Buddhism in the West - a View from the Thunderbolt Bridge by Ngala Rig’dzin Dorje
Dungsé Thrin-lé Norbu Rinpoche
Buddhism in the west is a topic which seems to have very much scope for confusion. Although the subject invites speculation, it raises many questions which are not at all straightforward. For instance, whereabouts exactly is the west? When the globe is spinning without interruption, where then are east and west? Spin the globe, or open an atlas at random, and jab your finger down. Is that east or west? Or north, for that matter, or south? In these relative terms, how would we define the location of Ögyen, the land from which the Tantric Buddha Padmasambhava appeared? It was somewhere in the wild remoteness of the Karakourams, apparently, where India, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Russia and Tibet all meet. But the end of everywhere and the middle of nowhere can only be somewhere if it’s compared with elsewhere. It’s only when we take compass-bearings, from reference-points which we call east, that we locate ourselves in a place called the west. Ögyen is an image of our own beginningless Wisdom-Mind, existing behind the manifestation of our physical senses. The world of our perceptions-and-responses, the world that we can actually inhabit, the cultural forms that we perceive and generate, our preferred style of Buddhist practice, all ultimately depend on the quality of our connection with Wisdom-Mind.
Wherever the finger lands will certainly be a spot where beings of some kind are living. Where there are beings there is ordinary mind, which is our idiosyncratic expression of the Spacious Ocean of the Nature of Mind, beginningless realisation itself. My own lineage comes in Vision from the enlightened consort of Padmasambhava, Yeshé Tsogyel. Her name means ‘Queen of the Ocean of Divisionless Primordial Wisdom’, not queen of the mundane ‘this or that’. Spaciousness emanates and qualifies all the elements: the mantra of Yeshé Tsogyel includes the seed syllables of all the elements. Space is the meeting-and-departure point that underlies all the directions. It is the ultimate, referenceless, reference-point. To plot the non-dual path, the Middle Way, the karmic view of man-made satellite navigation can never be an adequate method. Strange, then, that we, the holders of Wisdom-Mind, should so readily choose to locate ourselves with reference to the Earth-globe spinning in space, rather than ultimate Space itself.
There exists such a great diversity of styles of Buddhism that I wonder if it is even correct to embrace them crudely in an expression like ‘Buddhism is a world religion’. Occasionally I have the happy experience of meeting at conference tables with many other representatives of different existing Buddhisms. What I have observed there is that Buddhism itself always guarantees to be more—or less—than the sum of its parts. An accumulation of forms, like a conference, can never define what is ‘neither form nor emptiness, nor both, nor neither’. Hence, if such a conference tried to list and define the basics of Buddhism, it could only do so while simultaneously un-defining itself as a perfect arbiter of Buddhism. The Thunderbolt Bridge, Dorje Dzampa, is the non-dual relationship of form and emptiness: it is a way of referring to the realisation of the Path of Buddhist Tantra. When that comes to be expressed in the language of dualism, the result is always a paradox.
Hence, Buddhism has always defined itself negatively, as a rejection of the four extremes, or heresies: monism, dualism, nihilism and eternalism. It follows that Buddhism must be essentially pluralistic: because the non-dual View could give rise to infinite different Paths of practice. An often-quoted expression of this is Chögyal Namkha’i Norbu Rinpoche’s remark about Dzogchen, the ultimate vehicle of Tibetan Buddhism: "There is a tantra of Dzogchen… that says that the Dzogchen teachings can be found in thirteen solar systems other than our own, so we can’t truly say that the Dzogchen teaching belongs to this planet Earth, much less to any national culture. Although it is true that the tradition of Dzogchen … has been transmitted through the culture of Tibet that has harboured it ever since the beginning of recorded history in Tibet, we nevertheless cannot finally say that Dzogchen is Tibetan, because the primordial state itself has no nationality, and is omnipresent, everywhere."
All the Buddhist schools that have ever existed, or may ever come to exist, can only be thought of as ‘special cases’. They are cultural or trans-cultural forms which emanate from the vision of enlightened teachers. This is the way that the compassionate activity of these Buddhas supports the realisation, by particular audiences, of non-dual, non-theistic View. Compassion is distinguished by its appropriateness, which means that the colourful details of its activity are bound to vary dramatically, even from country to country within ‘the west’. There was a prophecy which accompanied the revelation in my lineage of the treasure-teachings of Yeshé Tsogyel, to the Mahasiddha Aro Yeshé, the previous rebirth of my Root Teacher Ngak’chang Rinpoche. It said that these teachings were primarily for the future benefit of people in a far-distant part of the world. So, now that this has become a reality, does this mean that these are essentially Tibetan teachings or essentially western teachings?
I think we miss the point if we base our conceptions of the future of Buddhism solely on speculations about form. What is form? Essentially empty. Form is only one foot of the Thunderbolt Bridge. Taking the example of a Tantric lineage, its emptiness aspect is the experience of inspiration or realisation that we receive from transmission. Over centuries, new schools of Tibetan Buddhism arose, and distinguished themselves from those that currently existed. But the realisation of their founders, which made these developments possible, depended on the experience of transmission coming through the existing forms. Manipulating the existing forms of Buddhism, without the vibrant experience of transmission, is not enough to generate the living Buddhisms of the future. Dungsé Thin-lé Norbu Rinpoche has written: "As it is said, ‘However much sand is pressed, oil will never come.’ For example, even though a prince is the son of a king, if he never ascends the throne, he will have no power to work for his own benefit or for the benefit of his subjects. Without empowerment, one has no lineage, and it is not possible to practice for one’s own benefit or to teach for the benefit of others. If we receive an empowerment, we have the blessing and power to practice, and can then teach others."
The alternative would resemble the materialist ‘new age’ re-birthing drama of Frankenstein’s monster. This is the fantasy that the painstakingly collected remnants of corpses could mysteriously be reanimated by exposure to the powers of ‘nature’, to arise again as a living being possessing the qualities of wisdom and compassion. Not for nothing did this fantasy emerge at the height of the industrial revolution’s humanistic optimism; but it is not for the likes of Buddhists. Buddhists have to be prepared to dance on the tightrope of uncertainty rather than schlumpen in the hammock of superstition.
Whenever our thoughts turn to analysing the relative kinds of Buddhism, we can only locate them in terms of their emptiness qualities. Our optimism can only be sound if it is based on the possibility of renunciation, in Sutric terms, or transformation, in Tantric terms, or self-liberation, in Dzogchen terms; in other words, on an experiential reality that can only function on account of emptiness. Thus the unavoidable paradox of form and emptiness arises again. To plan for the future means embracing uncertainty, and that includes the uncertainty of indications given by the past. To establish a Sangha for the benefit of future generations means acknowledging the instability of existing forms. When we visualise our lineage-tree, in Tantric practice, it lacks solidity in the same way as a tree that stands by the roadside. The lineage from which we receive the ultimate, infinite and un-repayable benefit is itself a play of form and emptiness qualities: its form being the many student-teachers who gave and received transmission, of which the empty aspect is the realisation that was transmitted. If our lineages are to pass through us, then to that extent they will depend on the possibilities inherent in our time, culture and language; but what is it that actually passes?
I once attended one of many Tantric initiations that I have been fortunate to receive from Kyabjé Chhi’mèd Rig’dzin Rinpoche, who is a speech-incarnation of Padmasambhava. At a certain point he asked the audience why they had come. There was silence. His translator insisted that Rinpoche was waiting for a response. As I was highly conscious of my own reasons for being there, I decided I ought to speak up myself, and put other people out of their embarrassment, so I said "To receive some experience of transmission from you, Rinpoche." He gave a very characteristic wolfish grin, which seemed to indicate approval, but also the possibility of further inquisition. I was right: he continued "Transmit what? Transport where?", meaning, What is it that moves? Where does it come from? Where does it go to? I said "Simply, in Mind", and he gave me another grin. For the time being, the audience was off the hook. In Tantric terms, on a micro-scale, transmission means sharing the experience of the nature of the teacher’s mind: nothing actually moves. The macro-scale, the form quality of the movement of Buddhism through the world and through history, is inseparable from this.
Non-dual experience can be characterised in various ways, such as ‘the union of great bliss and emptiness’. Finding through this experience the equal taste of emptiness and form, its practitioners will honour the manifestation of form and emptiness qualities in women and men equally. If it is authentic, it can be expressed in ordinary personal unpoetic contemporary language: that would be its natural compassionate activity. As a result, ordinary working family people will be able to understand that something real is being indicated, inviting them to have access to the teachings. When the emperor of China asked Bodhidharma what enlightenment was like, he said "Lots of space, nothing holy." Realisation is called in Dzogchen ‘the natural state’; so its practitioners will be beyond the artifice of ‘spiritual’ personalities and the neurosis of competitive achievement. They will be able to inspire future generations by transforming anger and jealousy into clear simplicity; grasping and dependency into joyfulness; and neurotic confusion into free spontaneous ecstatic laughter. That would be my vision of a Buddhist sangha, in any time or place.