Establishing Vajra Commitment in the West

by Ngak’chang Rinpoche & Khandro Déchen

We like to encourage tolerance and open-mindedness within the Confederate Sanghas of Aro. People’s individual personalities and styles are welcomed. We value anarchism and freedom highly; but, true political anarchism stresses that freedom must be paired with personal responsibility. If one understands the meaning of the teachings, then it is one’s responsibility to act in accordance with that knowledge. In this context, we are concerned with the manner in which the rôle of the vajra master is currently being undermined in the West, and we are setting out to make information available which clarifies the nature of that rôle.

Whilst Sutrayana requires relationship with a ‘spiritual friend’ (gewa’i shenyen / kalayana mitra) as teacher, Vajrayana requires relationship with the vajra master (rDo rJe bLo dPon / vajra charya). The difference between these two teaching rôles is significant and needs to be understood. The spiritual friend challenges students with regard to their perception but does not override their rationale nor involve them in situations which are outside their comprehension. The spiritual friend can always be judged within the context of the explicit teachings of the Sutrayana, and his or her acts and motivation are never inexplicable. The vajra master, in contradistinction, may manifest teachings which are beyond all codified systems of personal judgement.

The reason for these differences is made clear in many Tibetan texts. One can see the rôle of the vajra master admirably defined in the excellent books of Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche: ‘Cutting Through Spiritual Materialism’ and ‘Myth of Freedom’. The rôle is also discussed in Ngak’chang Rinpoche’s book ‘Wearing the Body of Visions’.

Within the Tantric paradigm, the biggest ‘demon’ of all in the eyes of Buddhist-oriented psychotherapy is vajra commitment. So in our future writing we will continually be returning to the theme of ‘looking at the practicalities of vajra commitment’. We feel that at this point in history it is crucial to get away from the absurd notion of the vajra disciple having to ‘jump off a cliff ’. The idea of having to jump off a cliff is the most common way of arguing that vajra commitment is alien to the West. Yet we can look at the famous example which exists in the Old Testament of the Bible in which Abraham is tested and rewarded with a vision. He is asked to kill his own son and offer him as a sacrifice to God. This is obviously a far more extreme example than jumping off a cliff, yet it is part of the Judaeo-Christian back-drop of our culture. The idea of jumping off a cliff is common when people discuss their feelings about vajra commitment (along with the idea of having to do a whole realm of things which one ‘might not particularly want to do’). There would seem to be a feeling amongst a lot of people that having one’s rationale overridden is in some way connected with losing control of one’s life. We have never understood it in this way, and have never taught it in this way. We see the vajra commitment of Buddhist Vajrayana as galvanizing one into the fullest possible connection with one’s life, through liberating disciples from the prison of narcissism. Our feeling at this present time is that this issue would seem to be worth investigating.

We should begin by explaining that ‘vajra command’ is no more onerous than a suggestion which is taken as transmission. There is no sense in which ‘vajra command’ is anything other than the instruction to be totally alive, and to manifest the vajra pride of being an authentic practitioner. When a person in vajra commitment receives suggestions from their teachers, they are always free to present the limitations of their condition and to express their own perceived difficulties in terms of carrying out their Lamas’ suggestions. Naturally, in presenting one’s perceived limitations, disciples are faced with the reality of their condition and conditioning. They have to have sufficient integrity to know they are not merely following a desire to sink back into ‘marshmallow practice’.

Let us look at an actual example. A Lama once suggested that his disciple should go to Bhutan to attend HH Dilgo Khyentsé Rinpoche’s funeral. This would have cut across a commitment the disciple had made to be somewhere else, and therefore his Lama’s suggestion was very difficult to implement. The disciple, however, said that he would go if it was his Lama’s wish, but that he felt that his Lama ought to know something about his circumstances. The disciple explained that in order to follow his teacher’s suggestion, he would have to abandon people who were reliant upon him and to whom he had made certain promises. It was explained that people invested time and money in a project and it would cause great disappointment were he to back out. The Lama immediately replied that his disciple should not let others down, and that it was more important for him to keep his commitments. This is a valuable example of ‘obeying vajra commands’. The disciple agrees to follow advice, but provides the teacher with further information. The disciple is willing to enter into all the upheaval that a change of plan would launch upon him, but ends up with his plans left as they were. The Lama had no interest in bending the disciple to his will, he simply made a suggestion. The disciple took the suggestion at the level of ‘vajra command’, but was instantly released from it. What a wonderful situation! To be willing to enter chaos and to re-emerge with one’s life as neat and tidy as it was before – but, with a sense of immense freedom and devotion. It was transmission at the most profound level. There is no sense of ‘vajra command’ in which totalitarian orders are given and followed in some inhuman subservient manner. That would be a complete distortion of the meaning of vajra commitment (and ‘vajra command’) in which kindness played no part.

Vajra commitment means ‘willingness to enter the chaos of utter kindness’ – it does not mean Jonestown. It does not mean Charles Manson. These extreme examples, taken from the realm of modern cult behaviour, are a deceitful decoy, employed by those who have never experienced authentic vajra commitment. We have been saddened to hear such statements, and many sincere practitioners with confidence in their Lamas have become concerned to speak out against such sensationalism. Such examples are decoys – because they are far too extreme; and, because there is no sense at all in which such examples can be understood as teachings. Extreme examples of obedience are simply a way of discrediting vajra commitment through avoidance of real examples. Even if we take Milarépa as a real example, one has to remember that he was a murderer… Tibetan tales of vajra relationship often include ‘extraordinary behaviour’, but it is understood that disciples such as Milarépa could always have walked away from the tasks which Marpa had set him. He was not Marpa’s slave, simply the slave of his wish for liberation. Milarépa ran away a few times, but always came back because he wanted Marpa’s transmission so badly. He battled with himself in many ways before he finally received transmission, but it was always his choice. Milarépa is an extreme example. Marpa’s teacher Naropa is also an extreme example, but we need not concern ourselves with projecting ourselves into such situations. Marpa advised Milarépa that in the future disciples should not be tested in such extraordinary ways—that he was the last of the line to come in for such hardships.

Vajra commitment nearly always reflects what is possible within a society. As far as we are personally concerned – those who request us to perform the rôle of vajra master need have no fear of unkindness, immorality, illegality, or unethical behaviour of any kind. The only thing we have to fear from any Lama is that our dualism will be destroyed. There is always (with us) the temptation to put caveats on vajra commitment in order to preserve the role of vajra master in the modern world. However, as a fundamental principle, we should say that ‘guarantee mentality’ is not a hopeful start to vajra relationship. If we begin by saying: I want to be in vajra commitment as long as I don’t have to give up new age crystals; as long as I don’t have to have my ideas challenged, then there is no way for us to approach the real heart of Tantra.

That is the fundamental position, and it is actually worse than any cliff. Worse than Abraham slaughtering Isaac. Worse than anything. Allowing one’s rationale to be challenged: that is the whole terrible truth of vajra commitment. That is the very worst thing that can ever happen in terms of vajra commitment. There is only the terrible fact that one’s vision of reality may have to fall apart. There is only the dreadful knowledge that one’s justifications may be called into question. There is only the knowledge that one cannot hide. So, real examples of vajra command are far more likely to be instances of disciples being asked to question their perception, or to look at their behaviour in a different light, than instances of outlandishness. The vajra master simply needs to be able to point out that the disciple’s view of reality is askew. The vajra master needs to be able to point to instances of arrogance, anger, greed, dishonesty, and deliberate ignorance; and, to expect the disciple to take such observations to heart. The cliff edge, over which the disciple has to leap, is merely that of his or her own self-justifications. The cliff edge, over which the disciple has to leap, is merely letting go of claustrophobic infatuation with one’s own flatulent fantasies. The heart of justification has to be torn out. Ekajati, the protectress of the Dzogchen teachings, holds a ripped out human heart – in token of the fact that Dzogchen is impossible whilst self-justification survives.