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The Great beings of the past developped numerous methods for obtaining a stable happiness, free of any illusion. However Buddhism differs of religious dogma, as it is a science of the mind, and also as it was successfully tested by generations of practitionners. For this reason, it was adopted by numerous societies and governments.
However approaching Buddhism may be a bit disconcerting, from the abundance of teachings and techniques, of from some common false ideas. Thus this page has for purpose to allow everybody to evaluate this path before taking a decision to engage in. It also proposes an indispensible general knowledge, in this century of global civilization, where spirituality has become a survival requirement.
Sommaire: Introduction - India in the epoch of the Buddha - The Buddha - The small Vehicle: Hinayana or Theravada - Primitive Buddhism - The Great Vehicle: Mahayana - The Tantric Vehicle: Vajrayana - The Tibetan Buddhism of Vajrayana - The Lamrim - Buddhist ethic - The Buddhist buildings - Buddhism In practice - True and false debates about Buddhism
Visit my virtual stupa. You must first install the VRML plug-in Cortona (Window or Mac, free and safe, easy to install and to remove). Then go to the scene. This stupa is the one of the Vajra Yogini Institute, in Lavaur, France, founded by Lama Yeshe and Lama Zopa Rinpoche.
This page is a short presentation of Buddhism, that everybody can read, for general knowledge, or for getting an overview of it, before deciding to engage into this path. Beginner Buddhists will also find here a canvas where to place more detailed teachings. This page is also for every person interested into social alternatives: community experiences in the 1970' effectively told us that only a spiritual training allows to master our character defilements, in order to really embody an harmonious collective life.
This page is also a serious reminder about our fundamental freedom of thinking and acting, in front of all those who «forget» that a lay society is a way to live together into real tolerance and harmony.
Some say that Buddhism is a religion, others that it is a philosophy, or a art of living. I would say that it is above all a method for obtaining a stable happiness, with learning to master our inappropriate emotions which create frustrations and bad actions. Thus Buddhism is a way of liberation, which allows all the practitioners to better face the hazards of life. Those who will invest more time and effort can obtain higher consciousness states: the end of all suffering (Nirvana), see the Buddhahood, the complete unfolding of our full human potential.
Buddhism is not an united or centralized body, and this can arise some confusion. So I present here the different schools of Buddhism into the three following parts: the three Vehicles, which match with the three main historical epochs of the evolution of Buddhism. Along the way I progressively introduce the main notions, into the appropriate order for studying and applying them. So a student engaged into a Buddhist path will easily find where he is, or a canvas where to place the more detailed teachings of the masters.
The following texts were written from teachings and opinions of knowledgeable persons. In case of a mistake from me, the advice of Buddhist masters will prevail. I give my personal opinion in italic, like here, and the Buddhist doctrine into normal font, like here.
India in the epoch of the Buddha, 2500 years ago, was a country where spirituality was already richly developed and kept in high esteem. The main religious background, Brahmanism, stated the existence of a complex cosmogony and of a rich pantheon under the rule of three gods, representing each a fundamental aspect of life. It was already fostering an ethic based on respecting others and life. Our actions, good or bad, create our karma, which in turn is directing, after our death, our reincarnation in a pleasant or unpleasant body and situation, depending on our good or bad actions. Buddhism, appearing in this context, took those statements as such, without adding others, but without suppressing them.
In the time of the Buddha, India was rich enough to support numerous advanced practitioners, the Yogis, living in secluded places, often in a community of practitioners, the ashram, under the direction of a spiritual master, the Guru. The purpose of the Yogis already was to reach the liberation of suffering, through various physical or mental exercises, and by renouncing to ordinary life. Brahmanism is still well alive today, and it brought non-violence (Ahimsa) to the modern world, and also numerous methods of Yoga.
The Buddha (The awakened) was named Siddhârta (The one by who the Good happens). He was the prince of the Sakya kingdom (From where his nickname: Sakyamuni), which capital was Kapilavastu. History says that he spend his childhood locked into the palace of his father, who wanted to provide him with a totally happy life, of pleasures and studies, free of any vision of suffering, disease or death. But necessarily, one day, the truth appeared to him. Under the shock, he decided to find a solution for this. He abandoned the palace and went studying and meditating with Hinduist masters. After seven years of ascetic training, he obtained illumination, in a place named Bodhgaya. Then he went back to public life, spreading his teaching: the Dharma, and gathering his disciples. Those disciples were the first monks and nuns, then the first lay practitioners. The first disciples to obtain illumination in their turn are traditionally named the 16 Arhats (Or 18, depending on traditions). They were the first Buddhist masters. Then the Buddha, having reached a great age, did his Parinirvâna: departing toward a Buddhist paradise, definitively out of reach of any suffering. The basic notions of Buddhism were stated by the Buddha Sakyamuni, and written by his direct disciples. They were an evolution of the existing Brahmanist frame, but they did not intended to question it.
The Small Vehicle (Hinayana or Theravada) takes the teachings publicly given by the Sakyamuni Buddha, just like they were given in the 5th Century before Christ. It is now present in India, Cambodia, Thailand, Vietnam, Japan, and it is mainly represented into the West among the communities of migrants of these countries. The teaching of the Small Vehicle is about the search of our individual liberation. It is exposed into the Sutras, especially the Three Baskets (Tripitaka), copies of the sermons of the Buddha, written down into the years which followed his death. In front of the powerful modern schools of the Great Vehicle and the Tantra Vehicle, some may think that the Small vehicle would be primitive or simplistic. But we must not be mistaken with this: the essential of Buddhism is contained into the Small Vehicle, and it remains the basis of the other vehicles. Only the methods of Tantras are original, but they have the same purposes and work on the same basis. Thus it would be a plain illusion to undertake them without the knowledge of the Small Vehicle. This is why the Masters always start to recall these basis, and also why this part is the longest.
Buddhism is based on the acknowledgement of a fact: the faulty functioning of our lives, which produces suffering, frustration and death. This is summarized by the words The Four Noble Truths: 1) the world is full of suffering 2) this suffering has a cause, our disturbing emotions 3) this suffering has a solution, the Nirvana, a state without suffering 4) there is a path which leads to this solution, that the practice of Buddhism, or Dharma, allows us to follow.
We must first understand how the world is working, after Buddhist views.
-Reincarnation. Consciousness, instead of disappearing at death, can take birth again, in a new born body, on Earth, into material worlds, or into paradise or hell worlds. As a consequence, we already experienced a great number of past lives, and numerous others are awaiting for us.
Buddhism considers that we can reincarnate into six types of universes, depending on our karma: hells (burning hells for heinous people, icy cold hells for manipulators), the worlds of the hungry ghosts (where we experience an intense frustration), animal worlds (where we suffer without being able to understand), human worlds (where we suffer from our own actions), the worlds of the Titans (Jealous Gods, whom pleasures are wasted by an intense jealousy), the worlds of the gods, at last, were we have a magnificent and very pleasant life. The latest worlds seem the best choice, but they are so pleasant, so diverting, that we forget any motivation for evolving and doing the good. And when our karma is exhausted, the fall toward inferior world is then extremely painful. The best choice is then the human world, which inconveniences are very advantageously balanced by the possibility to study and evolve, to, at last, escape to any karmic link toward any of these six worlds.
-The Karma. The conditions we are experiencing into our life today are the consequences of our past actions, into this life or into our past lives. More accurately, we are experiencing in our turn what we gave to experience to others. From here the need to practice ethics and compassion, in order to avoid to give sufferings to others, and by consequence to be warrant that our own reincarnations will happen into pleasant conditions. We can engage our karma with concrete actions, but also with our speech, and even with our thoughts, whatever they are day dreams or our behaviour in a computer game or into a virtual world.
Another less known but much more important aspect of karma is what we call habit: from the simple fact of accomplishing an action, this makes this action easier the next time, we do it more readily. In this way, karma can condition our mind in an immediate and very strong way, even without us being aware. But this also offers us the possibility to transform our mind in a positive way, with training us to accomplish good deeds. And this training is efficient even if we act only by thought! (To the condition, of course, not to neglect practicizing the good toward real persons, each time we have an opportunity to do this).
-Suffering is caused by our disturbing emotions, also called the three poisons (or the five poisons, in more detailed analysis). Attachment and hate manipulate us and distort our perception of the world. They bring us suffering directly, as they are unpleasant. They make us see things in a pessimistic, distorted, ugly or fearsome way. But above all they create suffering by making us commit evil actions, which harm us or harm others. Even attachment to the good and hatred or evil are traps, which can lead us to fundamentalists or to Puritanism. So we must practice the good and fight the evil without making a fuss of it, simply because it is necessary. The third great disturbing emotion, ignorance, is the non-understanding of Emptiness (see further), which makes us commit bad actions because we don't understand the true stakes of our actions.
-The state of mind resulting from these causes is the Samsara. It is the defiled condition that experience people who do not control their karma, and thus are linked to its nasty consequences, because of their prejudices, their conditioning, their disturbing emotions. In the Samsara, we bear without control an infinite series of ephemeral pleasures and of fundamental frustrations, of alternating pleasant or unpleasant reincarnations, at random, according to our actions, depending on how they happen to be good or bad. Some persons see the Samsara as a pleasant place, where we enjoy all kind of pleasures. But this view is a profound illusion, as Samsara asks a deterring price for each bit of happiness. The pleasures of Samsara are like the bait in a trap, like the last wish the executioner grants to the condemned: which pleasure can we find in it, when we know that an extreme suffering will follow immediately? Samsara is a very abnormal and unfortunate situation, that only our habit makes us think at it as «the norm».
-The way our consciousness is linked to Samsara and to suffering is traditionally described as the twelve interdependent links.
-Impermanence is the condition of everything which is into the Samsara: condemned to disappear, to die. Meditate on impermanence helps to obtain the detachment which is necessary for obtaining the Ahrat state (see further).
-The Nirvana, also called the extinction (of suffering) is a state of unconditional bliss, that no cause can never break or tarnish, as we are liberated of the effects of our karma, whatever positive or negative. It is important to understand that Samsara and Nirvana are not different places in the universe, and all the less who know which material/spiritual opposition. They are two different functioning of our mind, which will create different experiences of life, wherever we are. Only at the time of death, they will project us toward rebirths in different places. Thus the very purpose of the Small Vehicle is to transform our mind in order to liberate ourselves of the Samsara and its suffering, and obtain the state of Nirvana. This is the reason why we say that Buddhism is a liberation path, and that its result is the achievement of different states:
-An Ahrat is a being who understood Emptiness (see further), and who, as a consequence, obtained the Nirvana. (The exact definition has some differences, depending on Vehicles). We also say that he obtained the liberation. An Ahrat can no monger fall into any form of the delusions of the Samsara. An Ahrat obtains common powers (parapsychological) and superior powers (Understanding of the functioning of the world, of karma, etc). We also find words such as Shravaka or Pratyekabuddha, which are varied levels into the understanding, but the meaning of these words changes from a school to another.
-A Boddhisattva is a being who renounced to any egotist search of happiness, and who consecrates all his life time to the happiness of all other sentient beings. The Great Vehicle places more stress on this notion.
-A Buddha is in the same time a Boddhisattva and an Ahrat. We also say he obtained awakening, or illumination. It is the highest degree of evolution recognized by Buddhism.
-An Aria is somebody who obtained a non-conceptual (non-intellectual) understanding of the doctrine.
As it is difficult to become a Buddha, death can surprise us before. In this case we can be admitted in one of the 33 Buddhist paradises, or pure lands, which protect us definitively against any suffering. Some look like Earth and are easy to reach, other are more esoteric (without corporeal forms), depending on our evolution. The Buddhist rituals which are done after death have for purpose to guide the deceased toward one of these paradises, or at least that he obtains a reincarnation favourable to his evolution.
Some may not accept ideas such as the survival after death, or parapsychological powers. However, before asking for so much, we can already be very happy when we meet ordinary Buddhist practitioners who, from the application to ethics and to the six Paramitas, became much more pleasant to live with! Even if this was the only result of Buddhism, this would be enough to make it something very useful and very precious!
Basically, a Buddhist works to develop two aspects of his consciousness, which will be the basis of his life experience:
Compassion, or love, is the fact of feeling concerned by the suffering and happiness of others, as if it was ours. Because every sentient beings have the same right to happiness. This is the same thing than Christic love. It can be an intellectual understanding or a moving feeling. It can be put in practice according to different degrees, depending on our means and on situations: doing some gifts, having political or social commitments, until consecrating all our powers to it. But in any case compassion requires to examine our behaviour and our values, and to modify them accordingly, in order to stop creating suffering. Practice of compassion can also be accomplished with ethic, by taking vows, commitments, etc. In Buddhist traditions, this love can be applied in a pragmatic way, for instance while admitting the use of self-defence. But some practitioners also apply it abruptly, against their own interest, see against their own life. What is lost at the level of one life is then regained hundredfold for their evolution. Equanimity is the fact, very important, to grant our love to all beings without distinction, and stop considering them as close or distant, friends of foe, etc. (especially on inappropriate criteria such as religion, race, gender, nationality, hairs, etc.). The complete integration of unconditional compassion into the very functioning of our mind makes of us a Boddhisattva.
Emptiness is the exact way to understand how reality works. It is impossible to give a clear explanation of Emptiness to persons who have not understood at least the non-duality of opposites: Emptiness is defined as «the non duality between the fact that things appear to our sensory organs, and the fact that they do not have a proper existence» (His Holiness Sakya Trinzin). After the Buddhist doctrine, nothing exists in an absolute way, all things have their existence conditioned by causes and other elements, what is called interdependency. We cannot say that things exist in an absolute way (eternalism), no more that nothing exist (nihilism), or that they would exist only in our consciousness (solipsism), and neither any partial or frustrating view. This absence of absolute existence, even for matter, is after all a fantastic good new: nothing is definitively lost, and our wildest dreams become possible. Infinite possibilities are open to us, such as to continue being conscious after the death of our physical body, into worlds of pure happiness. The meditation on Emptiness is about seeing reality as a dream, that we however share with our human mates. About this, Buddhism recognizes the relative reality, the one we know, with its laws and its stakes, and the absolute reality, as what the previous has ultimately no existence, no real stake, just like a video game. This way to see things allows us to assume our responsibilities in the world, but without being trapped in it, while keeping an escape way, a door toward liberation. However these meditations can be undertaken only under the direction of a master, as any misunderstanding will have very serious consequences. To integrate the true understanding of Emptiness into the working of our mind makes of us an Arhat.
Also, to somewhat develop these two qualities, even incompletely, allows us to better understand what are the really relevant stakes in life, without however made of this a matter of tension or trouble for us (We avoid the two extremes of indolence and fundamentalism).
Buddhists also encourage all the other human qualities such as arts, science, education. Buddhist practitioners who made a real effort to transform their mind, are pleasant people, easy to live with, tolerant, with a pronounced sense of humour. These qualities allow them to efficiently face even difficult or painful situations.
A less known characteristic of Buddhist thought, but very important, is the notion of Middle Way: often things are not all white and all black, we often need a gradated logic, or a progressive approach, not only into meditation itself, but also on the way to approach life, and even conflicts. This allows for Buddhism, much more than non-violence, to harmoniously integrate into the diverse societies, and to be strongly immune against sectarian, radical or fundamentalist deviations.
However it is not enough to say it to obtain it: to transform our mind, it is not enough to change opinion, or to «become Buddhist». A really effective change can only result of a patient process of learning and meditation, as our karma cannot be modified instantly. Depending on schools and lineages, numerous methods and practices are proposed to gradually accustom ourselves to function in a different way, and to make of our mind a divine instrument of happiness, in place of a den of frustrations. The explanations of these practices are the teaching, or Dharma, which is dispensed by a qualified Master, either he himself attained illumination, or he studied the process in details.
-Taking Refuge is a formal ceremony for entering into Buddhism, like for the Christian baptism. But its significance is that we take refuge (against suffering) into the Buddha(s), the Dharma (the teaching) and the Sangha (the community of practitioners). It is our first action and our first commitment into the path. In this occasion, we take the Pratimoksha vows (of lay practitioner): not to kill, not to lie, not to steal, not to have sexual misconducts, not to take drugs.
Some remarks on taking refuge: the refuge taken into a given Buddhist school is also good for any other. The fact of taking refuge does not make mandatory to abandon another religion. But it is however recommended not to mix religious teaching from different origins. Also note that numerous practices of the Small Vehicle can be done without formally taking refuge. It is always advisable to practice them even if we don't want to formally commit into Buddhism. But taking refuge is mandatory to engage into Tantras.
-We become a disciple when we accept to receive the teaching, to practice it in order to obtain illumination. The disciples who accomplished the whole teaching can become masters in their turn; this activity of continuous transmission from masters to disciples is called to turn the Dharma wheel. A lineage of authentic masters is the only warranty of the preservation of an authentic teaching.
-The Eightfold path summarizes the attitude of the practitioner, who, even when he is not meditating, always works to accustom his mind to function in a different way. For this an attention of every instant is required, into all the aspects of life, a style of attention and of action summarised into eight points: The right view is that, from our karma, we are the only responsible of our sufferings and of their elimination. The right intention acts according to ethics to also bring relief to the sufferings of others (this is the Bodhisattva path). The right speech helps others to understand, out of pure benevolence and without lie. Right action complies with compassion and ethic, which allows to convince others (What is called to bear witness in Christianism). The right livelihood, on a professional or social level, remains honest. Right effort constantly acts to change oneself, without competition or self contemplation. Right mindfulness keeps our inner peace and the view of the path without losing them a second. Right concentration is stability in our meditation, without laxness neither excitement, to at least obtain equanimity: to no longer be disturbed by emotions, either positive or negative.
It is important to understand that we cannot be Buddhist in the temple, and not Buddhist out of the temple: the training of the mind is accomplished on the basis of daily life in its every aspects, personal, familial, social, professional, artistic, etc. This is the reason why the command issued by some to practice only «in privacy» is in fact a clear and straightforward forbidding.
-The six Paramitas (perfections) are in the same time six methods and six qualities to develop, in order to be a good practitioner: generosity, ethic, patience, enthusiastic effort toward practice, concentration of thought and Wisdom, or understanding of the way in which things exist (Emptiness). The different schools or traditions emphasise different Paramitas, but all of them are indispensable.
-Meditation is a state where the mind, in place of wandering in casual thoughts or day dreams, is concentrated on only one thought. Meditation is a non-duality between being firm (To constantly come back to the object of the meditation) and relaxed (not to force, not to feel guilty, not to be angry if we fail). There are numerous kinds of meditation, depending on the object on which we concentrate, or depending on the purpose.
-Yoga, or rather the Yoga methods, are methods to help the mind to evolve and get the liberation of Samsara. Those methods are based on body exercises (Hatha Yoga and its postures), on energies, on behaviour (ethic), on devotion, rituals, etc. There are more powerful Yogas proper to the Tantric Vehicle. But all the vehicles request to practice Karma Yoga, which is about helping into beneficial activities, humble or important.
-Boddhichitta, or awakening mind, is our motivation to practice. It is said that it is Boddhichitta which gives us the energy to advance, to accomplish the practices, and obtain results. There are two kinds of Boddhichita: Relative Boddhichitta gives us the energy to help beings (or at least to obtain our own liberation), and Absolute Boddhichitta which gives us the desire to understand the nature of things, or Emptiness. These motivations are the basis of Buddhism, which does not recognize any other. The two Boddhichittas allow us to accomplish the two accumulations of merit:
-Merit. This word, wrongly understood, creates fear, as of some discrimination on an esoteric level. But Merit is in reality the mass of good deeds we must accumulate in order to balance our bad karma and obtain the superior states of Ahrat or Buddha. Only us can control it, only us are responsible of it. It can be compared to a training allowing us to success in a sport trial, or to the fuel we must fill our tank with, in order to accomplish a journey and arrive to a defined destination. The practitioners take profit of any occasion to create merit, by concrete actions (gifts, helping ill people…) or abstract actions (to say mantras, to turn around a stupa...). These actions may look futile to a rationalist mind, such as helping an ant drowning in a water glass. But after Buddhism they all have a value, and they all contribute to the accumulation. So the mindset of saving ants may prove more efficient for accumulating merrit, than the act of sending some money to a charity. Buddhism recognizes two accumulations of merit: the one linked to ethic or compassion, which allows to advance on the Boddhisattva state, and the one linked to the understanding of Emptiness, which allow to advance toward the Ahrat state. But in reality they are inseparable.
-A monk or a nun is a person who decided to quit ordinary life (Celibacy, no mundane pleasures, no personal belongings…) and to entirely consecrate his life to the practice. For this, the persons take the monastic vows, which are warrant of a life as free as possible of mundane obstacles. The Sangha, or monastic community, has several level of monastic vows, according to school and traditions. Some traditions, peculiarly the Small vehicle and the Zen, give emphasis to monastic vows, others not. There is no obligation to become monk or nun, it is a matter of personal inclination. There are serious advantages to engage into the monastic way of life. But one must really think at it before, as the requirements can become a serious problem for many: chastity, being away from social life, renunciation to personal freedom, obedience to the hierarchy. We can give back our vows, but this arises other problems. In countries like Tibet, it was easy to be a monk, and it often was the only way to receive an education. But modern world and its temptations make things much more difficult, especially when monasteries are still very rare. Anyway it is infinitely better a good monk, who remains such all his life long, than dozens of monks who defrock after one year or two. If you are interested, first spend one year or two in a monastery, living like the monks and behaving according to their vows. So you will know if this is really your thing.
At the death of the Buddha, his relics were dispersed into the five great Buddhist countries at the epoch (They are today partly gathered into the frame of the Maitreya project). The disciples gathered around a patriarch, in monastic communities, retransmitting the teaching from disciples to disciples. Numerous sermons of the Buddha were laid in written form: the Sutras. In the centuries before Christ, Buddhism experienced a time of great expansion, until Far East, from the very visible efficiency of the doctrine, but also by the help of the emperor Ashoka who reunited India and tried to make of Buddhism its official religion. Primitive Buddhism also had contacts with Greece, by the armies of Alexander the Great. (I also heard about an embassy of Ashoka in Greece, or a Buddhist centre in Alexandria, Egypt, that Christ could have visited). The traditional image of the Buddha, with his characteristic Greek profile, is born from this antic encounter between Indian culture and Greek culture, which is sometimes called the Gandhara culture. The first Buddhist builds, the Stupas, are evolutions of more ancient Indian monuments (we could find their origin in the prehistoric tumulus) which took their modern shape as soon as the first centuries after Christ.
In the epoch of Christ, Buddhism of the small Vehicle had become the main religion of numerous countries, even if it did not replaced Brahmanism in India, its original motherland. However it is in India that flourished the great monastic universities such as Nalanda, which remained until their destruction in 1199 the prestigious reference of all the Buddhist world, which we could compare, in size and in level of study, with our great modern science universities. These universities were the place where numerous great masters and yogis were trained, but they were also powerful laboratories for philosophical reflection and research.
It is in this ambience of spiritual and metaphysical reflection that appeared the Great Vehicle (Or Mahayana) and the Tantric vehicle (Or Vajrayana). This appearance was progressive, with the evolution of the Buddhist doctrine into numerous thinking schools, and the release of different Tantras spanning until the 11th century. However the most significant move toward the Great Vehicle was in the 2nd century: the writing of the Madhyamika by the great Buddhist master Nagarjuna. The Madhyamika (literally «Middle path») counts in the most important and most complex treaties of philosophy in History. It mainly deals with Emptiness, in a much thorough way than the Sutras left by the disciples of the Buddha. But the most important difference with the Small Vehicle is that the Great Vehicle no longer aims at the only liberation of oneself. The Great Vehicle practices only the Boddhisattvas path: to research our own liberation and illumination, but for the sole purpose of helping others. The personal practices of the Small Vehicle are still there, but they are now only a necessary step, an instrument in a much broader perspective: how to become able to help others.
The most important practice proper to the Great Vehicle is the taking of the Boddhisattva Vows, which set us on the altruistic path. These vows are to protect our motivation and our altruistic attitude toward others.
The appearance of the Great Vehicle was sometimes perceived as a problem, and it may have turned to a schism, without the wisdom of the masters of the two vehicles, who preferred to make of this difference a source of spiritual wealth and of freedom of practice. The Great Vehicle, before being eradicated from India at the occasion of the invasions in the 12th century, developed in the Himalayas, China, Vietnam and Japan. Today it is found in Tibet, Nepal, Bhutan, China, Mongolia, Vietnam, Japan.
The name Zen comes from the Sanskrit «Dhyana» (concentration, one of the six Paramitas) though the Chinese Chan. Chan Buddhism was introduced in China in the 5th century, by Boddhidharma, a great master of the Indian University of Nalanda, who started to teach in the Shaolin monastery (The one which became later the birth place of martial arts). In fact other Chinese Buddhist lineages were already existing in China, and Chan Buddhist incorporated elements of Taoism. It survived the setbacks of Chinese policy, thanks to its pragmatism (Chan monks were refusing to live from begging, preferring to work themselves). Chan could become the Buddhism of Tibet in the 8th century, but the Tibetan King Tsong Tsen Gampo preferred the Tantric Buddhism of Guru Rinpoche, in a debate which remained an History mark. Later, in China, Chan Buddhism met the competition of Tibetan Buddhism, but this did not weakened it.
In the 12th and 13th centuries, Chinese Chan passed to Japan, where it took the name of Zen, more the Japanese vocabulary and culture it still has today. Japanese Zen eliminated many elements of the Chan, especially the Taoist elements. Zen did no more incorporated magic or tantric elements of the Vajrayana. The Zen master Taizen Deshimaru started to teach in the West in the second half of the 20th Century, and Zen schools are flourishing today, despites the high requirements of this steep path and the tight discipline of monasteries.
Today Japanese Zen stresses on pure concentration, free of any artifice. Its own approach is to think that illumination happens all of a sudden, from an event which can be very ordinary. Zen also emphasises on discipline and lack of ornamentation, while Zen masters usually show very straightforward, even sometimes abrupt. At last, it is remarkable that such a demanding and ungratifying school knows a large expansion in the West. This testifies of our large spiritual needs…
After its adepts, Tantrism would probably exist millennia before Buddhism. It is not by itself a religion, but a set of methods, independent of religions, in which it merges. Thus it exists a Buddhist Tantrism, an Hinduist one, a Chinese one (Taoism) and even a Muslim one (Sufism). A personal hypothesis, unverified but tempting, is that Tantrism would be in fact the descendent of antic Greek Mystery Schools, such as the Eleusinian Mysteries, Orphic or Cybele Mysteries, brought into Asia in the 5th century before Christ, by the armies of Alexander the Great. These schools may have evolved with the contact of Hinduist or Buddhist Yoga practices, in the region of today Kashmir and Afghanistan, where numerous Tantras place their origins (The Orgyen of the Tibetans). It is historically well known that Greeks lived in Afghanistan and Kashmir at least until the islamisation in the 12th Century.
The Tantric Vehicle (Vajrayana) of Buddhism appeared progressively between the 1st and the 12th century, especially in the Nalanda University, which ruins reveal numerous statues at the origin of modern Tantras. The appearance of new Tantras stopped in the 13th century, when Nalanda and other Buddhist universities in India were destroyed. However the essentials of Tantras were preserved in Tibet, thanks to the introduction of tantric Buddhism in this country between the 8th and 13th centuries, under the form of Tibetan Buddhism (also improperly called Lamaism)
One of the false images on Tantras is to think at them as sexual practices. In reality, such practices, given to only some advanced practitioners, are definitively not the basis of Tantras, and their requirements would rebuff the simple amateur of sex.
Tantric Buddhism is a part of the Great Vehicle, as it follows the Boddhisattvas path: to obtain the realization of the Buddha state with for purpose to be useful to as many beings as possible. However the Small and Great Vehicles are causal vehicles: we work to create the causes of awakening, whith progressively creating the karma for it, by the means of the practice of ethics, meditation, etc. (the two accumulations of merit). But the tantric vehicle is a resultant vehicle: we start directly from the result, we visualize ourselves as a Buddha, or as a deity. This may look like the opposite of the trainings of the Small Vehicle. It is however still the use of the karma law, but sort of in a reverse way, and the result is then much faster than with the causal vehicles. But errors can be much more dangerous too, from where the obligation to practice under the direction of a qualified master.
For this reason the proper Tantra practices are very different of the ascetics and trainings of the two other vehicles, with the use of images, mantras, rituals, music, feasts, stories of magic, etc. which are absent of either the Small Vehicle or the Great Vehicle. The basis of Tantras is to visualise oneself as being a deity: the Yidam. However this would be completely vain, and even dangerous, to engage into such a practice without a minimum of preparation: It is still required to have understood the teaching of the Small Vehicle, which is still the foundation of the practice, even the most esoteric.
The very first step in Tantras is to choose a master (or Lama or Guru), who will ask us to accomplish different preparation practices of the Small Vehicle. Then will come the four Preliminaries, then the initiation into the Tantra of the Yidam, and at last the Tantric practice itself. The whole may last several years. Choosing a master is an important step, as only him will give us instructions, and he will have the responsibility of monitoring our practice, our evolution, in order to give us his advices. We must choose a master with whom we feel totally confident. Sometimes one appears with whom we feel a very strong resonance: he is our Root Lama.
An important point of Tantras is that there cannot be self-proclaimed masters: a master must have been instructed by another, it is said that there must be an uninterrupted lineage of masters, since a great realized master (the Buddha, or some other very great saints who obtained strong realizations).
Each Tantra is a set of texts, rituals, instructions, practices and Yogas, often complemented with historical, metaphysical or medical data, etc. There are two categories of Tantras. (Four in more detailed analysis). The lesser Tantras, the most ancients, are often of the easier access, such as Avalokiteshvara (Chenrezig in Tibetan, whom mantra is the well known Om Mani Padme Houng) Amitabha (Amida in Japanese, Adida in Vietnam) Tara, Vajrasattva (Dordje Tchang in Tibetan). The higher Tantras are the most recent, involving more and more complex philosophical funds: Vajra Yogini, Heruka… At last Kalachakra was the latest released in the 13th century, when fundamentalists had just destroyed the great Buddhist universities like Nalanda.
The great Tantras generally request to take the Tantric vows, which protect our Yoga practice and our understanding or Emptiness. But they are «surprise vows», secret, that we are allowed to know only when we have taken them. So, we clearly need a good motivation, and an absolute confidence in the teaching, or we must abstain…
Today Tibetan Tantric Buddhism is quickly spreading in the West, from the demand of numerous adepts.
Tibetan Buddhism appeared between the 8th and 13th centuries, with several introductions, which are at the origin of the various schools and master lineages. After the destruction of the great Buddhist universities in India in the 13th century, Tibet became the only complete repository of all the spiritual knowledge gathered in India. Then Tibetan Buddhism spread over the Himalayas, in Mongolia and China. It was in the process of reaching Europe in the early 20th century (Kalmoukia, St Petersburg), but then Communist dictatorships inflicted it severe losses (Mongolia, then China and Tibet) of which it is only recovering today. It is still severely threatened by the senseless restrictions to religious freedom in China and Tibet, or by the forced recruitment of various US cults in Asia. However it is recovering a great strength, thanks to the benevolent shelter in India, and also thanks to its rapid expansion in the West.
The history of Buddhism in Tibet goes by the rhythm of a series of introductions:
(Pronounce Bun) It was the religion of Tibet until the 8th century. It is generally defined as a shamanic cult of local deities, but some modern Böns speak of an earlier introduction of Buddhism, much more ancient, not coming from India, but of today Kashmir. Buddhism never attempted to eliminate the Bön, but the two religions were mutually influenced, to the point where it is now difficult to recognize what belongs to who. Bön enriched Buddhism of customs, rituals for local deities (Dharma protectors, or Tcheukyongs) and a unique artistic style, which give its so peculiar flavour to the Buddhism of Tibet. On its side, Bön integrated Buddhist practices, especially the Dzokchen, the approach of Emptiness peculiar to the Nyingmapa School.
It the 8th century the Tibetan king Tsong Tsen Gampo invited one of the greatest Buddhist scholars of Nalanda, Padmasambava (Guru Rinpoche in Tibetan), who installed the first monasteries (Samye) and created the first lineages of Tibetan masters. The story of Guru Rinpoche is all in fury and magic. He especially hide numerous teachings, the Termas, that predestined disciples found later (They still find some today). The most well known terma is not other than the Bardo Thödöl, the Tibetan book of the deads, which describes the after-life world in a manner strangely confirmed by modern NDE. After Guru Rinpoche, Buddhism of the first introduction was fought against by the Tibetan king Langdarma, but it survived under the form of the Nyingmapa School (The ancients) based on the practice of Dzokchen (or Mahamudra, one of the approaches of Emptiness.) Guru Rinpoche also introduced Buddhism in what is today Bhutan.
The Sakyapas appeared it the 11th Century at the occasion of an introduction inspirited by the Indian master Birupa (or Virupa). They teach a Mahamoudra without Nyingmapa influences. They today master is His Holiness Sakya Trinzin.
The Kagyupas (spoken transmission, also called the Red Hats) come from the second introduction, in the 11th century, by several Tibetan translators (Lotsawa) such as Marpa, who was a disciple of the Indian masters Gampopa and Tilopa. The most well known disciple of Marpa, Milarepa, is at the origin of the lineage of the Karmapa, the great master of the Kagyupa School. Milarepa remained a very popular example of mystical and ascetic Yogi, joyous and close from the common people. But he however endured great sufferings, in order to cleanse a karma of crimes. Other Indian masters like Birupa are also at the origin of some branches like the Champa Kagyus. The Kagyupas bring the stress on the relation between the disciple and the master, and the oral teaching. They give a great importance on Tantra or magic practices of any nature.
The Karmapa is the spiritual leaders of the Kagyupas. Like many numerous great masters, he also is a Tulkou, who always reincarnates to govern his order. So, for the Tibetans, he really always is the same person, who is now starting his 17th life of compassion to the service of all sentient beings.
Two more centuries were needed, until the 13th century, for Tibetan Buddhism to spread everywhere in Tibet, build monasteries into the least village, and take the form we know it today.
It is remarkable, and probably unique in the history of civilizations, that a people voluntarily consecrates up to 20% of its resources to fundamental research purposes. And they won, and every visitors of Tibet speak of it as a magical land, highly inspiring, without speaking of the treasures of wisdom accumulated during seven centuries, and now available in the entire world.
In the 14th Century, Tsong Khapa, criticizing some Kagyupa customs, founded the Gelugpa School, or the yellow hats, which takes the Kagyupa doctrine while keeping to a strict monastic discipline and relying on the detailed intellectual study of the doctrine.
In the 17th century the Mongol suzerains established the head of the Gelugpas, His Holiness the Dalaï Lama, as head of state of Tibet and of all the schools of Tibetan Buddhism, a role he is still fulfilling today. As for the Karmapa, Tibetans consider he is always the same person, successive reincarnation of the boddhisattva Avalokiteshvara (Tchenrezig in Tibetan). Thus His Holiness accomplishes three different roles: -head of the Gelugpas, -head of Tibetan Buddhism, -head of the Tibet state. These three roles must not be confused.
(Added in 2012) In 2011, His Holiness transfered his state leader charge to the elected government in exile of Tibet.
We can place the golden age of Tibet between the 14th and the 17th centuries. In the 19th century, the Rimey movement fights the sectarianism which had appeared between the schools. In 1913 the Dalaï Lama proclaims the end of the Chinese suzerainship and the independence of Tibet. A very theoretical English protectorate did not really changed this situation. As soon as the years 1930, Chinese Communists take refuge in Tibet, to flee the atrocities of the Nationalists. The Chinese invasion in 1949 is at first welcome, as Communism is felt by many Tibetans as a mean to put Buddhist altruism in practice into social life, while bringing an end to some feudal practices. However the People's Army quickly turns demanding, brutal and anti-spiritual, triggering the revolt of the Tibetans, which culminates in 1959, with the Lhassa riots and the flight of His Holiness the Dalaï Lama, accompanied by numerous masters. Summits of sadism and horror are reached in the years 1960 with the «cultural revolution», when gangs of young disoriented fascists, the Red Guards, commit atrocities beyond imagination, together with the gratuitous and systematic destruction of a unique spiritual and artistic heritage. Since Tibet survives between terror and submission, between two attempts to «re-educate» it with all the modern vices, gambling, tobacco, prostitution, cheap music... Choked by a continuous flow of Chinese colons and foreign companies, Tibetans also had to bear racism, concentration camps, torture, stalking, murders, child hijacking, forced abortion and sterilization, etc. These excesses seem to subside with time, but the core problem is not solved, and it shall not be without the help of the Chinese government.
This situation is a deadly threat to Tibetan Buddhism, deprived of its basis, of its ground. Numerous texts, lineages and teachings were barely saved, sometimes copied from memory, and they survive today only with a little number of masters, or in some libraries, exposed to a political set back in India, or even to a very ordinary car crash which would destroy a master or an unique manuscript. Tibetan culture survives only through a small number of refugees, who are not allowed to own land or to start a business, decimated by tuberculosis, scattered in camps where everything is to rebuild, dependent on humanitarian help of numerous associations... But despite these difficulties, exiled Tibetans, far from any dependence mind, are getting organized, start schools for their children, rebuild their monasteries and universities, going so far as electing a parliament in exile and starting a democratic government!
However the Lamas were skilful enough to take advantage of this situation: free of their isolationism, confronted to different mentalities, they are now spreading Tibetan Buddhism throughout the world, adaptating to modern civilization or to the mind of different countries. From there, Tibetan Buddhism, and also other schools of Buddhism, are spreading into the world with an incredible pace. This looks positive, but it must however be understood that, historically, one or two centuries were always necessary to seriously implement Buddhism in a country. The best success indicator is the number of monasteries.
Except the Gelugpa School which never went here, Tibetan Buddhism survived unspoiled into the kingdom of Bhutan, probably the only country in the world which was never colonized by anybody. This country remained isolated until about 1968, so that it still has a very genuine culture. Its fast but critical adaptation to modern world makes now of this country an important partner of the world Buddhist community, and a model of sustainable development which is getting influence over its large neighbours in Asia. Today Bhutan is engaged into the process of creating a democratic government, and it is fostering environment, together with «Gross happiness product» in place of the gross national product. The peaceful Bhutan even had recently the occasion to honestly and efficiency contribute to the fight against terrorism, with expelling manu militari some armed groups which were occupying its nature reservations.
The invasion of Tibet and the attempt to eradicate its spirituality had an unexpected consequence: many masters in exile could do the trip to the West and create new centres. In a general way those centres are flourishing and multiplying, so that it is now easy to have access to full and detailed teachings. We also start to find centres everywhere where freedom allows, East Europe, Africa and South America. However we are still far from the appearance of a Western Buddhism or a World Buddhism. The teachings, the masters and monastic communities are still very dependent of the exile in India, which still offers the best conditions for serious studies, monastic life or retreats.
Many Tibetan practices are based on magic, for instance the invocation of protective deities (Mahakala is the most well known) or spirits protector of the teaching (Tcheukyongs). The oracles seen in movies like «Little Buddha» or «Kundun» really exist, and we owe them many checked predictions. A Tulku is a master, who, from compassion, voluntarily took again a human shape (reincarnation) in order to continue teaching. A Rinpoche («great precious») is also a realized master, often with a whole history of successive rebirths as a Tulku.
A Lamrim, or Progressive Path (Lo Djong for the Kagyupas, Lamdrey for the Sakyapas) is a digest of the Buddhist teaching, from the point of view of the various stages a practitioner must go through. Thus everyone is able to take a bearing, understand the context of the practice he is engaged in, and the school he belongs. In this meaning this page is a Lamrim. We understand the importance of the Lamrim, especially for persons who are discovering Buddhism.
But Buddhism also proposes a pragmatic and efficient way to face the difficulties and sufferings of life, and the way to manage them, in relation with our practice. This approach is often explained into the Lamrims, which also give instructions on the way to engage into practices, according to our personal situation. After Buddhism, every trouble, obstacle or suffering which falls on us, is the consequence of our karma, and thus of our past actions. To try to elude these difficulties only results into delaying them to a later date, where they reappear in worse. Then the only solution is, each time we suffer, to start meditating on the true cause of the problem (our past actions) and thus on the only true remedy (Spiritual practice in general, or the one our master requested us to do). So we use suffering as a consciousness reminder, and we easily can transform the destructive energy of anger or fear into motivation to accomplish our practices, which are the only way to obtain a definitive protection against any unpleasant situation. In short, we accept the challenge of the trial, in place of uselessly banging our heads against the walls. This also allows us to more efficiently engage into the activities which are necessary to solve the problem into the world. This meditation is very efficient to reinforce our motivation to the practice, but it also greatly reduces the suffering created by the situation itself. Suffering, in place of destroying us, is then used as a fuel to meditate, to construct ourselves. Often the situation itself is objectively bettered.
I call this the «spiritual judo», as, as with the martial art, we use the very impetus of our attacker to make him fall. This is also sometimes called «accepting evil», but with my opinion, this expression can lead to serious confusions.
It is to be noted that we find the same practice into Christianism (and thus also into Judaism and Islam), where it is called «to bear our cross». However, this idea is far too much often perverted into a kind of puritan masochism. In reality, it is really the same thing: accepting the challenge of trials transforms them into a consciousness reminder, and a tool for liberation. This kind of sharp convergence between however so different streams of thinking really shows us that they basically speak of the same thing.
Eventually a Christian could object that we had no past lives. This difficulty was circumvented with the notion of original sin, an offence committed thousand years before our birth, but, for some unclear reason, we would all bear its responsibility. I think it is more fair, and as much efficient, to say that, even if we did not actually committed any sin in our past, we however took birth with a sinner mind, understand an imperfect, ignorant, egocentric mind, prone to faulting. Then don't be astonished if we undergo troubles, and especially that the responsibility to bring a remedy to this situation relies on our sole shoulders. Once this stated, the spiritual judo can work in the same way than in the Buddhist frame. In short, after Buddhists, we are second hand cars undergoing technical tests, while for the Christians we are new cars undergoing factory tests.
Buddhist ethic is mostly known for its non-violence, respecting others and life, and for its peaceful mind. Generally, Buddhist ethic considers rules similar to that of the other religions, based on respecting others, respecting life and temperance. Not to kill, not to steal, not to lie, not to take drugs and no sexual misconducts are the five Pratimoksha vows which are given to us when we take refuge, a simple ceremony after which we become a member of the Buddhist community. On this basis, Buddhism has more detailed traditional responses on all the variety of problems which may arise in life.
Buddhist ethic is often said to be the most tolerant, the most modern, the most adaptative, as it lefts much freedom, keeps means to deal with a variety of cases, or it provides means to cancel the faults. However this apparent freedom of interpretation must not mislead us. Buddhist ethic is certainly not a collection of taboos, neither a table of laws to apply without thinking, but it is however a call to our reflection and to our responsibility, in front of the consequences of our actions on others and on life in general. It understands that we may find cases where a right motivation allows for normally forbidden actions, or the contrary. But its objective is fundamentally the same, and its commands as much imperious.
A very common misunderstanding is to think we are allowed to do anything we want, provided that a prayer allows to «transmute» the result. This false and hypocritical attitude may have a much higher price to repay than doing evil without shame. In any case, our karma will be judge, and it is completely insensitive to crooked justifications or to arbitrarian privileges. Those who are living with us also will be judge, as they will be happy or will be suffering depending on our acts, not on our pretexts.
The most common Buddhist building is the stupa (or tcheuten in Tibetan, sometimes chorten). It is generally made of a square base, with a dome on it, and an shaft adorned with rings and various symbols on the top. The stupa symbolises the mind of the Buddha, and its different storeys, the stages to obtain Buddhahood. A common practice is to walk around a stupa (circumambulation) while thinking it is the mind of the Buddha.
The other important Buddhist building is the temple (Lhakhang in Tibetan, dojo for the Zen, pagoda in various countries) generally of square shape with a pagoda-like roof. It always contains an altar with a statue of the Buddha Sakyamuni, or another Buddha, or a tantric deity (who is also a Buddha). Depending on schools or traditions, we find here various symbolic decorations. We enter here bare foot, to show respect, after three prostrations. We do symbolic offerings on the altar, and ceremonies (Pujas). Large temples are often in the shapes of a Mandala, which evokes a divine dwelling.
It is said that Buddhism can thrive only where there are monks. From where the number of monasteries (Gompa in Tibetan) in all the Buddhist countries. But we also find schools and retreat centres.
A person who feels attracted by Buddhism must first think to his motivation. The purpose of Buddhism is to ensure our personal happiness, and that of others. But this requires a serious work on us, and thus a long term commitment. It is better not to take this commitment at all, than to take it with a weak or false motivation, just to abandon later.
Another basic rule is that Buddhism forbids any recruitment. A direct consequence for you is that nobody will propose to engage in anything. It will always be up to you to ask for, to do the first step, and this in every moment.
If we already have a religion, it is not necessary to abandon it. Right in the contrary, in today global context, Western peoples will much better revive their own traditions, especially Christian. Some metaphysical conceptions of other religions are incompatibles with those of Buddhism, but this must not stop us into our altruistic practice neither in our behaviour. But if the ethic of our first religion is incompatible with Buddhist ethic, then we may ask ourselves if we may not be into a cult or into a fanatic group.
At last it is important to understand that Buddhism is not a club or kind of clan for social recognition among peers, or to distinguish ourselves from the others. Any motivation of this kind quickly leads to serious problems, and anyway to failure.
No more Buddhist practice has to comfort ourselves into our habits or prejudices, but right on the contrary to break them. The efficiency of a practitioner is measured after the bettering and transformation of his mind. Often, alas, people engage into Buddhism, become monks or nuns, undergo high practices, just to abandon when they find themselves unable to accept the necessary questioning and changes, as if it was a matter of self esteem or ideology. This is really sad, but it is what awaits all those who try to use Buddhism into their ego games.
We can, before committing, read books, or discuss with people. But we must be careful to select real Buddhist books and true adepts. Otherwise there is a strong risk of gathering false interpretations. The best is to visit centres and monasteries, which often provide shops, libraries, where we can discuss, attend teachings, meet people.
The first teachings help to get familiar with Buddhist practices, especially meditation, which somewhat differs from meditations used into other paths.
To visit different Buddhist groups and centres helps to find the practice or master suitable for us. It can also be the occasion to meet sympathetic people, to befriend. An unpleasant feeling indicates a problem, generally with persons. Denigration of other buddhist schools tells a cult.
Often a first contact with a colourful temple, or with unknown practices, can raise a great enthusiasm, or on the contrary put us not at ease. Both attitudes are equally false, we must judge practices after the effect they will have on our mind, the tranquillity they will provide, the love they will develop within us.
Taking refuge is a simple ceremony, which can be public or private. I don't describe it, not to spoil the effect. Nobody will ask you to take refuge, you have to request yourself for it, to a master, who will generally grant it full heartedly.
With a Buddhist master (a Lama, if he is Tibetan) we take refuge against suffering, into the Three Jewels: the Buddha (All the Buddhas, the beings who obtained awakening) the Dharma (the teaching, the texts, the explanations, the practices) and the Sangha (In this case all the beings who practice the teaching. But in general the word «Sangha» is only for the monastic community).
We take the commitment to practice the Buddhist path, at least until the liberation or Arhat state.
We also take the Pratimoksha vows, or the five precepts of ethic:
-Not to kill
-Not to steal
-Not to lie
-Not to have sexual misconduct (After Buddhist tradition, anything else than vaginal penetration between a married man and woman. But more modern interpretations consider only what «creates suffering»: cheating, abandoning, rape, pedophilia, etc. while forbidding discriminations after sexual orientation)
-Not to take intoxicating substances (legal or illegal drugs, tobacco, alcohol, etc.)
When we have taken refuge, we are considered a Buddhist. Refuge taken in one Buddhist school is recognized in all the others. Refuge and Pratimoksha vows are taken for life. They cannot be given back. Why to give them back, thought, unless we intend to commit crimes.
At this stage, we can engage into numerous different practices, we can try various teachings, different masters. But it is always better to hear at the detailed teachings on the practice we are to engage in, together with the personal advices of a master.
-Concentration (Shiney, Dhyana, or Zen): to accustom ourselves to maintain our mind focused on an object of concentration.
-Ethic, or karma Yoga: to get accustomed to respecting others, to become generous.
-Tong Len, a practice based on breath, where we visualise ourselves in the place of others, to understand their suffering.
-Devotion or Bhakti Yoga: rituals, veneration of images, etc.
-Prostration, very good to lower pride and cholesterol.
-Retreats, occasions for centering and taking time for practice, free of the hustle of ordinary life.
-To become monk or nun, if we feel that this is our place.
Everybody has advantage to study the practices he chooses, into appropriate teaching sessions. We also have to study synthetic teachings, as the Gelugpa Lamrim, the Kagyupa Lo Jong, or the Sakyapa Lam Drey. This gives an overview of the path, and this page took its inspiration from there.
Some disciples could engage into more detailed studies, as in the university. Seven years of studies will made of them Geshes, master in Buddhist doctrine. Then they will be able to teach in their turn. This is very important in the today western context, still excessively dependent on Tibetan masters. Seven more years of retreat allow to become Lama, which empowers us to transmit the lineage.
Others can become translators, or serve into centres, which have tremendous needs of benevolent help.
Even this is accurately coded into scriptures: to choose a calm place, far away of world hustle, to have an honest resource for living... If we are rich and celibate, no problem, we even can afford a retreat in a centre. But we often have obligations (children, work…) that we cannot just let go. Must we wait for a more favourable moment? No, right on the contrary the best moment to start is always «right now». To do what we can do when we can do it, without forgetting the dedication of our difficulties to our accumulation of merit. A practice into difficult conditions may look vain, requiring more time, but the accumulation of merit is larger. And difficulties are here to remind us that without practice, things can only go worse and worse. In extreme cases where we have to face the hostility of our relatives, we can practice discretely, without telling what we do and without showing religious objects. But with my opinion it is not forbidden to leave hostile people, so long as we don't commit serious things such as abandoning children. In a general way, we recognize our true friends when they increase our motivation, and our enemies when they discourage us or place obstacles. Even without extreme situations, every occasion of life, even small, is always the occasion to help somebody, to understand something, to understand a detail of the teaching, a bit of Emptiness. Thus we practice all the time, not only in the temple, we practice at work, in the bus, with our children… So we advance, even slowly, but the result will always be thousand times better than just doing nothing.
Once passed the hype, or after an incident, a dispute, a scolding, we suddenly feel that practice appears boring, useless, meaningless. Such moments are to happen unavoidingly, and it is at that time that many abandon, sometimes while slamming the door and uttering negative judgments. The apparent causes may be an encounter with unpleasant Buddhists, or we spotted something suspicious in a centre. But the root cause, the true one, the one on which we must work on, is the refusal of our mind to be transformed, the egotic refusal to let go and to give the commands to an external process. We then feel that Buddhist practice is something which steals us life time, an useless belief, and even a danger.
This kind of doubt tells us that we have to re-work our basic motivation. Even if we are in the great Tantras, we must then go back to the basic, the Four Noble Truths. Buddhism has for purpose to transform us, to eliminate the unfortunate tendencies in us, such as egoism, keeping away from others, or the desire to dominate and manage others. It is up to us not to be made by those tendencies. It is up to us to understand when we are just doing a naive psychological counter-transfer.
In such moments, some may think that Buddhism is not their path, that another will fit them better. This can be exact, but remember that the difficulties that we could not solve with Buddhism, are in fact in our mind, so that those difficulties will follow us wherever we go, that we shall have to solve them in any other path, and perhaps with still more effort.
Such moments of doubt are in fact very good occasions to practice the recycling of suffering into motivation, explained above.
When we do the necessary efforts to pass over such unpleasant passages, we often gain significant advances, or new understandings.
My personal opinion is that only a person able to pass over such egotic obstacles can pretend to be spiritual.
For the following stages, it is mandatory to have a master guiding us permanently, in a personalized way. This choice is personal; it is a matter of affinity, of feeling. It can be a great master or an unknown Lama, a man or a woman, a monk or a lay person. But it is better to choose somebody with whom we can stay in touch, meet physically, who will be able to guide us closely, during several years. A master with whom we have a strong affinity, as with a member of our family, is our Root Lama. If we don't have a root Lama, we can choose the one we feel better.
In a general way our Lama is responsible of our evolution. For this reason it is requested to obey him, as we would do with a school teacher. This requires that we feel a great confidence with him, otherwise it is better to abstain. However this obedience is especially about practice, or ethic. Advices about our personal life are more problematic.
Many people do the mistake (and I did too) to engage directly into the «great» Tantric practices. This illusion is maintained by the fact that today it is enough to attend a session to receive initiations. In fact, at this stage, Tantras cannot work, for various technical reasons, or by the action of several safety features. We must first have to develop several qualities, with the common preliminaries, which are practices of the Small Vehicle. However the special preliminaries of the Tantras will allow to much faster complete the Two Accumulations of merit: love or compassion, and understanding of Emptiness or wisdom (Yeshe in Tibetan).
Special preliminaries (often just called «the preliminaries») are done only on the request of a master. There are the prostrations (meditation on the refuge, humility and devotion), the mantras of Vajrasattva (purification of negative karmas), Mandala offering (accumulating merit of generosity and wisdom) and the guru Yoga. Quantities are adapted by the Lama, depending on our capacities and needs. Ideally this is done in a retreat.
To do the preliminaries is somewhat trying, from the daily work required during several years. We often have the desire to slam everything away. They are a trial which will mercilessly eliminate all those with a weak motivation. Preliminaries can be felt as an useless delay, when we feel a desire to engage into the core of the Tantric practice. But they already are this Tantric practice. The following comes more easily.
Traditionally, the Tantric initiation is given only at this stage. Today, in the West, disciples will have received a large number of initiations, without even requesting for them. This is a transitory situation, in a Buddhism under construction.
The initiation grants access to the core Tantric practice.
We always start the Tantra practices by visualizing us like the chosen deity, with the recitation of his mantra: this is the practice of the Yidam, which can be very pleasant. Then come several practices of Yoga, such as the Powa, the Tumo, the dream Yoga, the Illusory Body, the Clear Light, the Mahamoudra, which will allow to obtain the stages of liberation and illumination.
Of course this part is not into traditional presentations, which always assume a perfect teaching given to people also perfectly prepared to receive it. The much more critical way in which the teaching is received in the West in this 21st century, calls for comments which are not in the tradition. This is why I propose this part, where I shall sometimes give my personal opinion (in italic, like here), in more of that of the masters (in normal text, like here).
Buddhism being from eastern origin, there is nothing strange to find some exoticism and heavy ornamentation. These are authentic traditions, and these ornaments have a signification. But Buddhism is not defined by ornamentation, and traditions like the Zen, in the contrary, purposely eliminate any artifice. Some Western centres do without any exoticism: the purpose of Buddhism is not to make us become Tibetan or Vietnamese.
Among the various spiritual paths, Buddhism is very generally recognized as a genuine path. Psychologists, neurologists, sociologists and educators unanimously acknowledge the positive effects of Buddhist practices on personality, social life, family life, education, social integration and psychology troubles. History also clearly shows that Buddhism regularly was a cause of peace and tolerance everywhere it was present and accepted. In more, Buddhism, even if it does not have a central authority like Catholicism, however has a leading body operating with a peer recognition system, common to the different schools, together with a transmission through time, by a system if lineages from masters to recognized disciples. This system does not completely avoid the appearance of deviations or sectarianism, but they are quickly recognized as such and expelled from Buddhism. According to these conditions, I think that any person who is wary on Buddhism is, at best, ignorant of facts. If this fear persists despite an objective information, then this person is a manipulator, a religious fundamentalist, or an atheist fundamentalist.
With the fashion of Buddhism, many newspapers publish «analyses» by journalists, psychologists, sociologists, and even by «specialists of religions». Many of these writings contain blatant mistakes, that even beginners can spot easily, as they always bring back Buddhism to mundane, ordinary states and thoughts. Even when those analysis do not contain mistakes, they do not bring a real understanding of what is Buddhism, as, precisely, the search of happiness or the need to transform our mind, escape any intellectual analysis. As for every inner approach, we can understand Buddhism only when we get into it, and make ours its premises and its objectives. We shall however note the excellent work accomplished by some historians of the religions, which allowed to find back or better understand some epochs of Buddhism.
Historically, Buddhism was always able to adapt to customs and mentalities of the peoples it encountered, and each time create original methods and traditions. Then, many persons are speculating on the appearance of a Western Buddhism, or a modern Buddhism. This will certainly happen, but we must remember that the evolution of Buddhism was always measured in centuries: even in Tibet 500 years were necessary to create Tibetan Buddhism. In Western world, it will be really rooted only with Western masters, retreat centres and monasteries which would no longer need India. Probably at least 100 years will be necessary.
Of course, a Western or modern Buddhism would develop its own traditions and artistic forms, which could be completely original.
Modern scientific knowledge, especially on the functioning of the mind, or quantum physics, could also bring very useful bits of understanding, and eliminate ancient astrological or cosmological beliefs. However a profound mistake would be to eliminate all what which cannot be explained materially, such as reincarnation, and reduce Buddhism to a kind of personal development to accommodate at best our brief stay in this world, while no more thinking to the following. This would clearly no longer be Buddhism.
The domain of Tantras sometimes appears disconcerting, in contradiction with the other vehicles. When the Small and the Great Vehicle introduced us in a world of measure, ethic, rules, vows, harmony and peace, Tantras seems to take the reverse step of this: exuberance, refusal of taboos, paradoxes, sexual representations, fearsome deities... However the basis of Tantras is the same than with the two first vehicles: Boddhichita, Paramitas, etc. But non-tantric vehicles intend to avoid situations which exacerbate negativities (desire, anger, sadness...) with various appropriate means (monastic chastity, peaceful life regulated by ethics, retreats and kind protected sessions...) when in the Tantras, we face temptations and negativities. Tantras seem to be the domain of freedom! However the matter is not to indulge into any temptations and negativities, as for an ordinary person without a spiritual approach (and especially without ethics). There are fundamental differences between ordinary activities and Tantric activities: while doing the later, we constantly visualise Emptiness (which is of course inseparable from compassion). Then it is obvious that, into the path of Tantras, the causes for misunderstanding, mistakes or deviations, are much more numerous, and especially much more dangerous. From here the strict discipline which is in facts requested. If it was enough to gather sexual performances, or to be drunk to be a Tantrika, this would be known: there would already be many Buddhas in the West.
A pressing rule is to keep our Tantric practice secret, still more intimate than our love life. Awkward chatting, with people who do not understand what we are doing, may result into dangerous reactions against us. But these chatting can too be received as advices to put in practice, which can also be very dangerous for these persons.
The very idea to be a monk or a nun excludes any idea of marriage and of sexual activity. This is of course true in Buddhism, where celibacy and chastity are among the very first monastic vows. But Tibetan Buddhism introduced exceptions. Thus some monks are married for tantric reasons. Many lamas or some practitioners wear robes looking like monastic robes, but without being actual monks. However these exceptions were common sources of abuse or misunderstanding, so the reform of Tsong Khapa suppressed all of them, when he founded the most recent school, the Guelugpas. A Gelugpa monk who wants to engage into tantric sexual practices must first give back his vows. However we also find in western countries married Gelugpa monks! Quite simply they are persons who were already married, but they wanted to take monastic vows. This was allowed to them without a divorce, provided that the spouse agreed, and of course that monastic vows were followed.
The Buddhist community, as every human creation, is imperfect. In more, in the West, most practitioners are just beginners. Thus we may have deceptions if we idealise our session buddies, or if we confuse a resident in a centre with a Buddha. Into some Western centres, we find teachers who have, certainly knowledge, but who do not have enough experience, mastery or insight to give spiritual advices on delicate topics. With my opinion, it is unavoidable that things are like that, into these pioneer's times, and we can expect that the Lamas will tighten the screws in the future. However we can see if somebody is a good practitioner: when we discuss with him, he will encourage us to practice and kindness, and enhance our motivation and focus.
Really serious problems come when some masters or Lamas behave in a way we could not expect from them: misplaced sexuality, boozing, craving for money, luxury... terrible faults, when we know that this bad example can break the vocation of tens of beginners. Happily, such problems are caused only by some persons, and their misbehaviours were discussed as hight as His Holiness the Dalai Lama. A recommendation was issued from this: Not to break the connexion with our Lama, but denounce the abuses we see. A recommendation of my Non-holiness would be to choose properly our master before committing.
As Buddhism forbids any proselytizing (and all the more any constrain or manipulation) its growth and recruitment of new disciples only relies on confidence, and this confidence in turns relies on the ethic level set by its members and masters, and also on the clearly visible results into our personal or familial lives. Similarly, the help (or at least the respect) Buddhism received from numerous governments, is justified by the obvious social benefits brought by its practice in a population. Then it is understandable that slander and scandal mongering are the worse enemies of Buddhism, whatever they result from large campaigns of political intoxication, or from simple gossip among members. Gossip ruins the indispensable confidence between practitioners, or toward the masters. It is thus a major misbehaviour.
Unfortunately, «certain» medias regularly make fun from rummaging into Buddhist's trash bins, in order to make a fuss about any scandal they find, small or large, and then make all the community bear the blame. This contributes to feed confusion, misunderstanding and suspicion, and to give a completely false view of Buddhism, and of spirituality in general.
In Tibet, disputes between schools were always between a small number of Lamas, and never from great masters such as the Dalaï Lama or the Karmapa. 19th century even saw the birth of the Rimey (non-sectarian) movement, which is today one of the main tools for the survival of Tibetan Buddhism in exile.
About the «two reincarnations» of the Karmapa, the problem appeared when one of the four regents, the Shamarpa, negating his former agreement toward the official candidate Orgyen Trinley Dordje, started to recognize «his» own Karmapa: Trinley Thaye Dordje. All along the development of this issue, the authorities of Tibetan Buddhism kept a clear position, in favour of Orgyen Trinley Dordje. Then there is no «divide», but however a real dispute. Because of this, His Holiness the Dalai Lama expressly requested that the dispute remains into tolerance and courtesy, because, both candidates being equally qualified masters, everybody must remain free to choose his own master. This approach, even if it does not solve the root of the problem, at least has the advantage of not creating havoc into the Buddhist community. On the reverse hand, the «analysts» of numerous medias indulged into dissecting so called political or financial stakes, in order to make believe, without saying it, that the Lamas would be finally like them, interested only into money and power. False: these stakes exist only into the hallucinating mind of these pseudo-analysts, as the fortune of the Karmapa's «Charitable trust» will be used into the same non-egocentric way by one or the other candidate. I would even not be surprised if they had phone calls together.
The Tibetan cult of shugden, also known as new Kadampa tradition, considers the Gelugpa school as the only «pure» and the others as «satanic», an idea that they introduced in the West as soon as the early 20th century. We owe them several forced conversions of monasteries, often by violence. In exile, this affair went until a ritual murder in Dharamsalah, and this is much more than enough to consider this group as a fundamentalist cult, as well according to Tibetan criteria as to our modern criteria. «To send prayers to a demon in order to be noxious to other beings, this is even not Buddhism» (His Holiness the Dalai Lama, Larzac, France, September 2000). The forbidding to consider oneself as a disciple of the Dalaï Lama is an actual exclusion of Buddhism.
Several «sources», including Buddhists one, are massively spreading rumours as what «abuses» took place in Dashang Kagyu Ling, the «Temple des Mille Bouddhas» in France.
On-site objective inquiry shows a very different reality. Facts are that, for several years, a clique of residents engaged in various intrigues and abusive trials, after bringing a very unpleasant mood in the centre. These trials all resulted in dismissal, but the xenophobic media avoided to publish this «detail».
But things took a much worse turn when arrived «Yangtsi Kalu Rinpoche», the new Director, supposed to be reincarnation of the highly revered Kalu Rinpoche. Surprise: The young man smokes, drinks whisky, spends nights in clubs or in video games, and... criticises Buddhism, under the pretext of «Demystifying» it! Then he chased out the masters of the centre, accusing them in bulk of paedophilia! Here also, the Gendarmerie (police) investigation quickly concluded that this was pure slander, and courts even not bothered into opening a procedure. I have personally seen that the children of the masters are still with them, which would not be the case if there had been the slightest suspicion.
The net result of this madness is that now no real master comes to teach in Dashang Kagyu Ling, which is therefore virtually closed. Many auxiliary centres are also closed. This is not the first try of this sir, as he already threw havoc in the Sonada monastery, to the point that local Tibetans removed his image of their altars.
And of course the defamatory rumours are spreading without denial, favoured by the embarrassed silence of the Buddhist authorities. Indeed, for a simple disciple, it is «difficult to understand» how such a mistake was possible. Yet there were precedents, but never a «convenience tulku» had gone so far in incompetence and destruction. My suggestion would be to wait that the supposed reincarnation is 18 to recognize him/her, and not entrust in this task any family or financial interests. The best test would be that the supposed reincarnation spontaneously manifests interest in the teachings or activities of the deceased master, instead of placing him/herself in contradiction. Thus, even in the event of an error, the choice remains beneficial.
As to the disciples jealous of their masters, this is what happens when a childish ego attempts to control spirituality.
Lesser scandals are sometimes nabbed by certain medias in Europe, and especially in the United States: stories of drinking, masters abusing of young and nice disciples, financial embezzlement... often presented in a way to let believe that all the Buddhist masters behave that way. These cases are rare, but the consequences on the confidence of the concerned disciples can be devastating. His Holiness the Dalai Lama summarizes all the complexity and seriousness of the problem into this advice: «denounce the problems we actually witnessed, even from our root Lama, but without breaking our link with him.»
The advice of My Non-holiness would be that the right attitude in front of these problems is to accomplish our practices, follow the good examples (by far the most numerous) and left the problems to whose who create them, without allowing the bad examples and polemics to weaken our motivation.
And at last Buddhism in the West is new, when it took centuries to flourish in Tibet. Tens of years are required to form efficient teams of good practitioners. The good new is that, despites adaptations and starting mistakes, Buddhism in the West is in good health, and that it offers a good and refreshing example.
A recent movement is to rely on the caution of Buddhism for purposes of political or social struggle. This «political Buddhism» is even called the Fourth Vehicle. In India, it especially fights the inequalities such as the castes, which are still a problem in this country. Some therefore propose to become Buddhist, because Buddhism rejects the castes.
If the idea seems generous, it however hides a dangerous trap: it is to the human mind (spiritual) to control our lives (political, social), and not the contrary. To use Buddhism for mundane purposes, even generous, may deviate it from its goal, or distort its teachings. It would bring on it responsibilities that it cannot assume. How could masters teach in full serenity and independence, if they have to reply in debates and stand up to retortion? It is not their job.
Of course practitioners are free to engage in any beneficial political, social or environmental action, if this is the consequence of the ideals of compassion they develop. However they must do so in their own name, or in independent organizations.
Of course this is also true for all the religions.
True practitioners of all the religions always were friends together, even when their religions were officially declared «enemy». Buddhism never attempted to fight or replace any other religion, syncretism is limited, and proselytising forbidden. Even nothing forbids to keep another religion while becoming Buddhist. The basic principles of ethics and love of others are the same for all the great religions. The fundamental differences into theological or metaphysical conceptions definitively not forbid to practice ethics or love of others. The different religions are like different teams of mountaineers seeking to reach the summit of the same mountain: each one has its techniques and gifts, but all will have to solve the same difficulties. And there is only one summit, where all will meet together.
Modern science and society are ready to accept a Buddhism with positive psychological results, an ethic of social peace, an art of living, a psychotherapy or a conflict solving method. Numerous experiments in psychology and neurology also confirm the deep beneficial impact of meditation on the brain, if there really was a need to confirm it in this way :-D !! Scientists are also more and more numerous to accept consciousness as an existing entity, and as an object of study. But this does not answer more fundamental questions, such as the survival after death, reincarnation, paradises, spiritual powers, Tulkus, magic, oracles… all notions that traditional science and materialistic ideologies simply refuse to consider. It is however clear that Buddhism would be much less interesting without life after death: why to take efforts to accumulate merits, why to undergo ascetics, if we have only this life to enjoy? These notions were unanimously accepted as real facts into Asian countries. But the materialistic Westerner will ask for visible evidences before sacrificing years of life into retreats, in the prospect of a future life, which looks quite abstract or hypothetic. Especially in front of a Buddhism which openly refuses the search of spiritual powers, considered as an useless game, see as a trap.
Happily, to share the life of great Buddhist masters often allows witnessing some discrete miracles, which can be enough to create a conviction, for an open minded person. The persons who engage into the practice, often do it because they saw materially unexplainable phenomena. But most usually this happened in privacy, in such a way that only them knew.
If we still want scientifical evidences, or if we want to study this domain in a strictly scientifical way, we have to look forward studies on parapsychology, which did interesting progress in recent years, with the scientific demonstration of the real existence of such phenomena, and the scientific recognition of the true immaterial nature of the NDE This allows today to rationally envision the survival after death and the existence of paradises beyond. However science is still far from a global understanding of these domains, where it only begins to gather observations, without any theoretical frame to place them. I bring my personal contribution with my book «General Epistemology», which provides for such a frame.