Essential Characteristics of Vajrayana – vajra command

Question & answer session with

Ngakma Shardröl

Q Is it correct to understand ‘vajra command’ as including any sort of personal instruction from the Lama, regardless of whether it is expressed as a direct imperative or as an indirect suggestion?

Ngakma Shardröl: From the point of view of the disciple, yes; from the point of view of the Lama, no.

Q How are the terms ‘vajra command’ and ‘dam ngak’ (gDams ngag) related?

Ngakma Shardröl: ‘Dam ngag’ is personal teaching arising from the individual enlightened experience of a particular Lama and specifically appropriate to that Lama’s own particular group of disciples. I do not know what this has to do with vajra command. It is not the same thing.

Q Vajra command is usually spoken of in the context of samaya. However, it is not explicitly mentioned in the Root Vows; nor is it an obvious immediate consequence of them. What exactly is the connection?

Ngakma Shardröl: Vajra commitment is an obvious immediate consequence of the vows if you view it in the context of ‘harmonising with Reality’ rather than ‘obeying orders’. It is a matter of view rather than mechanically doing what one is told. If one views the Lama as a Buddha, i.e. a fully enlightened being, then what the Lama says and does is nothing other than a direct manifestation of Reality. If you live in this view then there is no point in going against the Lama; arguing, disagreeing, or trying something different. The Lama is a living manifestation of pure dharma and what we do is to try and harmonise with that as much as our neuroses will allow.

Q Suppose my Lama were to say: ”I don’t like Wal-Mart. Take this AK-47 and go to the nearest one and kill as many shoppers as you can. That should put a crimp in their expansion plans.” What should I do?

Ngakma Shardröl: Perhaps you might have to renegotiate the nature of your relationship… I mean, certainly it would be reasonable to ask for an explanation of how this action is supposed to benefit beings. Since the Lama, as a Buddha, lives for nothing other than to benefit beings, even the beings who were being gunned down would have to be clearly benefiting from this or there would be no reason to do it. But a better answer would be to spend your allotted 13 years in getting to know the Lama to the extent that you can have reasonable faith that he or she is not a psychopath.

Q Put another way, does vajra command override all other considerations, such as bodhisattva vows?

Ngakma Shardröl: Well, yes it does. The idea in Vajrayana is that devotion to the Lama is the fulfilment of all the other vows because the Lama only lives to benefit beings and one could not ever do better than to carry out the Lama’s plans. That would be the best fulfilment of the bodhisattva vow as well. If one is still in the stage of thinking that one’s own interpretation of the vows is more valid than that of the Lama, this is not yet vajra relationship.

Q Why would it be useful to have a system that is so obviously open to abuse?

Ngakma Shardröl: It is a shocking demonstration of faith in the idea that beings actually exist who will not abuse others, no matter how much power they are given. Look at it this way: if you really believe in enlightenment, then it must be possible that such beings exist. We are putting our trust in that. This is useful because it is actually the only way that one can break out of the closed circle of one’s own filtered view, so maybe it is worth a bit of risk.

Q If I have taken samaya and disobey vajra command, what happens? Do I go to vajra hell?

Ngakma Shardröl: Vajra hell is not a place but a state of mind, the state of mind of feeling completely cut off from the only positive things that exist in life and having damaged one’s own ability to take and keep vows in the future.

Q How am I to take this seriously if I do not believe in hell?

Ngakma Shardröl: If you do not believe such a state of mind is possible, you are either lucky or naïve or both.

Q It is said that samaya should be viewed as a commitment but not an obligation. What is the distinction?

Ngakma Shardröl: ‘Obligation’ sounds like joylessly slogging along because you think you must, but you do not really want to. A commitment sounds like something you take on deliberately, because you choose to.

Q Is it the case that as long as one remains clear that samaya is something one has freely chosen, there is no difficulty with it?

Ngakma Shardröl: If one is lucky. But there may come a time when you find it challenging in spite of the fact that you chose it yourself. Like when some of your most cherished delusions, the ones you had no idea you had, or that you were sure were not delusions, are called into question…

Q The Aro Refuge text begins with the statement ‘The only external damtsig is kindness; the only internal damtsig is openness.’ How does this square with the detailed vows?

Ngakma Shardröl: The detailed vows are an elaboration of those two statements.

Q Is it, for example, a statement from an absolute point of view?

Ngakma Shardröl: Yes.

Q If so, does it take priority over the detailed vows?

Ngakma Shardröl: No. Unless one could really depend on those two qualities without any need for further instruction. If not, the detailed vows are a support.

Q In particular—with regard, for example, to the Wal-Mart case—if kindness conflicted with vajra command, does kindness take precedence?

Ngakma Shardröl: No. If you prioritise your own concept of kindness, then you are not in vajra relationship. But even within vajra relationship it is acceptable to ask questions and to expect that the answers will be in conformity with the principles of dharma. This is a bit tricky because now it sounds as if I am saying that you get to judge whether or not what you are asked to do accords to the principles of dharma, which is not exactly what I mean. The thing is, there is no perfect solution to this problem except to be careful whom you choose as your vajra master. Within the practice of vajra relationship there is no room for doubting the vajra master. This may sound fascistic but if you retain your right to veto every suggestion, you cannot really engage in this practice. There must be enough trust to carry you through times when you cannot understand, and there must be enough actual experience of this person to make that trust an intelligent option.