnating somewhere between seven and nearly infinite times down to 1 is a good additional value, but that’s not the only reason.
The second is relevance. Traditionally Buddhism wasn’t exactly conducive to society. To varying extents owning property and possessions was frowned on. Some went so far as to say that enlightenment was impossible with these things, that really you had to give up everything and give your time to meditation alone to become enlightened. Some people have a drive that supports this, not everyone does.
There is a myth (there are a several, details change, story is the same) that a great king invited the Buddha to come teach him, because he had a spiritual calling. The Buddha came and taught the king the path to enlightenment was renunciation, give it all up and meditate. The king pointed out that he was a good king, protecting his people and guiding them, and if he gave up his crown who knew what would happen to his people? But if he remained king he could rule as a Buddhist and guide his people to the Dharma, so he asked is there a way to remain “in the world” and practice Buddhism? At that moment the Buddha transformed into a tantric deity in union (for those unfamiliar, that means he was two gods having sex), something so shocking all the monks fainted (convenient they were unconscious for this so it couldn’t get recorded…), and he taught the king about tantric Buddhism.
Tantric Buddhism is more inclusive of a day-to-day life as we’d picture it. You can own property, be married with kids, you can even drink, eat meat, and have sex, but it’s all done in a way that is mindful and aware. It makes it “easier” because you can keep your life externally much the same, but it’s so much harder because every moment becomes a dance between insight and distraction. You’re challenged to try to keep your awareness at all times. As someone who has done silent temple retreats I can tell you, it is a lot easier to keep focused on emptiness and suffering when all you do is sit and meditate, than it is to remember that your burger is empty as you chat with a friend over dinner.
This is part of the danger of Vajrayana, it’s so easy to think you’re practicing because you do certain rituals and say mantras, but it’s not about what you do when you’re at your shrine, it’s about striving to keep a constant understanding. That’s a large point for another time.
Lastly is scope. Vajrayana holds the Bodhisattva ideal, that your journey to enlightenment is so you can help all beings reach that state. This is where the magick comes into play. It’s not about you. Sure, you can use the magick to help yourself, and that’s not necessarily considered bad or wrong, but it’s really about helping everyone (which includes you) get to a place where they can practice dharma and become enlightened.
Some of my training in Vajrayana is around exorcisms, how does this help others to enlightenment? Well first off, if you’re constantly being disturbed or frightened or made sick by ghosts/demons it’s hard to practice, you might not have the inspiration or comfort. So by ridding you of those disruptions I give you more space to encounter and practice the dharma. Secondly those ghosts/demons have to become enlightened too, and part of the exorcism is connecting them to the dharma so that in their next life they can learn it.
I also have training in tantric wealth magick, how does that help, isn’t greed bad? Yes. But again if you’re too tired from working multiple jobs to pay the rent, or mentally and physically unwell because you’re always worried about where the next meal will come from, then it’s really hard to be inspired to practice. If you’re financially stable, even if you’re not well off, then it’s a lot easier to practice. Then if you can maintain your compassion with wealth, you can use it to support your local temple, or help people.
As my Rinpoche has said “If you want to be a wandering monk, with just a blanket and a bowl, walking the world to meditate and pray, then owning nothing is a great blessing. But if you aren’t that monk, and you’re living in this modern world, then being poor is more of an obstacle than a blessing.”
Our magick helps peoples, not because we believe we can save them, but because it enables them to be in a place that allows them to find a release from their suffering.
Okay, that was about 1500 words on “Why Vajrayana?” and only one of Harry’s questions/points. So I guess I’ll cut this entry off here for now.