mardi 31 octobre 2023

Feudalism, samaya and living in a tube

Vajra Bros. Sogyal Lakar and Namkhai Norbu

There appears no exception to the rule that, when the Mantrayāna becomes culturally important outside India, it is principally through the agency of official patronage, either aristocratic or imperial. Given these circumstances, it would be extraordinary if the military and political culture of early medieval India had not shaped esoteric institutions, doctrines, literature, rituals, and iconography, at least to some degree.

In fact, the degree is compelling, and central aspects of esoteric Buddhism came to embody directly and unequivocally the structure, aesthetics, and ideology of medieval Indian feudalism. In short, esoteric Buddhism is the form of medieval Buddhism that internalized, appropriated, reaffirmed, and rearranged the structures most closely associated with the systems of power relations, ritual authentication, aesthetics, gift-giving, clan associations, and sense of dominion that defined post-Gupta Indian politics

Fortunately we only need read the texts and examine the rituals to determine that Mantrayāna has built into it a sustaining metaphor, one that has been somewhat neglected by both traditional and modern scholars outside India. Yet it appears that the central and defining metaphor for mature esoteric Buddhism is that of an individual assuming kingship and exercising dominion. Thus the understanding of such terms as tantra in Buddhist India would invoke, first and foremost, the idea of hierarchical power acquired and exercised through a combination of ritual and metaphysical means. Based on this power, the varieties of understanding and of personal relationships become subsumed to the purposes of the person metaphorically becoming the overlord (rājādhirāja) or the universal ruler (cakravartin). It is the Buddhist version of the early medieval feudalization of divinity seen in the Purāņas and elsewhere, applied to the Buddhist path by its ritual enactment in which either monks or laity may participate.” (Ron Davidson, Indian Esoteric Buddhism, A Social History of the Tantric Movement, p.115, p. 121) 


In Leh, Ladakh, India on 1st August 2017, the Dalai-lama declared:
I feel some of these lama institutions have some sort of influence of the feudal system. That is outdated and must end - that feudal influence. Then eventually a lama institution creates lama politics [DL laughs heartily]. That’s very bad. An individual lama’s disgrace doesn’t matter, but it gives a very bad impression about a monastery or a monk. Very bad. So we must pay more attention. You should not say, “This is my guru. What guru says I must follow.” That’s totally wrong! Buddha himself mentioned, “You must examine my teaching”. Similarly if one particular lama says something, you examine whether this goes well according to Buddhaʻs teaching or according to the circumstances in society. Then you must follow. If the lama says something; if you investigate and it’s not proper, then you should not follow the lama’s teaching. Even Dalai Lama’s teaching; if you find some contradiction you should not follow my teaching.”
The outdated “feudal influence” must be ended, because it’s very bad. What has happened in 
regard after the Dalai-Lama’s declaration in 2017, in the aftermath of the Sogyal/Rigpa Affair? Has this “feudal influence” indeed ended, or is it still going on creating “very bad” vibes?

It is clear through the Dalai Lama’s explanation above that the feudal influence is linked with a certain attitude towards the guru: “What guru says I must follow”. This attitude comes forth from sets of tantric vows called “samaya”. Samaya is a sanskrit word that means “meeting” or “conjunction”. It is also found in a feudalistic context where it means "conventions" or "rules", e.g. conventions with vassals (sāmanta). 

Sam van Schaik[1] defines samaya as the embodiment of the wisdom being (jñānasattva) in a samaya being (samayasattva), serving as the support or the holder of the wisdom being, i.e. the deity that is inseparable from the Guru. The “conjunction” is realised through an empowerment (abhiṣeka), given by the teacher. And this “conjunction”, or sacramental bond, is maintained through the tantric vows of samaya. As long as the vows are kept, the samaya is “unbroken” and the “conjunction” maintained. In the opposite case, a Dunhuang manuscript specifies as follows:
If the samaya deteriorates, then while you live your complexion will deteriorate, your mind will become unclear, you will be subject to many illnesses and your wishes will go unfulfilled. Innumerable spirits and demons will wound you like an animal. When you die, your senses will become clouded, your tongue will stick [to your palate], you will smell unpleasant, and you will die vomiting blood. You will be escorted [from this life] by innumerable malicious demons.[2]


A lucky snake coming out through the upper end

Sam van Schaik adds:
This presentation of the samaya has continued through to the present day. Contemporary Tibetan lamas often like to compare someone who holds the samaya vows with a snake inside a tube of bamboo. For the snake, there are only two ways out of the tube; similarly for the samaya holder, there are only two results: enlightenment or the deepest hell.” (Limits of Transgression)
The highest glory or the deepest hell, respectively for those maintaining the samaya and those not maintaining or breaking it (dam sri). This is as close as Tibetan Buddhism gets to apostasy. Those who are considered “samaya breakers” need to be avoided (ostracism) by the other members of the social group, so as to not expose themselves to their bad influence.

The main vows that need to be maintained, and that are still currently taught as essential, apart from the the injunction to secrecy:
(i) to regard and respect the vajra master as if he were a buddha,
(ii) not to generate negative thoughts about, and to remain harmonious with, one’s vajra brothers and sisters
Whatever happens in the Gurukula stays in the Gurukula. The Guru, who is inseparable from the deity, is like a Buddha for the students that received the empowerment. Since co-students received the same empowerment, they too were invested with the “wisdom being” by the same Guru. In order to maintain sacred outlook (dag snang) and sacrament, the sacramental vows (samaya) need to be upheld. If the Guru does seemingly reprehensible things, the students are not to consider them as such, because Lama knows (bla ma mkhyen no), and should not be criticized, since he is a Buddha and his activity is always awakened and skillful.
"So, how does pure perception [dag snang] work? As a Vajrayana student, if you look at Sogyal Rinpoche and think he’s overweight, that is an impure perception. To try to correct your impure perception you might then try visualizing him with the body of Tom Cruise, but that is still not pure perception. One of the Vajrayana’s infinite number of skilful methods that are used to deconstruct and dismantle impure perception, is to visualize Sogyal Rinpoche with a horse’s head, a thousand arms and four legs. But even this technique must ultimately be transcended in order fully to realize pure perception." Dzongsar Jamyang Khyentse, Guru and Student in the Vajrayana
Similarly, if co-students and co-initiates do seemingly reprehensible things, to entertain negative thoughts on their behalf would not be inductive to sacred outlook. These rules are added to the overall injunction to secrecy and sacred outlook. They constitute the tube in which a snake is stuck, until coming out at either end, the upper or the lower. In this case “stuck” specifically refers to the impossibility to speak out (or even think) freely about seemingly reprehensible things, done by the Guru or co-students. To speak out would imply disrespect towards the vajra master and negative thoughts projected onto co-students.

Practitioners of Atiyoga, the highest form of Dzogchen, have one single vow: to remain “in the sphere of the infinite supreme bliss” without discrimination, i.e. “to be beyond the concepts of maintaining or not maintaining a vow”. One’s Guru, who “naturally remains in the sphere of the infinite supreme bliss” can’t be evaluated and judged through lower sets of samaya vows and their injunctions and prohibitions “restraining certain kinds of behaviour”.

These are the rules for the empowered ones of a social group. The rules are different for those who would like to follow a teacher in his quality of a Guru. These searchers are invited to examine their future Guru most critically and for a long period, before they decide to go any further on the path to liberation, and to become their student, as well as a co-student of the other students of the Guru. A thorough investigation is quite impossible, though, because a Guru tends not to be equally accessible to non-students, and doesn’t act as a Guru during public gatherings, but rather as an ordinary spiritual teacher trying to reach out to the largest audience possible. Only when admitted into the inner circle, a future student could see and witness the Guru in everyday life behaving as a Guru “in the sphere of the infinite supreme bliss”. One can’t really inquire about a candidate Guru by asking future co-students about their opinion, because they are unable to criticize their Guru, because they are already stuck inside the tube. The same is true for asking other Gurus about their enlightened opinion, because they themselves are likely to be co-students of the candidate Guru. So, frankly, the whole preliminary Guru assessment is a lame argument that simply tries to put all the responsibility on a student.

The authors of Sex and Violence in Tibetan Buddhism[4] talk about “red robes mafia” and write the following about the publication of the Open letter by eight former students of Sogyal Lakar:
The corruption that had been festering under the carpet for decades was publicly exposed. The Buddhist version of omerta was blown wide open.”
The “festering under the carpet” is the direct result of the injunction of secrecy and sacred outlook regardless of the reality. Instead of producing an enlightened community, it produced corruption and abuse. Not only in Sogyal’s Rigpa but also in Trungpa’s Vajradhatu and Shambala. 

In his recent book Splendeurs et misères du bouddhisme tibétain, Olivier Raurich, a former French translator of Sogyal, quotes from a mail that Namkhai Norbu sent in the past as an answer to one of his students that asked him about Sogyal’s behaviour.
I received your letter about Sogyal Rinpoche. As you know, I am a Vajrayana practitioner, and in Vajrayana the most important thing is the samaya. Sogyal Rinpoche is my Vajra brother. Of course, I must also respect my Vajra brother for my own realisation. So I try to do everything to the best of my ability[5].” (translated from the French with DeepL, not the original English wording)
Olivier Raurich comments rightly so:
The most astounding passage is: "for my own realisation [spiritual fulfillment]"! He's afraid for his samaya, for his personal salvation, so he hides the truth... and admits it. A surprising attitude for a spiritual master! Matthieu Ricard and the Dalai Lama, for their part, leave the denunciation [“make public!”] to the disciple; they themselves refrain from making any criticism that might damage their samaya. This shows the profound alienation to which the entire community is subjected by the almost medieval belief system of Tibetan Buddhism.[6]
Medieval or feudal. Tibetan and Western Gurus can’t speak out about corruption and abuse by their colleagues, because this would go against their vows of samaya, “the most important thing” in Vajrayāna according to Namkhai Norbu, since one’s own spiritual fulfillment depends on it. Remember the snake in the tube and the choice between the greatest glory and the deepest hell. Even heroic bodhisattvas always go for the glory. When will we see a tantric messiah ready to take on all the broken samaya of the world and free sentient initiates from all their sins?  

This email from Namkhai Norbu to a student is not about a Guru humble bragging, but rather a Guru gaslighting his student. Namkhai Norbu is not talking about his own obligations as a Vajrayana practitioner, but wants to indirectly remind his students of their obligations. As a Vajrayana practitioner a student ought to scrupulously respect the same samaya vows as Namkhai Norbu, and even more so. Namkhai Norbu is showing himself to scrupulously respect samaya towards a Vajra brother, Sogyal Lakar, not to mention Namkhai Norbu’s respect for his own guru. For the sake of the students’ own realisation, or in order to avoid the deepest hell, they ought to mind their samaya regarding secrecy and towards their Guru and Vajra brothers ... and sisters.

The Dalai-lama may be doing the same by asking students, who claim they were abused, to denounce their Gurus themselves. Why? Because he too may be bound by samaya. And so are the members of the inner circle of a Guru (Vajra brothers and sisters), who often are senior teachers and hold positions of responsibility in Buddhist centers and/or in national or transnational Buddhist Unions. They are all bound by samaya, “the most important thing” in Vajrayāna. 

Showing oneself openly to not follow samaya is to disqualify oneself as a Vajrayana practitioner. I think if we wanted to find some sort of “feudal influence”, looking into samayait would be a good place to start. How would “we” end that feudal influence”? That’s for Vajrayāna practitioners and Gurus to decide. Nothing has happened since 2017. Or rather, it, the secrecy, the omerta, the silence has never ceased to happen.

This article has also been published on Open Buddhism.


[1]If these three samaya do not deteriorate, then your body, speech and mind will be transformed into the vajra nature. While you live your hopes will be fulfilled, while at the time of death you will have a clear mind, untroubled by the sickness of the defilements. [Your body] will have a pleasant odour, you will not forget the instructions, and the deities will come as escorts.”
Van Schaik, Sam. (2010). ‘The Limits of Transgression: The Samaya Vows of Mahāyoga‘. In Matthew Kapstein & Sam Van Schaik (Eds.), Esoteric Buddhism at Dunhuang: Rites and Teachings for This Life and Beyond (pp. 61-83). Leiden: Brill. Quoted from a Tibetan manuscript from the library cave at Dunhuang IOL Tib J 718 r. 11.

[2] Ibid. Quoted from a Tibetan manuscript from the library cave at Dunhuang IOL Tib J 718 r.12.

[3] Dunhuang manuscripts. Van Schaik, p. 68

[4] Finnigan, Mary & Rob Hogendoorn. (2021). Sex and Violence in Tibetan Buddhism: The Rise and Fall of Sogyal Rinpoche (Revised and Updated).. Portland: Jorvik Press, p. 93.

[5]J’ai reçu votre lettre au sujet de Sogyal Rinpoché. Comme vous le savez, je suis un pratiquant du Vajrayana, et dans le Vajrayana le plus important est la samaya. Sogyal Rinpoché est mon frère du Vajra. Bien sûr, je dois aussi respecter mon frère du Vajra pour ma propre réalisation. Ainsi, j’essaye de tout faire au mieux.”

[6]Le passage le plus renversant est : « pour ma propre réalisation [accomplissement spirituel] »! Il a peur pour sa samaya, pour son salut personnel, donc il tait la vérité... et il l’avoue. Étonnante attitude pour un maître spirituel ! Matthieu Ricard et le Dalaï Lama laissent quant à eux le soin de la dénonciation au disciple, ils s’abstiennent de porter eux-mêmes une critique qui risquerait d’endommager leur samaya. On voit là l’aliénation profonde que fait subir à toute la communauté le système de croyances quasi moyenâgeux du bouddhisme tibétain.” Splendeurs et misères du bouddhisme tibétain

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