Sunday, 17 July 2011

Teachers & vehicles in Buddhism

During my discussions with the Welsh Assembly Government representatives, Andrea Adams and Jo Glenn, they asked about the Dalai Lama and what he meant to the Buddhist community.  I expressed that all Buddhists would respect the Dalai Lama as a great practitioner and many Tibetan Buddhist revere him.  In recent times however, he seems to have become regarded as a 'Buddhist Pope' – which is not accurate.  Tthe Dalai Lama is the head of the Gélug school of Tibetan Buddhism and until recently was also the political head of the Tibetan refugees in exile.  There are three other schools within Tibetan Buddhism itself however, as well as numerous other forms of Buddhism which are quite different in style to Tibetan Buddhism.   I explained the importance of the teacher in Buddhism – how there were many and various forms of Buddhist practice and that the style of particular Buddhist groups would reflect the practice style of their teacher.

Thangka painting of Padmasambhava
by Ngakma Pema Zangmo
The style and form of practice that evolves around a teacher will depend on where the teacher bases their practice.  Buddhism is a religion of method not truth.  It is perhaps unique in religious terms in that the teachings are expressed through yanas – vehicles.  Each Buddhist vehicle has a base, a path and a result.  The style and content of a path will depend on the vehicle.  If you are attracted to the renunciate approach to practice then there is the path of Sutra.  If you feel more inspired by a transformative approach embracing the energy of neurosis then there is the path of Vajrayana.  In the different schools of Buddhism the vehicles are expressed in different ways.  In the Nyingma there are the nine vehicles: Shrivakayana, Pratyekayana, Mahayana, and the six Tantric vehicles.

An unfortunate side effect of this flexibility of approach to the path of realisation is that sadly human beings are not always able to cope with such flexibility.  A teacher teaching from the viewpoint of one vehicle of practice may appear to contradict a teacher teaching from a different vehicle.  This can be confusing for their followers and can create conflict.  It can mean that Buddhist groups tend to keep themselves rather separate and not interact with one another. 

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