The Aro gTér

Part 5 – The Nyingma Aro Tradition Today

by Ngak’chang Rinpoche & Khandro Déchen

Our major concern, as the lineage holders of the Aro gTérma cycles of Khyungchen Aro Lingma, is to establish the Confederate Sanghas of Aro in the world as a humane and exuberant possibility – for ordinary people. We are concerned with ordinary people, because we are ordinary people. We are not extraordinary or special; neither are we particularly unusual. We hail from ordinary families of working class origins. We have friendly, warmhearted, co-operative relationships with our parents and with siblings. We have experienced the commonplace vicissitudes of life, which make us similar to most other people. We have both had previous marriages which did not prove to be long-lasting, so we understand people’s living situations. We are happy to say that we have remained good friends with both our ex-marital partners. We include many non-Buddhists amongst our closest friends and integrate with the community in which we live. We have no desire to live within the sheltered precincts of a spiritual centre.

We have a son, Robert and a daughter called Ræchel. They both have Tibetan names which were given to them by Kyabjé Künzang Dorje Rinpoche and Lama Tharchin Rinpoche; these are not officially recorded on their birth certificate, because we do not know what path they will choose in life. We will teach them about Buddhism – but not as a process of indoctrination. They will attend ordinary schools and live fairly ordinary lives. We are ordinary people who like and enjoy the company of other ordinary people.

We were neither privileged nor underprivileged in our upbringing; and, like most people, we have had our share of hardships and difficulties. Because of life experience and somewhat secular personalities, we are keen to provide access to the Aro gTér teachings for people who are relatively down to earth and who do not yearn for a rarefied atmosphere of sacredness in which to receive teachings. We appreciate humour and a certain zest for life in those with whom we communicate. We feel strongly about the need to integrate the teachings with ordinary life and with the ethos of full-blooded enjoyment.

(Editor: There are always those who will dedicate their lives to a spiritual search which takes them away from their native land for many years. Ngak’chang Rinpoche was such a person – but Khandro Déchen was not. In the 1960s and early 1970s, it was possible for British people to stay in India extremely cheaply for unrestricted periods; those days are long gone. It is no longer possible to replicate that experience. The world has changed from the days when Ngak’chang Rinpoche returned to Britain periodically to work a few months in a factory in order to earn money to return to the Himalayas for a year or more. India and Nepal are no longer countries where a month’s pay will provide food and lodging for a year.)

There are always some people who are prepared to take a quasi-monastic route, in which they sacrifice social credibility in order to devote themselves to a life of practice in the West. The quasi-monastic route often proves necessary, in order for people to avail themselves of the necessary instruction for the practice of the inner tantras. But we have met more than a few who have expressed regrets later in life, in terms of their lack of a family and coherent career. We met one man who entered a three year retreat in spite of the fact that his wife was pregnant. He never saw his child born and never experienced his son’s early years. His wife, although initially supportive, left him before the retreat was concluded. It was a bitter experience for him, and not one which we would recommend. Even if one is wealthy it is not so easy to retire from society, and the Western world is not one which respects mendicancy or social marginalism. We find it useful to remember that spiritual practice was a traditional, mainstream, conservative pursuit in Tibet, China, Russia, Mongolia, and the Himalayan countries where Vajrayana was practised. If we attempt to establish Buddhism in the West as a ‘counter-culture’, it would be wise to research the implications of such a course. It is therefore our wish that the Confederate Sanghas of Aro provide a structure for those with families and careers. In reality this is not so different from the Aro gTér lineage in Tibet. The Aro gTér was a small family lineage, and its practice was integrated with the working lives of those at the Aro Gar – the encampment community of the Aro sangha in Tibet. In that setting people lived as families. Their time was balanced according to the demands of a subsistence economy; therefore weaving, herding, milking, felt making, herb gathering, and many other activities were part of everyday existence. Western people often see this life style as idyllic, but in reality it is no more or less idyllic than the lives of those who practise the Aro gTér today in the USA, Britain, Continental Europe, and Scandinavia.

As Lamas, we attempt to teach through the context of everyday life as it is lived by the working family people who are our apprentices and disciples. (We should hasten to say that we are not prejudiced against single people, or those who choose not to raise children – it is simply that we place our emphasis on those who would otherwise have greater difficulty in accessing the teachings. We are keen that family people do not feel disadvantaged, or regret their decision to have children. We are concerned with the future, and with future generations of practitioners who could gain advantage from the inner tantras of the Nyingma Tradition.)

The context of everyday life is extraordinarily dynamic with regard to the inner tantras. A whole wealth of teachings exist, which address: embracing emotions as the path; love and romantic relationship; gender experience; intrinsic & pervasive sexuality; and integration of practice with everyday life through living the view. The tradition of the mahasiddhas (which were so wonderfully portrayed by Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche) is also the life blood of what we have set out to establish in the world.

The inner tantras have been taught mainly within the context of monasticism and liturgically based ritualism, but it needs to be understood that this is but one aspect of the Vajrayana. The heart of Vajrayana is actually inseparable from the experience of life, in all its endless nuances. This understanding is central to what we are attempting to communicate, through: our books & articles; open teaching retreats; apprenticeship programme; and, our teacher training programme.

The gö kar chang-lo’i dé

We feel that if Buddhism is to survive in the West, it needs to take a somewhat similar step to that which the original Hassidim took – away from scholasticism and academia, towards an ecstatic path which could be embraced by non-academics. We see the Confederate Sanghas of Aro as providing this possibility for ordinary people. We are keen to establish this non-celibate tradition of ordination in the West in order to create a living stream of practice which can exist within society as a form that is integrated with everyday family life. We feel that although monasticism has its place, and that it may well continue to provide an excellent spiritual path – it may well turn out to be a path for the minority in the West.

Monasticism needs to be supported by a devout and generous laity. In the West, most of those interested in the Buddhist path, are sufficiently interested to practice, and must devote resources for supporting their practice and their teachers. Lay people are those who do not feel the drive to devote themselves to practice and study, but who feel the need to support others in that endeavour. We would imagine that most people ardent enough to financially support a monastic community, would be zealous enough not to be counted amongst the ‘laity’. If this is true, then it is unlikely that there will ever be the broad base of lay support needed to establish Buddhism as a monastic religion in the West.

It will have become clear here that we do not consider non-celibate practitioners to be lay men and lay women. This may be surprising to some, but from the point of view of the Nyingma School there are two ordained sanghas: the red and white sanghas. These sanghas are the celibate / monastic red sangha, and the non-celibate householder white sangha.

The word lay (according to US English, UK English, German, Dutch, French, Italian, and Spanish dictionaries) means: ‘not of the clergy / non-professional / amateur’. We did not find lay to mean ‘non-celibate’ in any dictionary we researched. We conclude from this that the use of the word ‘lay’, in Buddhist circles, has been given a particular meaning in order to emphasise the importance of the monastic tradition. Whilst we have no argument with re-defining words, there is a certain problem when it comes to how such a word is used with reference to religions other than Buddhism. There are various religions with non-celibate priesthoods, and one should be careful when applying the word ‘lay’ to them. If ‘lay’ is defined as ‘non-celibate’ then it would follow that some religions such as Judaism and the Christian Protestant Churches are entirely ‘lay’. Such a suggestion would obviously be offensive to the adherents of these religions. The ngak’phang sangha should therefore not be described as ‘lay tantrikas’, because this is a palpable oxymoron according to most Western religions and Western languages. Part of our work is to make this idea known so that Buddhism in the West does not have to be seen as a religion in which celibacy is the only direction a serious spiritual aspirant can take.

At the encouragement of HH Dudjom Rinpoche we have begun to establish an ordained ngak’phang sangha in the West; 60 of our students have taken this step. A further 25 apprentices hope to become ordained in the year 2009, and are currently studying for the examinations which are a precursor to ordination (along with retreats and practice commitments). We hope that by the end of our lives, that there will be a strong ngak’phang sangha in the west and that this lineage will be able to continue and grow. To this end we hope to establish a ‘retreat place’ where the Mahayoga, Anuyoga, and Atiyoga (the three inner Tantras) can be studied and practised. We see this as a contribution to society in general and have a vision of the future in which the inner Tantra approaches will have a healthy influence on the way that people live their lives.

Rôle of ‘Teaching Couples’ In the Confederate Sanghas of Aro

We are dedicated to ensuring that the direct-daughter line can re-emerge. To that end, the Aro tradition has been established as a confederacy of spiritual organisations dedicated to the creation of opportunities for women and for family practitioners. We place special emphasis on practice in the context of family life, and on encouraging women to engage in teacher-training within this lineage. There are now a group of significant women practitioners within the Confederate Sanghas of Aro who have had inspirational contact with Jétsunma Khandro Ten’dzin Drölkar, three of whom have been ordained into the vajra commitment of the gö kar chang-lo’i dé.

‘Teaching couples’ are an important feature of our lineage, and we hope to encourage this modality as the predominant face of our lineage in the West. As a ‘teaching couple’ an important aspect of our rôle is to provide an example of the dance that exists as the marriage of two Tantric practitioners. This is one of the most crucial and fundamental teachings of the Aro gTér cycle. It is called the ‘Khandro Pawo Nyi-da Mélong Gyüd’ (mKha’ ’gro dPa bo nyi Zla me long rGyud) and deals with practising as couples, in order to realise the hidden female and male qualities within men and women. (See article: Honey on the Razor’s Edge)

We see the rôle of ‘teaching couples’ as crucial to the future of non-celibate Vajrayana practice in the West. Teaching couples existed in Tibet, not only within the Aro gTér lineage, but within most Nyingma family lineages. This formulation however was never really instituted as a definite mode. In the Nyingma tradition every male ngak’phang Lama is perceived as Padmasambhava by his disciples – and consequently his sangyum is perceived as Yeshé Tsogyel. This was quite traditional as a context for devotion, but this manifestation of method and wisdom was rarely concretely extrapolated with regard to the equality of the two Lamas. The woman was usually somewhat in the background in the sense of wisdom being spacious rather than directly instructive. Within the Aro Gar the couple formulation was quite definitive in terms of equality, but the ‘teaching couple’ was not presented as a preferable mode to the single Lama. The Aro tradition today can be said to be exploring this paradigm in terms of actively encouraging the ‘teaching couple’ as the preferred teaching mode. We see this as a way to integrate the inner Tantra teachings into Western society in a way which promotes harmonious marital relationship.