Mature and immature tolerance

Mature and immature tolerance

Ngak’chang Rinpoche & Khandro Déchen
interviewed by Lama Shardröl, 31 December 1997

This is the first half of an interview originally published in vision magazine in 1998 (issue 11). The second half, ‘Sweet and sour orthodoxy’, appears on this site starting in October 2008.

Lama Shardröl Ngak’chang Rinpoche & Khandro Déchen, thank you again for taking the time to give this interview. I’d like to ask some controversial questions . . .

KD, NR, & LS [laughter]

Ngak’chang Rinpoche I suppose we ought to let you know at the outset that we’re slightly ambivalent about addressing controversy . . .

Khandro Déchen Well . . . too much controversy anyway [laughs]

NR Yes. We don’t want to retract from real engagement with people’s questions either. You see . . . on the one hand, there’s the question of simply practicing the path and discussing the nature of the teachings – of dealing simply with the wholesomeness of the path. We don’t want to give the impression that Dharma is a minefield of attitudes and bigotry. But we don’t want to get into denial either. We do not want to pretend that everything is perfect.

KD We’re aware that issues exist . . . and we want to be responsible in terms of helping people make the most of their involvement with the Vajrayana. That is our main concern.

NR To look at problems, or to make critical comment, can often simply create an atmosphere of futility. That would be a sad waste of time.

KD But on the other hand issues do exist and people do have to confront them at some point.

NR So we’re open to looking at ‘controversial subjects’ from the perspective of giving people tools with which to understand what they’re doing in a more creative and constructive way.

KD We think you understand that.

LS Yes. I can see why you’re ambivalent . . . But I think it’s valuable for people to hear your comments on these things. People get so bogged down sometimes. I’ve met so many people who need to know how to handle the atmosphere of negative debate that bubbles up in the Buddhist world – especially on the Internet.

Last week we discussed issues of ‘traditional’ and ‘non-traditional’ and what those concepts actually meant. You said then, Rinpoche, that the Nyingma are not a school in the way that the other schools are ‘schools’, and that the ‘head of the Nyingma’ is not a Pope. You said the Dala’i Lama wasn’t a Pope either.

NR Yes . . .

LS Could we start from there and look at authority and orthodoxy from that point of view?

NR Possibly . . . Can I ask why?

LS Well . . . I’m interested in these issue because so many Tibetan Buddhists seem to have a problem about one thing or another with regard to this school or that school, this teacher or that teacher, and whether something is a real lineage or not. There seems to be an undercurrent of argument that never ends . . .

NR Yes . . . that’s very sad, isn’t it.

KD It’s been going on since Buddha Shakyamuni’s parinirvana. [I.e. since the death of the ‘historical Buddha’ 2500 years ago – Ed.]

LS So it’s not just Western people?

KD Good heavens no.

NR Western people are no more intrinsically diseased than anyone else.

KD And they had to learn their sectarianism from somewhere. Whatever ‘facts’ they trot out to prove or disprove something or someone, they have learnt somewhere from someone.

NR The fancier ones get their ‘facts’ directly from texts. There is a genus of ‘Buddhologists’ now who love nothing better than to argue about anything and everything. Proving things to be either right or wrong would appear to be something of a sport with them.

LS What about the argument that it’s important to be able to distinguish? I mean, being able to define what is authentic and what is not?

KD We’re not saying that there is no use at all in intelligent debate, but people do seem to take it all a little bit too seriously. They seem to forget that Buddha Shakyamuni’s own words guide us away from establishing ‘ultimate ground’ in any kind of orthodoxy. He said that his Dharma was empty, that he had never taught it, and that it had never been heard. The actual quotation is far more eloquent, but the basic drift points out that we shouldn’t turn the teachings of the Buddha into a collection of sanctified edicts.

NR The Buddha was not a Pope either.

KD He advised that we should not accept what he said simply because he said it.

NR But people would seem to have ignored that advice all the way down the line. And then, if they wanted to ring the changes on what he had said, they got clever with interpretations and argued with each other on that basis. It is useful at one level to have a lively discussion – if you can’t discuss you end up brain-dead; but, as Khandro Déchen said, people take it all too seriously. People are actually very unkind to each other on the basis of textual proofs and reasoning. We would really like to see a little more genuine kindness and friendliness in the Buddhist world.

KD We include the Buddhologists in that. One needs to be kind and friendly to them even though we many not always admire their enthusiasm for examining ‘this’ in contradistinction to ‘that’ and finding ‘this’ to be invalid.

NR And we’d also include the advocates of celibacy, even though we don’t share their rigorous ardor for sexual abstention. We need to be more tolerant of each other in the world. If Buddhists cannot co-exist, then there’s not much hope, is there?

LS But the same applies to all religions, doesn’t it? I mean, they all argue amongst themselves too.

NR [in Georgia drawl] Dang right, honey chile . . . But we’re reckoned to be the dudes as don’t git riled, ain’t we? We’re the guys who’re reckoned t’be reasonable, or ain’t we? Wisdom & compassion, that’s our number, ain’t it? [Rinpoche shifts into highly proper English] We would prefer, if the truth were known, not to have to discuss the topic of orthodoxy and non-orthodoxy at all. We realise, however, at the same time . . . that it would appear to be important.

KD People seem to need to understand something about doctrinal dispute and why it exists; because otherwise they end up feeling dispirited and depressed about Buddhism.

NR  . . . and about themselves.

LS Yes . . . I’ve noticed that. There seem to be some people who enjoy talking about controversy, and then others who are frightened by it and want everything to be so damn nicey-nicey that it’s unreal.

NR Yes . . . So we have to tread a careful line between being critical of certain trends, whilst recommending that everyone mind their own business and celebrate their own unique tradition – whether others consider it valid or not [laughs]. I do not believe in celibacy but I will defend with my life a monastic’s right to be celibate!

KD We’re happy to celebrate diversity.

NR Do you remember the Venerable Thanavaro?

LS Sure. He was that Italian Theravadin monk we met at the so-called ‘Conference of Western Buddhist Teachers’ in Dharamsala. He seemed like a genuinely spiritual person – like he was totally human and real, but with all the best qualities of humanness. It was very inspiring for me to meet him.

NR Such a wonderful man . . . He was more of a Tantrika than many who rejoice in the sobriquet. And more pure as an exponent of Sutra, in similar style. He also seemed to have a good grasp of Dzogchen. You can find good practitioners everywhere, and you can also find people who use their religion as a mask for neurosis, narcissism, and anti-social personality disorder. The same would apply to scholars. We might sometimes question the value of scholasticism, because people get caught up in it for its own sake. But we actually value the creative scholarship of some Westerners, and also the translators who have worked hard to bring valuable material to the attention of those who cannot access it in its original language.

KD People need to appreciate each other – not in some artificial lovey-dovey way, but simply in an open-hearted manner. We are all different. We have different approaches and it’s very useful to be able to live and let live. We have to learn how to allow each other to be different. We have to learn how to agree to disagree. That seems to be a difficult balance to cultivate. Rinpoche and I obviously have a style. It’s not a very ’religious’ style. It’s not a pious style, and it’s true that we’re not that keen on an atmosphere of sacredness, sanctity, and awe – but we have no interest in saying that these things should not exist. We don’t want to ban anyone else’s style. Other styles are not a problem to us.

NR We can also have some humour about our differences. Our differences do not have to be a problem. We do not have to kill each other verbally or physically just because we have differences in view, or because we’re kosher or not kosher, or because the Buddha said it or didn’t say it. We’re not even against heretics really [laughs] as long as they don’t want to legislate us out of existence. We’re told that there is a Buddhist psychotherapist who is really upset with us because we’re Western people who uphold the traditional role of the Vajra Master. Apparently we’ve betrayed the holy cause or something. We’re not part of the anti-Vajra Master crusade, and somehow people find it hard to come to terms with that. But were’ not offended by that either – if Western people want to go the way of psychotherapy then we say good luck.

KD It really comes down to ‘live and let live’. So arguments as to whether the Nyingma have unbroken lineages or not do not concern us. Or whether térmas are authentic Buddhist teaching or not, or any one of an endless number of such . . .

LS  . . . pointless, futile causes of acrimony?

KD Yes – none of them concern us. Sadly, academic research into these subjects too often appears merely to provide weapons of those who want to make enemies of others. It doesn’t actually matter very much whether Padmasambhava is the second Buddha, as the Nyingmas claim, or a person about whom Western-style academics can apparently find little evidence.

NR One would imagine that, as Nyingma practitioners, we would be shocked and outraged to hear that there is actually precious little evidence for Padmasambhava; but we’re not really that disturbed by such findings.

LS You doubt the accuracy of the research?

NR We have no reason to doubt it – it simply makes no difference. We simply lack the time or interest to argue; and we have no need to validate the Nyingma tradition by attempting to prove academics wrong. We can accept what the academics say, whilst being unaffected in our devotion for the vast gestalt of what Padmasambhava and Yeshé Tsogyel mean to us as Nyingmas.

LS That’s a very unusual stance to take. How . . . do you deal with a contradiction like that? Isn’t it important to know that he was actually there?

NR Padmasambhava was certainly there – it simply cannot be proved how long he was there or to what extent he influenced the course of events in Tibet. No one doubts that a person called Padmasambhava came to Tibet for a short period. What was doubted was the spiritual massiveness with which we credit him. But the point is, who cares? Quite frankly, I don’t give a damn [laughs]. Padmasambhava is a spiritual reality for us; and as a spiritual reality, Padmasambhava exists in trikaya form. The academic historians can only discuss Nirmanakaya Padmasambhava anyway. Sambhogakaya Padmasambhava is unavailable to Buddhologists, and Dharmakaya Padmasambhava is utterly unavailable.

KD Padmasambhava doesn’t have to be a carbon-dated reality, as far as we’re concerned [laughs].

NR Right [laughs]. We always thought it was a bit of a mistake to allow the Turin Shroud to be scientifically tested. There’s something a little too grossly materialistic about that, and now they’ve proved that it’s not what it’s claimed to be . . . So now what? Will people still be cured of illness by seeing it, or not? We hope they will. We hope that those who venerate the shroud will ignore the scientific facts and allow it to be what it always has been for them.

LS People seem to be a little too obsessed with the idea of validating everything according to time [interrupted]

KD You see, history can be different things to different people. History can be approached from the point of view of knowing exactly how it was, according to objectivity – whatever that might be. But history is also meaning – it serves a purpose in terms of providing a meaningful context for the present moment and how that connects with the future.

LS So, history being ‘accurate’ is just one way of approaching things?

KD Well yes.

LS But isn’t that tricky? I mean, wouldn’t it be a good idea to know how it really was?

KD Why would it be tricky?

LS Well . . . you might have built everything on a phantasy.

KD And then?

LS And then . . . well, I’m thinking about this as chö, Dharma, meaning ‘as it is’, and if we base something on ‘as it wasn’t’, then . . .

KD Ah, I see your problem. ‘As it is’ does not necessarily mean scientific materialism.

NR What we’re saying here is that whether Padmasambhava is factual or mythical is irrelevant from the point of view which looks at the effect Padmasambhava has had on those who are inspired by him. But, to return to your previous point, Shardröl, you said: “Wouldn’t it be better to know how it actually was?” We can never actually know how anything really was. There are as many history as there are people to research history. The ‘truth’ of the past is in the past, and all we can know in the present is a fabric of impressions. The question is whether we want a meaningful impression, or a scientifically verifiable impression.

KD The scientifically verifiable impression is always interesting if it allows for greater inspiration; but if it reduces the human spirit . . . what is its value?

LS So we can make objective statements about the effect of Padmasambhava, and these will be ‘as it is’ even though Padmasambhava may not have been reality according to scientific materialism?

KD Quite.

NR You see, Padmasambhava has existed in terms of vision for a great many visionary Lamas. Within Tantra, visionary ‘facts’ are not divided from historical ‘facts’, because what is meaningful and inspiring is more relevant to spiritual practice than mere information.

KD When I paint thangkas, for example, I paint Yeshé Tsogyel with blue eyes. This is not because I believe she had blue eyes – I know that Tibetans don’t have blue eyes. The colour of her eyes is symbolic of the sky. She’s also pink in colour, but that’s the mixing of the red & white thing-lés, not because we think she was Caucasian. So . . . why does she have this obviously non-historically accurate appearance? Keith Dowman alludes in his book Sky Dancer to the possibility that Yeshé Tsogyel was far from beautiful – but our image of her is very beautiful. What does that mean?

LS That’s how she manifested in visionary form according to the térma of Khyungchen Aro Lingma?

KD That’s right. And the Khyungchen Aro Lingma form is not the only form of Yeshé Tsogyel. There are other forms of Yeshé Tsogyel. There exists the possibility of infinite Yeshé Tsogyels and infinite Padmasambhavas.

LS So in that way history is being recreated all the time according to vision . . .

KD Yes.

NR That is why the history of Padmasambhava is so extensive.

KD Every Lama who has visions of Padmasambhava or Yeshé Tsogyel contributes to the burgeoning visionary history of meaning which exists to inspire practitioners.

LS So why do Buddhists in general seem so intent on proving things according to non-visionary history?

NR Well . . . that’s either a matter of devotion . . . or . . . a matter of lack of confidence in the nature of visionary reality. You see . . . It’s kinda tricky . . .. This is not a nice question [laughs]. I’d say that you have to look at this within the context of a society in which there were a variety of different forces at work. Tibetan spiritual culture, like any other spiritual culture, contained an assortment of agendas. There was debate and controversy because people had different ways of expressing things. Different styles arose and contrasts became evident. Now some people can’t handle ideas contrasting with each other. For the nervous, there has to be unanimous agreement on ‘how things are’. For the nervous, there can only be ‘one true way’, and if there is only one true way . . . then the other ways have to be ‘the work of the devil’, or ’false teachings’, or ‘broken lineage’, or whatever. Now because of this, Lamas may, with the very best possible motivations, attempt to calm things down through a process of historical and textual validation. The realised Lamas of all schools have never had problems with the diversity of teachings. The first Panchen Lama, for example. There is a famous quote of his which states categorically that there is no problem with the variety of spiritual expressions which existed in Tibet in his time. Here he makes it very clear that the realisation of Dzogchen and Chagchen, or Mahamudra, are identical:

The Chagchen of Gampopa, the Chagchen of Khédrüp Khyungpo, and that of Jigten Gönpo and Tsangpa Gya-ré; the Changchen of ‘The Four Syllables’, the chöd of Machig Labdrön, the Dzogchen of Padmasambhava, Jé Tsongkhapa’s guide to Madhyamaka – Many different names are given; but if their subject matter is examined, by an experienced Tantrika, their essence is found to be the same.

This first Panchen Lama was the Root Teacher of the Great Fifth Dala’i Lama, and he was a conspicuous Dzogchen master. He was also a tértön. The great Lamas of the Ri-mèd trend of the 19th Century were also of the same view. Many of these Lamas were keen to provide validation for the divergent teaching traditions in order to undermine sectarianism and to counter the criticisms of those who were addicted to making one thing ‘right’ through making another thing ‘wrong’.

LS But things don’t actually need to be validated that way, do they? I mean, you can just validate your own practice by practising it and finding out for yourself.

KD Well . . . that was Buddha Shakyamuni’s advice after all . . .

NR Quite. You see . . . Buddhism is not actually a religion which is based on one person. Buddhism is not ’the word of God’, or ‘the word of the son of God’, or ‘the word of the messenger of God’. The Buddha’s teaching is called ‘Dharma’ – ’chö’ – ‘as it is’. ‘As it is’ is not ‘as I said it is’. ‘As it is’ is ‘as it is’. ‘As it is’ is ‘as you discover it to be through applying the practices which reveal it – as it is’. That’s it. Buddhism is not Buddhism because it was what the Buddha taught.

KD What would we call a non-dual teaching, whose path combined wisdom & compassion, and which denied the four philosophical extremes [the errors of eternalism, nihilism, monism, and dualism] – if it came from another planet? Would we call that Buddhism? Or would we have to say: “No that can’t be Buddhism because the Buddha never went to Planet Dermatitis.” Or would we have to say: “Yes, this is Buddhism, because there’s an oblique reference in a text that alludes to the fact that the Buddha once went to Planet Dermatitis.”

LS Well, that seems pretty clear to me, so why do people make fuss about what Buddhism is and what it is not?

NR Good question. Maybe it is because when you don’t really know what Buddhism is, you have to validate it according to something outside your own experience. And that is usually a text and a historical reference.

LS But it seems as if the Buddha would have refuted that approach.

NR & KD [laughter]

NR Sure. I have little doubt about that. However, I think we have to be careful not to set up some soft of self-validating Puritanism. We feel that there is space for everything. There is space for historical academic research, and there is space for the reverential attribution of teachings to various personages. There is space for people who want to get as close as they can to the words of Shakyamuni Buddha and Padmasambhava, and there is space for people who want to go for the essence, irrespective of the nearness or distance of its historical origins. Buddhism is a vast field of wonder for its sincere practitioners, and so many, many, many different methods are encompassed within its parameters. We feel that it’s preferable to come from a position of inclusivity rather than exclusivity.

LS It occurs to me here, and I am sorry to bring it up, but what is the difference between what you are saying and the idea that ‘all religions are one’? You’ve said in the past that this idea is problematic. I know you’re not talking about ’all religions’ but couldn’t it be said that this is a similar statement, made from within Buddhism?

NR [laughs] Good question! We are not saying that every variety of Buddhism is definitely and absolutely kosher. One couldn’t say that. What we are saying is that we can be tolerant – we can say that there is space for others in the world. We can be inquisitive about the differences, rather than coming from a point of antagonism. We can say: “Whoa! Look at all these different varieties! Isn’t it amazing how many different fruits grow on this tree!” The fact that maybe they’re not all edible is neither here nor there. We don’t have to eat them all, do we? The results of eating them will be experienced by those who eat them. We don't need to concern ourselves with the dietary regimes of others. We do not need to appoint ourselves as a Buddhist monitoring agency in order to safeguard others from ‘improper forms of Buddhism’. We don’t have to manufacture ‘master race’ ideas about this, do we?

KD There are two kinds of tolerance. There’s immature tolerance, and there’s mature tolerance. Immature tolerance accepts everything by making it the same. Mature tolerance accepts variety without being threatened by it. Mature tolerance can suspend judgment as to whether a thing is valid or invalid. Mature tolerance is inquisitive, whereas responding to difference with suspicion is animal-realm mentality.

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