Sectarianism within Buddhism

This evening I’ve been asked to speak about the issue of sectarianism and nonsectarianism within Buddhism itself. This is a quite difficult topic if one starts to look at it in greater depth, not just superficially that all the teachings are the teachings of the Buddha, and they’re all great – not just on that level – and to just think that one is better than the others is being sectarian. Rather than that type of superficial way of treating the topic, if we look more deeply, we see that actually it’s a very complicated issue. 

Approaches to Comparative Religion 

In a previous lecture here, we discussed sectarianism in terms of interreligious sectarianism, specifically between Buddhism and Islam. Tonight the issue is concerning, within Buddhism, all the various forms of Buddhism, and more specifically the different traditions within Tibetan Buddhism. To understand what sectarianism is, let me just review the three approaches that I’ve introduced in our discussion about Buddhism and Islam, these three approaches to comparative religion: We had the exclusivist, the inclusivist and the pluralist approaches. 

[See: Is There a Common Ground between Buddhism and Islam]

The Exclusivist Approach

The exclusivist approach is that only one religion – in our case, only one Buddhist tradition – has the true path to liberation and enlightenment, and all the others are wrong. This could take the form of denying that some teachings are actually the teachings of the Buddha. For instance, we find this among some followers of Hinayana, saying that Mahayana is not the teachings of the Buddha. Or it could be the attitude that we find among some followers of the Sarma traditions, those of the new translation period traditions in Tibet – Gelug, Kagyu and Sakya – toward the termas (gter-ma), these hidden treasure texts that we find mostly in Nyingma (we do find a little bit of that in Kagyu as well). Or another form of this exclusivist approach would be the attitude that although other Buddhist traditions may treat the same topics in common with us, nevertheless, their positions are false: They don’t actually lead to liberation or enlightenment. 

So, that’s the exclusivist approach, and we would, of course, call that a sectarian approach. 

The Inclusivist Approach

The second approach, inclusivist, is the attitude that there are many paths to liberation and enlightenment, and Buddha taught them all, but one is superior; in other words, ours is the best. This also, like exclusivism, would count as a sectarian attitude. 

The Pluralist Approach

According to pluralism, the third approach, there are many paths to liberation and enlightenment, and none of them is superior. This pluralist approach just presents the various positions of different Buddhist traditions concerning topics in common, but with no ranking of them. Of course, this could be done either in terms of, let’s say, an academic, scholarly approach, just presenting the various forms of Buddhism. Or it could be in the approach of a practitioner. Again within a practitioner, that category, is a practitioner who practices only one tradition or a practitioner who practices a few traditions. However, this approach is, basically, dealing with correct information about the different Buddhist traditions, what we would traditionally call a nonsectarian approach. 

Forms of Sectarianism 

The question really is, how do these distinctions fit in the context of the Buddhist traditions? I think that we need to distinguish between two forms of sectarianism here. One is the innate sectarianism within the assertions of a Buddhist tradition itself – in other words, are there sectarian aspects that are part of various Buddhist traditions within the teachings of that tradition? – and the sectarianism of a follower of a specific Buddhist tradition, regardless of what that tradition actually says. 

Let’s look first at this innate form, and there are many aspects to this. 

Is There an Innate Sectarianism in Buddha’s Teachings on the Three Purified States? 

Buddha himself ranked three… the Sanskrit term is bodhi (byang-chub). Bodhi is a purified state, and this would be the state of a shravaka (nyan-thos) arhat, a pratyekabuddha (rang-rgyal) arhat, or a bodhisattva (byang-chub sems-dpa’) arhat (which is a Buddha). Arhat (dgra-bcom-pa) is a liberated being. The shravakas are those who, basically, listen to the teachings when the Buddha is around, or the Buddhas’ teachings are around and then practice accordingly toward liberation. Pratyekabuddhas are those who live during the dark ages between Buddhas being present in the world or their teachings being present in the world, and they practice based on instincts that come from previous lifetimes; they’re also working toward liberation for themselves. Then, the bodhisattvas are those who work toward the liberation and enlightenment of everyone. 

In terms of these three bodhis, Buddha himself spoke about these three different goals and that they have different realizations and different amounts of positive force (bsod-nams, Skt. puṇya) that are necessary for attaining each of them – or “merit” – that’s built up over different lengths of time, whether it’s three lifetimes or seven lifetimes or three countless eons or three zillion eons, etc. Buddha also spoke about – and the Indian teachers spoke about – a difference in the amount of what those who achieve each of these goals have stopped (or gotten rid of forever) from their mental continuums. Even within aiming for one goal, let’s say liberation or enlightenment, Buddha taught different tenet systems with skillful means for different persons for attaining these various goals. 

Conventionally, I think we would have to say that there are differences, and there are these different goals, and one is more complete than another. This is not a sectarian issue. There’s no dispute in any Buddhist school that Buddha taught methods that lead to these three goals. Sometimes we could have, on top of that, a value judgment that one of these purified states is the best – for example, enlightenment – and just aiming for our own liberation is selfish. We have this, and then that starts to get into a bit of a sectarian mode. 

We have this attitude often in the various versions of the lam-rim (graded stages of the path), where we have three graded spiritual aims with three levels of motivation (kun-slong) for attaining them: higher rebirth, liberation and enlightenment. Although there can be very positive motivations that would move us toward achieving each of these three spiritual goals that are ranked in terms of being more complete and in terms of what one has gotten rid of from one’s mental continuum and what one has attained – for instance, for achieving liberation, renunciation would be the motivation (this is the determination to be free from all forms of suffering) – but there can also be a negative aspect that is overlaid onto that, which is that this is selfish and self-cherishing. Obviously not at the final goal when we have achieved liberation, because then we’ve gotten rid of grasping for a truly existent self, but along the way it would be motivated by self-cherishing, just thinking of ourselves. It is quite possible within the fact that Buddha taught these three goals and that they are, in a sense, graded, one could add on top of that quite a sectarian view. 

There are also big discussions concerning among these three goals, these three purified states, whether they are final, ultimate goals – three different final, ultimate goals – or there’s just one ultimate goal. For instance, when we say that there are three final, ultimate goals – and we find this in some of Buddha’s sutras – then this assertion is that once we’ve gained the liberation of an arhat, we can’t go on to become a Buddha. This is not necessarily an exclusivist point of view because shravaka and pratyekabuddha vehicles don’t claim that following them will lead to enlightenment. It is only if they claim that, following the shravaka teachings, we could achieve enlightenment and then they say, “But you can’t achieve that enlightenment by following the bodhisattva path,” that we could say that this would be sectarian. However, they don’t claim that they and only they can lead to enlightenment; they just claim they lead to liberation. 

So, we have the presentation of these three goals, these three ultimate goals. Also, there’s an inclusivist point of view, which is that everybody can achieve enlightenment, though they don’t need to go the entire way as a bodhisattva. Here we can have that we can go in the general direction of liberation as a shravaka but, before we get there, develop bodhichitta and switch to working for enlightenment as a bodhisattva. That’s sort of the lam-rim type of approach; we don’t go all the way to achieving arhatship as a shravaka before we become a bodhisattva. We also have the assertion that after achieving liberation as a shravaka arhat, we could at that point switch to work toward enlightenment. 

There are a variety of ways of regarding these three purified states (these three different levels of arhats) and the three spiritual goals of the three levels of motivation, some of them sectarian, some of them nonsectarian, and so on, but just based on the fact that Buddha taught these three different goals. So, we start to appreciate that this can be quite confusing and quite complex. Is there an innate sectarianism built into the system already by having three spiritual goals? Or is there our attitude toward them, or the traditional attitude toward them, that has been overlaid on that? Has it been overlaid by a tradition that then asserts it – so it’s innate within that tradition – that says, for instance, that if we work toward liberation that this is a self-cherishing selfish motivation? That’s quite sectarian, I think, if we look at it objectively. Or is there just a presentation that there are these three goals and not necessarily accusing one goal of being selfish? One could, of course, in a more skillful way, say that there’s the danger of it being selfish and self-cherishing, but that’s quite different from saying that it is necessarily selfish. There we see the difference between a sectarian and a nonsectarian type of approach there. 

Let’s look a little bit at how these various schools that developed after Buddha came about and what their positions have been. 

Sectarianism in the 18 Hinayana Schools 

In the early stages, we get what are known as the 18 schools of Hinayana. (Although Hinayana is a derogatory term given by Mahayana – so it’s a rather sectarian term – there isn’t another convenient term that could be used for these 18 schools that are not Mahayana.) 

How do they differ? They differ primarily in the vinaya interpretation; that’s the interpretation of the monks’ and nuns’ vows. They’re disputing what did Buddha actually mean by this vow or that vow. They’re not really saying that one is best or that Buddha didn’t teach this vow, or things like that; it’s an argument on quite a different level. 

They also have different views concerning the actual attainments of an arhat and the actual attainments of a Buddha. They accept that these are on different levels, but how they are different – how does an arhat differ from a Buddha? – this they also dispute. That’s not really a sectarian issue; that’s more an issue of interpretation. Everybody accepts that Buddhas are superior to arhats, and Buddhas have more abilities and a greater understanding than arhats. Just because we have these 18 schools with different assertions doesn’t necessarily mean that innate within them is a sectarian attitude or view. 

These 18 schools spread and were dominant in different parts of India; in one part of India, Theravada was more prominent, and in another one, Sarvastivada was more prominent, etc. Different ones spread to other parts of Asia, to Central Asia, and onto China, Japan, Korea, Vietnam. The whole movement went down to Sri Lanka and to Southeast Asia. These early schools didn’t spread into Tibet. 

Over history, they developed different abhidharmas, which are the teachings of general topics of knowledge. They have slightly different lists of the mental factors, slightly different descriptions of many different aspects of the path. Also, they developed slightly different versions of some of the sutras as well. It’s hard to say why they developed. Remember, nothing was written down in this early period, so it could be that different people remembered things differently. There’s one view that abhidharma was not actually taught by the Buddha, that it was taught by various arhats who followed, so there could be different views in terms of what they taught, or different people taught different things, and so on. 

Just because there are these differences doesn’t necessarily mean that we have sectarianism here. Sectarianism, I think, from these definitions or explanations of exclusivism, inclusivism and pluralism, has to deal more with the issue of reaching the goals: liberation and enlightenment. Because, of course, within any two systems, there are going to be differences. 

Over time, these different 18 traditions developed different views of the two truths, for instance. However, in these Hinayana schools, the two truths are a way of dividing all phenomena. One school – let’s say within Sarvastivada, the Vaibhashikas – will divide all phenomena into two types of true phenomena: conventional and ultimate (or deepest) true phenomena. The way that Sautrantika will divide it will be different. Well, both of them, however, assert that a Buddha’s omniscience includes both. Again, this isn’t really an issue of sectarianism about how they assert the two truths. 

For the most part, all these 18 schools keep the same view of a lack of a true identity or true soul of persons, the so-called selflessness of persons, except for one very, very minor branch of one of them. They all assert that non-conceptual cognition of the selflessness of persons is essential for attaining liberation and enlightenment. They usually say that a Buddha just needs to build up much more positive force or merit than an arhat and needs to do so for a longer time. The 18 schools didn’t really dispute the methods that lead to these goals, but undoubtedly there was, on an individual level, favoritism, that “My school is better than the others.” We did have the tradition of one school breaking off from another because of the differences that they had, particularly about vinaya, the monks’ discipline. After the second council, the Mahasanghika group split off from the Theravadins. 

So, enough of these 18 Hinayana schools. As we can see, there’s not so much innate sectarianism within them, although individual sectarianism could certainly be overlaid on them. 

Sectarianism in the Mahayana Schools 

Within the Mahayana schools – we’re talking about Chittamatra and Madhyamaka – it starts to become a little bit more complicated. Within Madhyamaka, there are many different ways of dividing Madhyamaka according to different authors and different Tibetan traditions; let’s just speak in terms of Svatantrika and Prasangika. All of them are speaking about different views of the voidness of phenomena, and they all speak about different levels of the voidness of persons, but in slightly different ways. 

The Chittamatrins and the Svatantrika-Madhyamikas assert different levels of understanding for gaining liberation and enlightenment. To gain liberation, they agree that we need to just understand the voidness of persons. Voidness, remember, means an absence of impossible ways of existing, so there’s a certain impossible way of existing of persons, and we have to understand that that doesn’t refer to anything real: A person that is like a soul, something static that is not affected by anything, and although, of course, it goes on forever, but that it never ever changes, that it is a monad (in other words, an indivisible type of thing either tiny like an atom, like a spark of life, or the size of the universe), and that it can exist separately from any aggregates, from a body or a mind. This is impossible, they say. All of them agree that if we understand that that’s not referring to anything real, then we gain liberation. Well, actually, that’s just part because there are two levels – there’s a deeper level of understanding – but this is not the place to go into that. For gaining enlightenment, however, Svatantrika-Madhyamaka says that the Chittamatra doesn’t lead to enlightenment; we have to have the Svatantrika view. 

According to the non-Gelugpas, Prasangika agrees with Svatantrika on this point, so they say that we need a different view in order to attain enlightenment. That’s the voidness of all phenomena, and what’s not referring to anything real there is an impossible way of existing that is a different impossible way of existing from that of persons (although it would include persons). So, it gets complicated. This again is not the place for a teaching on voidness. 

Gelugpas have their own point of view here. They agree that this is what the Chittamatrins and the Svatantrika-Madhyamikas say, but they say that the Prasangikas say that we need the same view for liberation and enlightenment, just different amounts of positive force and that the view that the other Indian Buddhist tenet systems assert as leading to liberation is insufficient.  

Non-Gelugpas are saying that, according to Madhyamikas, the view that all the Buddhist tenet systems give for attaining liberation will lead to liberation, but the view of the non-Madhyamaka systems for attaining enlightenment won’t lead to enlightenment. Gelugpa says that the views of the lower systems won’t even lead to liberation, let alone enlightenment. Is this a form of sectarianism innate within Mahayana traditions? If so, is it an exclusivist form or an inclusivist form? 

The exclusivist position would be that their paths don’t lead at all to liberation or enlightenment. The inclusivist position would be that all lead to the same goal, but ours is supreme; the form that it would take is that the other tradition is actually a lower stage of our path, so they need to be led, in the end, to our path, to reach the same goal we attain with our path, which they were aiming for but could not get to if they followed only their own path. So, it’s very subtle here how it’s a sectarian point of view. 

In Gelugpa, for instance, the views of the non-Prasangikas are considered coarse levels of understanding of the lack of a true identity of persons and phenomena, while the Prasangika view is a subtle form. Of course, we have to understand and realize the coarse form first, what these other traditions teach, and that’s okay, but it will only get us so far; actually, it’s just a stage on our path, and our path adds to it the subtle form of this understanding, and that’s what actually will bring us to liberation and enlightenment. 

Gelugpa also says, on the final stages of sutra and the lower three classes of tantra – the tenth bhumi level of mind that is the final stage of a bodhisattva – we have to switch to the anuttarayoga tantra type of practice and a way of accessing the clear light mind, the subtlest mind, in order to rid ourselves forever of the subtlest level of the cognitive obscurations preventing omniscience (shes-sgrib), the so-called habits of grasping for true existence. 

However, Gelugpa isn’t the only school within the Tibetans that have this so-called innate inclusivist, this sectarian point of view here. In Sakya, their approach to understanding of voidness is that we first need to understand the Chittamatra view that both the cognition of something and its object share the same natal source (rdzas-gcig) from a seed of karma (sa-bon). Once we understand that, then they modify it with a Madhyamaka view. The Chittamatra view is just a stage on the development toward the Madhyamaka point of view. 

Or another inclusivist form here could be that, on the final stages, a practitioner will automatically come to realize the Prasangika point of view. Like Gelugpa says that when those following anuttarayoga tantra with a Chittamatra view reach a certain stage, automatically, they will realize the Prasangika point of view. They don’t have to actually have studied it; it will become obvious to them from their experience. 

Views of the Indian Buddhist Tenet Systems 

It starts to become complicated. We would have thought perhaps that was complicated already. Now here’s where the complication comes in; both non-Gelugpa and Gelugpa refute the views of the so-called lower Indian Buddhist tenet systems – with logic, it’s not just based on “I think so,” that “Mine is better.” So, it’s all based on inferential understanding based on logic, and it’s not based on opinion. This is because it’s very hard to say on the basis of pragmatism that all traditions lead to the same goal or that they don’t lead to the same goal. Pragmatism would rely exclusively on bare cognition (mngon-sum) of somebody as being a Buddha and that by following this specific tenet system view, they’ve actually achieved liberation or they’ve actually achieved enlightenment. The pragmatic approach is untenable because everybody agrees that only a Buddha can know accurately if somebody else is a Buddha. 

This becomes very difficult as well if everybody has to rely on logic – and they all rely on logic – to refute other positions within Buddhism. Now we start to wonder what’s going on here. I mean, we could also say that one person’s logic is not as good as the other person’s logic. We have all these debates, and the debates are usually based in terms of “Not only is your line of reasoning faulty, but you have contradicted yourself within your logical assertions.” 

Then, we could have another point of view here, which is when we say that one view is less sophisticated and subtle than another, is that like the difference between Newtonian and relativistic physics? Newtonian physics describes things, and it’s a coarse understanding, but on that basis, it works: we can do things. Relativistic physics explains it on a more sophisticated level, but that’s also true. Is it that both work, but one gives more accurate results? That’s not quite analogous here because none of the systems here – we’re talking about the Indian Buddhist tenet systems – none of them assert that all the tenet systems work to reach liberation and enlightenment; all of them say that it’s only their own system that works for this. 

I think that even if this evaluation of levels of sophistication of the different positions of these tenet systems is based on fact and on logic, in a sense, I think that it could be called a type of innate sectarianism. Then the question is, does this evaluation have innate within it a disturbing attitude of presumption, arrogance and narcissism? In other words, by having this position, does it imply that we assume that we know what their tradition means actually better than they do? We know that their tradition is really just a coarse understanding and that they were just following it in order to be able to eventually come to our system. That’s pretty arrogant and pretty narcissistic, “Ours is the best.” It presumes – there’s presumption – that we know better than they do. Then, there’s the danger of unintentionally looking down on the view of these other traditions, even while acknowledging that they’re useful, and in some cases, even necessary steps on the way to liberation and enlightenment. 

Even when the inclusivist view takes the form that Buddha taught all of these tenet systems – and specifically their views on voidness – as skillful means for different people of different aptitudes and one has an attitude of respect toward all of them, there’s still the attitude that one tenet system is superior, is better, is more accurate, more sophisticated. As I said, no one seems to assert that all these Indian Buddhist tenet systems lead to liberation and enlightenment purely on their own. Complicated, isn’t it? Difficult. 

In places like Nalanda in India, this great center of study, this monastic university I guess we’d call it, the monks there studied all four Buddhist tenet systems. It seems on the surface that this was nonsectarian, at least in its curriculum, but it’s hard to say if they considered one as the highest. Certainly, if we look at texts like Shantideva’s Engaging in Bodhisattva Behavior (Bodhisattvacharyavatara) or Chandrakirti’s Engaging in the Middle Way (Madhyamakavatara), they certainly are asserting that the Madhyamaka view is superior, and they refute Chittamatra and various other Buddhist views – so innate sectarianism. The question is, is it just a factual statement that the Madhyamaka view is more correct than the Chittamatra one, or do we have, on top of that, these disturbing attitudes of arrogance and narcissism, “We know better?” When that’s added to it, then it starts to become quite problematic. 

Indian Buddhism with these tenet systems spread to East Asia, Southeast Asia and Tibet. Let’s just look at the Tibetan case. 

Sectarianism in the Tibetan Traditions 

There were many translations and transmissions of different teachings of sutra and tantra, and they coalesced in the Tibetan traditions. They all accept, in one form or another, an innate sectarian view toward the Indian tenet systems. They have many different assertions on many different points of Dharma and many forms of quite similar practices, both sutra and tantra. That’s these Tibetan traditions: Nyingma, Kagyu, Sakya and Gelug. However, that’s the case also within each Tibetan tradition; each tradition will have many different practices and many different assertions because there are many different authors, and they don’t all agree on various points. 

More important than these differences about practices, or about specific tiny little points, is the assertion of the ultimate view of reality that brings liberation and enlightenment, and here we have some slight differences in that. None of these Tibetan traditions assert that the Tibetan traditions form a graded path, that one is a more coarse understanding, and one is more subtle. The Tibetan traditions don’t view each other the way that the Indian tenet systems view each other; that’s an important point to realize. 

The Tibetan traditions, as I said, have different assertions on views of many points within each of these tenet systems from India. They have different ways of asserting the two truths, different analyses of the different ways of knowing, how conceptual cognition works, how non-conceptual works, etc., and different definitions of terms. Then again, the Indian tenet systems and authors also had different definitions. If we look within, for instance, abhidharma, Asanga and Vasubandhu, in their two abhidharmas, define many of the disturbing emotions slightly differently, for example. Everybody defines truly established existence differently within these tenet systems, so that’s nothing new in the Tibetan form. 

Self-Voidness and Other-Voidness

Tibetan traditions have different anuttarayoga tantra or dzogchen practice methods, but these are usually based on different practitioners having different energy-systems being more prominent than others, and so different ways of getting non-conceptual cognition of voidness, and so on. They also, however, have different views of voidness. Let me just list without explaining them because we don’t really have time: There’s what’s called self-voidness (rang-stong). There’s something called other-voidness (gzhan-stong). There’s voidness that can be denumerated (rnam-grangs-pa) with words and concepts (or can fit within words and concepts). There’s voidness that’s beyond words and concepts (brjod-dang rtog-pa-las ’das-pa), which is nondenumerable – it cannot be cognized conceptually in terms of words and concepts. It is beyond logic.

Non-Gelugpa (Sakya, Nyingma and Kagyu) say that self-voidness as presented by Gelugpa – that’s the Gelugpa point of view (they call that self-voidness) – is a necessary lower step. It’s what we understand conceptually, and we have to understand that, but it’s on the way to a non-conceptual cognition of voidness, which is beyond words and concepts. Gelugpa says that other-voidness is just wrong and doesn’t lead to liberation or enlightenment. 

Again, we have the same issues that we discussed in terms of the Indian Buddhist tenet systems concerning sectarianism. Of course, it becomes complicated because when Gelugpa says that the other-voidness view doesn’t lead to liberation or enlightenment and they specify what that other-voidness view is, the non-Gelugpas say that yes, there is a wrong view of other-voidness that doesn’t lead to liberation or enlightenment, but that’s not our view of other-voidness. It becomes complicated, doesn’t it? Everything is complicated. That’s Buddhism. 

As I said, the position that is refuted, as in this example of Gelugpa refuting other-voidness, might not actually be the position that the other school takes since they define terms differently. We find a very good example in terms of dependent arising and how that’s defined. When non-Gelugpa says that voidness is beyond dependent arising – the deepest reality is beyond dependent arising – they’re speaking about dependent arising in terms of arising from ignorance or unawareness, like the twelve links. Whereas when Gelugpa says that everything is dependent arising, they’re talking in terms of mental labeling (ming ’dogs-pa), so they’re defining their terms completely differently. When Gelugpa is refuting this position that deepest truth is beyond dependent arising, they’re using their own definition of dependent arising, not the definition of dependent arising of those who assert that deepest truth is beyond dependent arising is the case. 

Again, what’s the point? Why are they discussing it like that? This is very, very perplexing. Usually, the way that I whitewash it – I admit that it’s whitewashing it (that’s sort of making it smooth and nice) – is saying that they’re pointing out extreme views that we could go to if we misunderstood the definitions, if we didn’t get them clear. 

Vows Relating to Sectarianism 

Now the question becomes, does Buddhism itself speak about this issue of sectarianism? We’d have to say that, the way that we’ve been discussing it – you know, that certain things don’t lead to liberation or enlightenment, or certain things are lesser forms of our view, and so on – we would have to say that yes, Buddhism is very aware of this issue, specifically within Mahayana, and the place where we find that issue discussed is within the bodhisattva and tantric vows. 

Forsaking the Holy Dharma

Let’s look at the pertinent vows here. The sixth root bodhisattva downfall – the vows are phased in terms of “If you do this, you have degenerated or fallen from your bodhisattva vows” – the sixth one is forsaking the holy Dharma. The downfall here is to repudiate (repudiate means to deny), or by voicing our opinions, cause others to repudiate that the scriptural teachings of the shravaka, pratyekabuddha, or bodhisattva vehicles are the Buddha’s words. So basically saying that these teachings, whether it’s shravaka, pratyekabuddha, or bodhisattva, are not the teachings of the Buddha; this was certainly an issue. 

We find that particularly some of the Hinayana schools say that the Mahayana teachings are not the words of the Buddha. Shantideva refuted that in his text Engaging in Bodhisattva Behavior. He refuted that with logic, which is quite interesting. He said that any reason that you use to refute the authenticity of Mahayana, I could use that same reason to refute the authenticity of your teachings as well, because none of them were written down; they were both passed on by oral tradition. And any reason that you give for saying that your teachings are valid I could use to say that our teachings, the Mahayana teachings, are valid, in terms of having as their basis the main points of Buddha’s teachings, and so on. 

Deriding Our Own or Others’ Tenets

This sixth root bodhisattva downfall, forsaking the holy Dharma, is basically in principle the same as the sixth root tantric vow. The downfall there is deriding our own or other tenets, which is to proclaim that any of the Buddha’s teachings are not the Buddha’s words. Here the Buddha’s teachings are referring to any of the three sutra vehicles – shravaka, pratyekabuddha and bodhisattva – as a practitioner of tantra, saying that those are not the words of the Buddha. Or practitioners of any of those three saying that tantra is not the words of the Buddha. Or, “Some of the tantras are not the words of the Buddha. Ours are, but not somebody else’s.” 

Assessing the Validity of a Teaching

Now, this raises a very interesting question because maintaining this vow doesn’t mean forsaking a historical perspective. Buddha’s teachings were transmitted orally for centuries before being committed to writing, and thus corruptions and forgeries undoubtedly occurred. The great masters who compiled the Tibetan Buddhist canon certainly rejected texts, both sutra and tantra, that they considered inauthentic, and they said, “These were not the words of the Buddha.” These great masters certainly had bodhisattva and tantric vows, but the point is that they didn’t base their decisions on prejudice and opinion; they used the seventh-century Indian master Dharmakirti’s criterion for assessing the validity of any material, and this is the ability of its practice to bring about the Buddhist goals of better rebirth, liberation, or enlightenment. That, as I said before, is a little bit difficult to ascertain unless we’re a Buddha – to know that somebody else has actually achieved Buddhahood – but we can see is it going in that direction. 

The other criterion is, does it have the major themes of Buddha’s teachings? They were evaluating texts to see whether they should be included in the Kangyur or not, the translated words of the Buddha. The major themes that all of them need to have are, of course, the four noble truths and the four hallmarks of the Dharma (chos-kyi sdom-bzhi). Another term for it is the four sealing points for labeling an outlook as being based on Buddha’s enlightening words (lta-ba bka’-btags-gyi phyag-rgya-bzhi). They’re these four: 

  • All affected (’dus-byas, conditioned) phenomena – affected by causes and conditions – are impermanent: They’re non-static; they change. 
  • All tainted phenomena (zag-bcas, contaminated phenomena) are problematic. Anything mixed with confusion or unawareness brings about problems and suffering. 
  • All phenomena are devoid and lacking an impossible soul or self. 
  • Nirvana release is a pacification of these causes of suffering, and it is something constructive. 

Based on that criterion, if a text didn’t have these major points and didn’t seem to actually work when tested by a yogi, an authentic yogi, then we could exclude it from the collected works of the Buddha and say, “This is not the words of the Buddha,” without breaking this bodhisattva or tantric vow. 

Another criterion that some masters use, for instance – I think it was Buton – in putting together the Kangyur was, is it based on a Sanskrit text or not? That’s problematic because there are certain teachings that are revealed in pure visions of a tantric deity or master after the time when the texts were transmitted from India, so there isn’t a Sanskrit original; this becomes a bit of a problem. 

Belittling the Shravaka Vehicle

There’s another root bodhisattva vow, belittling the shravaka vehicle. Here we accept that the text of the shravaka or pratyekabuddha vehicles are the authentic words of the Buddha, but we deny the effectiveness of their teachings and maintain that it’s impossible to become rid of disturbing emotions and attitudes by means of their instructions. Well, that’s our inclusivist point of view, that okay, they’re words of the Buddha – well, it could be also exclusivist – but they don’t really lead to getting rid of the disturbing emotions – in other words, they don’t really lead to liberation. It doesn’t explicitly mention gaining enlightenment, but we can include that here. Mahayana gets around this through inclusivism, by saying that with their understanding, we can’t gain enlightenment – or Gelugpa Prasangika says we can’t even gain liberation – but they’re stages on the path. It doesn’t say completely that they don’t work, but they say that they are stages on the path, so that’s inclusivist. 

Rejecting Voidness

There’s a root tantric vow where the downfall would be rejecting voidness. This is an interesting one. Voidness, or emptiness, refers either to the general teachings of the Prajnaparamita Sutras – those are the sutras on far-reaching discriminating awareness – that all phenomena, not only persons, are devoid of impossible modes of existence. So, all phenomena are devoid. That’s the general prajnaparamita teachings. Or voidness could refer to specifically the Mahayana teachings of the Chittamatra, or any of the Madhyamaka schools, concerning phenomena being devoid of a particular impossible way of existing. 

To reject such teachings means to doubt them or be indecisive (is this true or not true?), to disbelieve them, or to spurn them (to say, “This is no good. We should completely forget about them.”). Now the point here being, in terms of tantra, that no matter which Mahayana tenet system we hold while practicing tantra, we need total confidence in its teachings on voidness; otherwise, if we reject voidness during the course of our practice or attempt any procedure outside of its context, we may believe, for instance, that our visualizations are concretely real. This type of misconception just perpetuates the sufferings of samsara; it can even lead to mental imbalance. 

It’s necessary to have some view of voidness while practicing tantra, whether it’s Chittamatra or Madhyamaka, or just a general Mahayana view of voidness, of all phenomena being devoid of some sort of impossible way of existing. Also, they say that it’s necessary, along the way, to upgrade our tenet system from Chittamatra to Madhyamaka – or within Madhyamaka, from Svatantrika to Prasangika – and in the process refute the voidness teachings of our former tenet systems. 

How does that fit in with this vow? What this means is that discarding a less sophisticated explanation doesn’t mean leaving ourselves without any correct view of voidness of all phenomena. In other words, we break the vow if we practice tantra with no view of voidness whatsoever, but that doesn’t discount that we could upgrade our view of voidness along the way. It has, underlying it, an inclusivist attitude of sectarianism: that we have to upgrade our view in order to actually attain liberation and enlightenment. 

The Sectarianism of Individual Practitioners 

We’ve discussed, then, innate sectarianism within the assertions of a Buddhist tradition itself, but what about the sectarianism of a follower of a specific Buddhist tradition? What’s going on here? For this, in terms of what Buddhism itself says, there’s a secondary bodhisattva vow. The secondary bodhisattva vows are speaking about faulty actions that are detrimental to either training in one or the other of the six far-reaching attitudes (pha-rol-tu phyin-pa, Skt. pāramitā) or detrimental to helping others in general. 

Forsaking the Mahayana Vehicle

We have the secondary bodhisattva vow of not to forsake the Mahayana vehicle; that would be a faulty action, to forsake Mahayana. Here we accept that, in general, Mahayana tenets are the authentic words of the Buddha, but we criticize certain aspects of them, specifically texts concerning bodhisattvas’ unimaginably extensive deeds and the inconceivably profound teachings of voidness. 

The bodhisattvas’ unimaginably extensive deeds include accounts of Buddhas multiplying themselves into countless forms, simultaneously helping numberless beings in myriad worlds. The inconceivably profound teachings are collections of terse and pithy verses extremely difficult to fathom. What could be included here, in terms of our discussion of the four Tibetan traditions, would be biographies of great masters, like Guru Rinpoche, that we say, “Okay, these are the Mahayana teachings. These things are authentic teachings, in general, of (for instance) the Nyingma school. But come on, about this biography of Guru Rinpoche, all the things that he did are quite fantastic.” We would say that this is something that is a bit strange. 

We degenerate our discriminating awareness by repudiating something like this in any of four ways: 

  • One would be that their content is inferior: They’re speaking sheer nonsense. (We can see this would also count as quite a sectarian point of view.) 
  • The second is their manner of expression is inferior: They’re bad writing, and they make no sense. 
  • The third one is that their author is inferior: They’re not the words of an enlightened Buddha. 
  • The fourth is their use is inferior: They’re of no benefit to anyone. 

By discriminating like that, in a close-minded and sort of hot-headed arrogant way, we damage our ability to discriminate anything correctly. 

When faced with that, with reading such texts or teachings, the main thing that’s always recommended is to just say, “Well, I don’t understand them.” We remain open-minded. We think that “Even though I can’t appreciate or fathom them now, the Buddhas and highly realized bodhisattvas understood their words and realized their meaning, and through that they were able to benefit others in infinite ways,” and so we develop a firm resolve to try to understand them in the future. There’s no fault if we lack this firm resolve – “I’d like to understand it in the future” – so long as we don’t belittle and denigrate the teachings; we at least maintain equanimity, acknowledging that we don’t understand them. That would be more of a nonsectarian point of view toward them, rather than saying, “This is ridiculous!” or “What use is this? This doesn’t benefit anyone,” or “This is really bad writing.” 

Sectarianism Concerning our Own Tradition

More common individual sectarianism takes the form of “My Tibetan tradition is the best.” It’s either exclusivist (the others are no good; they don’t lead to liberation and enlightenment) or inclusivist: They’re okay, to a certain extent, when they follow what we do – their practice of lojong (blo-sbyong, attitude training), bodhichitta, and so on are okay – but ours is the best and the highest (people especially have that attitude in terms of tantra practices). We can even have that individual sectarian attitude, within one Tibetan tradition. “My teacher is the best. The others are no good,” “My Dharma center is the best. The others are no good,” etc. Again, either they don’t lead to enlightenment – “You’re not going to get anywhere, there” – or “Well, some of the things they say are okay, but some of the other things are not very effective (or not good, or not right).” This is usually based on unawareness (ma-rig-pa; usually translated as ignorance) – a lack of understanding conventional and deepest truth about the lineages, about the Tibetan traditions. 

Unawareness, or not knowing the conventional truth of these various traditions means that we don’t know the distinctive assertions of our own or others’ traditions. We ask somebody, “Why are you so strongly Gelugpa (or Kagyu, or whatever)?” and they have no idea, really, what are the specific individual characteristics of that lineage and what are the specific characteristics of other lineages, so that’s quite sad. Or they only know them partially, or they don’t know any or some of them correctly – they know them incorrectly. 

Lineages develop from different teachers and have different practices. If we look at these lineages, there were many translators who came to Tibet, many teachers who came to Tibet, and many Tibetans who went to India. They taught various practices, each with its own lineage, and often there were many different lineages of the same practice, and so on, and then various masters combined some of them. Eventually, what became sustainable was to have what’s called a tradition, a lineage. They put together some of them, but what they put together wasn’t necessarily only in their tradition because some of these lineages would also have been shared by some of the other Tibetan traditions. This is the way that these Tibetan traditions of Kagyu, Sakya, Kadampa and so on evolved, and they mixed and were nonstatic all along the way – things being shared, passed back and forth, in terms of lineages, and so on, and interpreted in different ways. Also, the lineages aren’t homogeneous; there are many variant views and many variant practices within each. 

As I said, usually, when we have this individual sectarianism, it’s based on not knowing (or knowing incorrectly or only partially) the conventional truth – what are the assertions of a tradition. Then, of course, there’s confusion about the deepest truth. We don’t know, or know incorrectly, the manner in which the existence of the traditions is established. In other words, how they exist. Obviously, they arise dependently on parts; they’re dependently arising phenomena. 

Actually, it’s quite interesting when we analyze because we can have this unawareness about the conventional and deepest truths about the Tibetan traditions even if we have a nonsectarian view. In other words, we could say they’re all valid ways of leading to enlightenment and liberation, but we don’t have a clear idea of what their differences are or what their assertions are, or we might even have an incorrect understanding of them. We could certainly grasp at them as existing solidly and truly existent and still be nonsectarian, so it becomes a little bit complicated here again. 

Conceptual Cognition 

When we think about Tibetan traditions, and consequently speak about them, it’s on the basis of conceptual cognition of the lineage. What is conceptual (rtog-bcas) cognition? Conceptual cognition is cognizing something, being aware of something, through a category (spyi, universal), and the category would be the lineage – Gelug, Kagyu, Nyingma, Sakya. Then, there is a specifier (ldog-pa, conceptual isolate), it’s called. A specifier is this thing which is nothing other than (ma-yin-pa-las log-pa) this lineage, so it is a sort of an intermediary between the category and what we’re going to use to represent the lineage when we think about it. 

It’s like, for instance, when we think about a dog. Think about a dog. If we think about a dog, I’m sure that everybody has a different mental representation of what a dog looks like, and yet we can all think of a dog. There’s the category dog, there’s the specifier nothing other than a dog, and then what we use to represent a dog. That’s how we think of a dog, even if we see a dog that doesn’t look like our mental image, our ideal image of the dog. Or when we see another type of dog, we can use that as our representation now when we conceptualize it as a dog. 

So, what do we think of when we think of Gelug or Kagyu or Sakya or Nyingma? What do we use to represent them? Very interesting question. It could be something vague. We don’t quite know, so just the sound of the word, for example, is representing it. It doesn’t really have content there. This is a type of category which is just an audio category (sgra-spyi); we don’t really know what it means. Or it could be one particular view and what we think that view is could be correct, or it could be incorrect. Or it could be a guru, my own teacher; this is what we think of when we think of Gelug or Kagyu or Nyingma. Or it could be a lineage, like Tilopa, Naropa, Marpa, Milarepa, etc. That represents in our mind Kagyu, when we think Kagyu. 

For this representation to be helpful, it needs to be based on study and correct information about the assertions and practices of one’s own lineage and what the other lineages assert so that we can have an accurate distinguishing that this is this lineage and not that lineage. Although we might choose only one thing to represent a lineage when we think about it, that one thing is not enough if it is just one little thing within a lineage, like a particular line of gurus. It needs to be based on having a very wide knowledge, and then we choose one thing as an individual representation. That has to do with how do we know categories and individual items within categories. 

The Five Deluded Outlooks 

On the deepest level, when we have this conceptual cognition, we have unawareness. We don’t know how its existence is established, or we know it incorrectly. We have that. We just don’t know how we exist, how the lineage exists, what establishes its existence. We have grasping for the truly established existence or self-established existence of “me” and the lineage – we imagine that there’s something on our side that establishes that we exist and something on the side of the lineage that by its own power establishes that it exists. 

Then within the root disturbing emotions and attitudes, there are the disturbing outlooks (lta-ba nyon-mongs-can, deluded outlook) or disturbing views. There’s a list of five of them. The first of these is called a deluded outlook toward a transitory network (’jig-tshogs-la lta-ba). “Transitory network” is referring to something in our aggregates – they’re transitory, changing all the time – and so a body, mind, or something we perceive. In this case, it would be the representation of a lineage that we’re thinking of. The deluded outlook seeks to latch onto this category with the label of either “me” (nga, bdag) or “mine” (nga’i-ba, bdag-gi-ba). In other words, we have another type of category, “me” and “mine,” mixed with truly established existence, and then this deluded outlook is looking around with an attitude or “me” or “mind,” and it finds something and it latches onto it with this attitude. 

I mean, this is, in general, talking about having an attitude. We say this in our languages, our Western languages, we have an attitude about something. Here the attitude is “me” and “mine.” This deluded outlook is not the attitude itself – the “me” and “mine” are conceptual thing – but what it is doing is throwing that attitude onto something; it’s a mental factor that attaches it to something, searches and attaches it onto something. Here it is the lineage: “Me, I’m Gelugpa,” “Me, I’m Kagyupa,” “I’m Nyingmapa,” “I’m Sakyapa.” Or mine: “This is my lineage,” my guru, my Dharma center, my practice, my yidam (meditational deity, Buddha-figure). 

Then, we have also an extreme outlook (mthar-’dzin-pa’i lta-ba). This is the second of these deluded outlooks, and according to Asanga, this is based on this first deluded outlook. It’s to see the lineage as being static: It will never change, and it’ll last forever. That obviously is an incorrect consideration (tshul-min yid-byed). It is an incorrect consideration not only of a non-truly existent thing as being truly existent, but viewing a non-static thing as being static. We tend to think of these lineages with this outlook. What we are doing is we’re attaching this view that this attitude is some solid thing that’s never going to change and is always this – Kagyu, Nyingma, Sakya, Gelug – a solid thing that never ever has changed and is not affected by anything; it exists by itself. 

We could also have a third one, holding a deluded attitude as supreme (lta-ba mchog-tu ’dzin-pa). That basically, with either this first or second attitude or both, saying that mine is the best. It’s attaching this concept of “this is the best.” Then, with a distorted outlook (log-lta), which is the fifth of these five disturbing or deluded outlooks, we repudiate the others. This is basically saying, going together with “Mine is the best,” that “These other ones are incorrect.” It’s repudiating that they are correct, either in general (as a whole) or a specific practice. 

It’s very interesting. We look at a specific practice within a different tradition from our own, and they’re doing things slightly differently. For example, in Gelugpa, the practice, it says – according to Asanga, actually – to attain single-minded concentration (ting-nge-’dzin, Skt. samādhi), we need to do it with mental consciousness (yid-kyi rnam-shes), not with sense consciousness (dbang-gi rnam-shes), and so Gelugpa tends to favor gaining single-minded concentration by visualizing a Buddha. We go to some of the other traditions, like in Nyingma – some of the Nyingma traditions, I should say – or mahamudra traditions, and they work on staring at a Buddha statue in order to gain single-minded concentration, the first step. So we say, “Hey, this is wrong. That won’t work.” 

So, this is a distorted outlook. That’s a form of sectarianism, isn’t it? Because basically, it comes from not knowing other teachings – not knowing their definition of what is mental consciousness, what is conceptual, what is non-conceptual, what’s sense cognition, etc. Not knowing that. It’s just looking at one little piece and saying, “This isn’t right because…” and now the only reason is “because it’s not the same as what I do.” “Mine is based on this text,” and they’ll say that they’re based on that text. Just because it’s based on a text, it’s not going to prove one view is correct or another. It has to be based on logic, and for it to be based on logic, as Shantideva said, the two sides have to agree on definitions; otherwise, we’re talking about two different things. 

So, that’s what’s going on in this conceptual type of cognition. 

Grasping at a Tradition as “Me” or “Mine” 

What is interesting is that we could hold onto a tradition as “mine” or “me” (I’m a Gelugpa, I’m a Kagyu), and we could hold onto it as being static (a solid thing; it’s never going to change) and still be nonsectarian. We view all of the traditions like that – this is “mine,” this is not “mine,” truly existent “me,” truly existent lineage, permanent ones, solid – but we assert that they all lead to liberation and enlightenment, and they’re all okay. Just because we have this grasping for true existence and this deluded outlook toward a transitory network doesn’t necessarily mean that we have a sectarian point of view. For it to be sectarian, there needs to be this view of supreme: “This is the best,” and a distorted outlook, “The other one is wrong; they’re not the teachings of the Buddha” or “it doesn’t work,” and attachment to ours and repulsion toward the others, and, of course, arrogance: “Mine is the best.” One has to analyze very carefully here what actually makes a sectarian point of view, and what can be present in a nonsectarian view without making it sectarian. 

Of course, the different lineages have defining characteristics that characterize individual examples of teachers of a lineage. In other words, there are common assertions of the lineage or common lineage gurus. Conventionally, we would say they do have defining characteristics, but please note that we’re just talking about general common assertions because different lamas in a tradition have different assertions, and different practices within different traditions have different lineages, but we can say there are some general ones that define it. The point is that the existence of the lineage is not established by the power of the defining characteristic findable on the side of the lineage lamas or teachings. That’s a very important point in Prasangika. It isn’t that we look within the teaching, and there it says this particular assertion, and by the power of that alone, it makes it a Gelugpa teaching or a Kagyu teaching. Or there’s something inside me – my instincts from previous lives, or something like that – that by its own power makes me Kagyu or Nyingma or Gelug or Sakya. This is the grasping for solid existence or for existence established by the power of something findable on the side of the object, in this case, a defining characteristic. 

Even though there are defining characteristics, we can’t find them, and they don’t have the power by themselves to establish things because even the defining characteristics are mentally labeled or chosen. They’re not just sitting there by themselves as being a common characteristic; they’re just assertions. It’s necessary to know these defining characteristics, these common ones, based on knowing them correctly and knowing that a lineage is established merely as the referent object – not a findable referent thing, but a referent object – of a mental label on the basis of individual items having the common defining characteristic. Then, we have a correct conceptual cognition of it. 

We have the word “dog,” and we can think of it; we have a mental representation of a dog. What is a dog? A dog is what that label “dog” refers to – a referent object – on the basis of all these different kinds of dogs. There is such a thing as a dog, conventionally, and it is what that term refers to, what the category refers to. However, there isn’t a referent thing sitting out there that, by its own power, makes it a dog and not a wolf or not something else. There could be a completely different conceptual framework that would never put together a poodle and a German shepherd and a Mexican Chihuahua as being all within one category, “dog.” They look completely different, so why would we call them all dogs? It’s merely a concept that is used to refer to a group of things based on an arbitrarily chosen set of common characteristics. Do you follow? 

So, it’s the same thing with the traditions as well. There are certain things that were put together. I mean, after all, lots of different teachers came to Tibet, lots of different Tibetans went to India; they came back, they had different teachings, they even remembered them differently, they might have even different versions of the same text. They lived in different places, they had different monasteries, and different people understood them or practiced them differently. Someone came along and said, “Okay, all of you are going to be…” or they agreed among themselves, “We’re going to form a group.” That’s arbitrary, isn’t it? Not totally arbitrary, because they agreed on certain common assertions or common lineages. None of them were exclusive, because teachings that were translated by Marpa went into Gelugpa and into Sakya as well, not just into Kagyu. So, there’s nothing sitting out there on the side of practitioners or monasteries, or anything, that makes them, by their own power, Gelug or Kagyu. A sign with a name, by its own power, doesn’t make it Gelug or Kagyu, does it? This is important to understand. 

If we have this correct understanding, then again, we can have either a sectarian or a nonsectarian view of it. This could conventionally be our lineage that we follow or our main lineage. Or “I’m nonsectarian. I follow all of them.” Even within that, we could have a view that mine is superior. Would that be nonsectarian? That would be sectarian. This is a very, very delicate thing, how we view the various lineages. If we have a correct understanding, that doesn’t necessarily mean that we have a nonsectarian point of view; it could still be sectarian, in terms of “mine is better” or “this is superior” and so on. It doesn’t necessarily have to have attachment and arrogance, not necessarily. We could argue it with logic, that this is more logical, but then we have views that say that this is beyond logic, so that becomes very difficult, doesn’t it? 

Practicing Several Lineages 

Sometimes, in the name of being nonsectarian and pluralist, we may practice more than one lineage of teaching. This is happening more and more, particularly in the West. We have teachers who have studied a little bit of Theravada, particularly and specifically, the vipassana (lhag-mthong, Skt. vipashyana, special insight) form that’s developed in the West (coming from Burma, but the way that it has rooted in the West and is practiced in the West). They have a little bit of Tibetan traditions, a little bit of Zen, and they sort of put them together and say, “We’re nonsectarian.” However, it’s very important not to mix things. This is something that His Holiness the Dalai Lama emphasizes – not to mix, and not to mix means that we don’t just put them all together and make a soup out of them. When we practice one type of practice, or one lineage, we do that separately from practicing another one. 

If we’re going to do some vipassana, we do that in one session. While doing vipassana, we don’t recite a mantra. Or while doing a mantra practice, we don’t do it at the same time while trying to practice Zen, and so on. We don’t mix these things. We do them separately. In this way, we have respect for each of the ones we are practicing. We need to do this also when practicing several of the Tibetan traditions. We might have received and learned a certain practice from a Gelug lama and then another one from a Kagyu and a Nyingma. We do them individually, we don’t mix them all together into one sort of mess. 

That doesn’t mean that there aren’t certain ways of putting things together. Like, for instance, within Nyingma and Kagyu, there is a certain tradition from the Kagyu master Karma Chagme (Kar-ma Chags-med) who taught a method for combining mahamudra and dzogchen, which meant that up to a certain point, we practice the mahamudra practices, but then at a certain point, we switch to dzogchen types of practice, so that’s not mixing. That is practicing each of these two traditions at a specific point. We could ask, “Is this an inclusivist sort of thing, that if we practice mahamudra, we wouldn’t get all the way to enlightenment, and that we have to practice dzogchen in order to get to enlightenment? Or is this just presenting another variant of what we could do?” These are a sectarian and a nonsectarian way of looking at this type of thing. 

Also, within Gelugpa, we have the combined practice of the three major yidams: Guhyasamaja, Vajrabhairava and Chakrasamvara. This is the main practice of the tantric colleges. On the generation stage (bskyed-rim) – that’s the first stage of anuttarayoga practice – we practice the three individually, but on the complete stage (rdzogs-rim), since each of these teachings has more detail on one aspect of the complete stage practice than the other, we fill in the detail from Guhyasamaja about what’s called illusory body (sgyu-lus); we fill in the detail from Chakrasamvara about the practices of tummo (gtum-mo, inner heat) and the four blisses (dga’-ba bzhi) and methods for getting to clear-light mind (’od-gsal), and we practice those within the context of Vajrabhairava. This again would not be considered mixing. This is a highly realized master taking the strong points from each of these, at a certain stage, and supplementing a practice – because Vajrabhairava contains practices that have aspects of what we find in more detail in Guhyasamaja and what we find in more detail in Chakrasamvara – and putting them in there and supplementing them. So, that is not considered mixing either. 


When we are dealing with all these different Tibetan traditions, and not only Tibetan Buddhist traditions but all the other forms of Buddhism, we are definitely faced with the issue of sectarianism or nonsectarianism. 

In most of the major cities now, around the world, there are so many Dharma centers. It is not just one or two Dharma centers from one tradition or another tradition within the different Tibetan traditions, the different Zen traditions, the different Chinese traditions that are non-Zen, the different Theravada traditions, and so on, but even within one lineage, there are so many different centers – from different teachers, and so on – and so it’s very easy to fall into a trap of sectarianism. Concerning sectarianism, as I said we need to distinguish between what is innate within the Buddhist systems themselves, particularly in terms of these Indian tenet systems and the levels of motivation and so on, and what is an individual type of prejudice, of sectarianism, which could be fostered by the lama as well, by the teacher, and it could be fostered by a group within a monastery. “Our textbooks are the best. The other textbooks are no good,” this type of attitude is there as well. We have to distinguish what makes a view sectarian and what makes it nonsectarian. Even if it’s sectarian, is it something that is not so negative but something that is based on fact? Would we call that sectarian? Would we not call it sectarian? Sectarian, after all, is just a word that refers to something. 

As I said in the beginning, this is a very complex issue and one that we can approach in a very superficial way. “They’re all good. Don’t be sectarian. These people that say, ‘Mine is the best!’ and have this football mentality, it’s just based on ignorance. They don’t know their own system. They don’t know anybody else’s system.” We can leave it on that superficial level, or we can do like what we’ve done this evening, analyze on a much deeper, sophisticated level what actually is going on in this issue, and we see that it’s not so easy to resolve. 

Thank you. That’s all that I wanted to explain. Are there any questions? 


I have studied with someone who is a so-called “lineage holder,” and this teacher emphasizes that it is important to just follow his lineage and not to follow other lineages. That teacher has a responsibility to further that lineage, pass it on to others in the future. How do we actually know that this is the best for us without actually studying and learning about other traditions? But these other traditions and lineages, the teacher says, would be too confusing, so just follow this. And we’re faced with a dilemma.

There are several issues, very important issues, that your question brings up. First of all, what in the world is a lineage holder? Within any tradition of Tibetan Buddhism, there are many, many lineages. Each practice has a lineage and each monastery, in a sense, has a lineage. So, what are we actually following? Or in Nyingma, each terma (gter-ma) tradition has a lineage; the people not only practice termas, these treasure texts, they practice other things as well. It becomes a little bit confusing when one teacher says, “Here’s the lineage and follow it,” because that lineage undoubtedly contains many things that are in common with other lineages. 

Putting that issue aside – of what is a lineage and how is a lineage actually transmitted – who becomes a lineage holder, and who has the authority to say that somebody is a lineage holder so that their name actually appears in lineage prayers? That’s also a very contentious issue, of how do we get somebody’s name in a lineage prayer, and do different people have different names in it, but let’s leave that political issue aside. 

The dilemma that we’re all faced with is, how do we choose a lineage? We all have different capacities, and so for some people, studying one lineage is difficult enough – or one tradition, let’s say (let’s call it a tradition of a way of practicing a set of practices) – is difficult enough. For others, it would be very beneficial, a teacher might tell us, to study many different traditions. Because if we’re going to become a teacher, for example, or become a Buddha, we have to be able to deal with people of different aptitudes, people coming from different traditions, so we have to know what they’re talking about and have some knowledge of it (if not experience) as well. So, it depends on the capacity. 

This becomes very difficult when we have a Dharma center with many different members. Does the Dharma center have just an open policy, inviting teachers from all lineages to come and teach? For a lot of people, that would be very confusing. Or does it have a main line of practice and then invites some guest teachers sometimes? Or does it only have a main practice, a main line, and doesn’t invite outside teachers? There are three possibilities here. That’s very difficult for a center to decide, or a lama who is in charge of a center to decide, what would be most beneficial. This is because a center is not static – the members come and go, and their aptitudes and capacities are all very different. So, that’s one point. 

Another point, as His Holiness the Dalai Lama always says, in terms of practicing more than one tantric deity (Buddha-figure), he says that in the beginning it is helpful to practice several of them; this is the tradition – whether in one lineage or many lineages, that’s another point – but to practice many of them in the beginning. It’s only when we are ready to devote ourselves 100% of the time to achieving enlightenment that, at that point, we have to choose one and follow just that. 

Again, what we study and what we practice will be different at different stages of the path, but in the beginning, it’s very hard, I must say, to even identify what are the common assertions of Buddhism, because, as we said, there are the four noble truths, the four hallmarks of the teachings, these sorts of things, but, in addition, there are certain things within Buddhism that are shared in common with non-Buddhist Indian traditions. The methods for attaining single-minded concentration, for example – we find them in all Indian traditions. 

It is not an easy question at all. Do we just go to the center that happens to be close to our home, the most convenient to go to? Do we go because the teacher’s charismatic? Do we go because the teacher is famous? Do we go because the center doesn’t charge as much as the other one, and we can afford it? Do we go because our friends go to this center? There are many, many reasons, both valid and not so valid, for going to a center or going to a teacher, having somebody as our teacher, so it’s hard to really give guidelines. However, for one of the bodhisattva vows, the downfall is praising oneself and putting down others because of attachment to fame and so on, and these sorts of things. If the center and if the teacher has this obviously sectarian view, that “Ours is the best and the others are no good,” and they basically want to have many students so that they can afford to pay the rent and so on, then one should be quite suspicious of what’s going on there. 

That’s quite different from a center saying, “Here, this is the lineage. There are many other lineages, many other ways of practicing, which are also valid” – being a little bit nonsectarian here – “This is what we offer; test it out.” I think that’s very important. Not that the first time we walk in the door, all of a sudden, we’ve converted. I think in the beginning we do have to shop. 

Wouldn’t it be a good idea for the lineages, the various centers, to have the responsibility to expose their members to these other views? 

That’s a very good point, yes it would be helpful.

Another fact came to my mind as we were discussing. I was saying that perhaps it’s important in the beginning to shop, but I think that eventually we have to decide. That shopping could go on for a very long time, and that’s not very healthy either. I was thinking in terms of the school of dialectics, The Institute of Buddhist Dialectics in Dharamsala. This is a debate school within the Gelug tradition. What they do is that they go through all the training that we would get for the Geshe degree, but at the end, for one year they go to the debate schools of the other Tibetan traditions. So, it is not studying all of them first and then choose – although maybe it’s a good idea to sort of see where we fit in, to shop a little bit, and what makes more sense to us – but after we have become firmly established in one point of view, then to learn about the others.

One of my teachers, Geshe Ngawang Dhargyey, made this point in criticizing our Western approach. He said that we tend to want to compare two things, neither of which we know very much about, and if we do that, it’s just based on confusion. We can only compare two things when we know one very well, and then we start to study something else, and then we have to know that pretty well before we can really make a fair comparison. 

So, is it the responsibility of the centers to do this? In an ideal world, yes. But we have to admit that not every teacher is an enlightened being, and not everybody has the knowledge to be able to present the views of other Buddhist traditions. There is this possessiveness in these Dharma centers, which could be partially motivated by financial considerations that we don’t want people to go to other Dharma centers; we want them to stay with us and to pay their fees so that we can pay the rent and send money back to our monastery (because there’s an awful lot of pressure from the monasteries in India if we are a monk teacher). 

Yes, it would be very nice to be taught about the other traditions, and then I think the model of the dialectic school is quite sound. I mean, this is the model that His Holiness chose, and undoubtedly, he’s very wise. So, they do this at the end of their studies. Now that’s very difficult at a Dharma center because people are coming and going. In some places, we have a set course, and we are supposed to be there from beginning to end, and they ensure that by having us pay for the whole thing at the beginning, so we feel a little bit stupid if we don’t go because we paid already. Then, as part of that course, perhaps at the end, we could introduce some of these other views. Certainly, within the tenet systems, the Indian tenet systems, everybody studies all of them, and as I said, there is an innate sectarian aspect to that within Buddhism. Whether we want to say that’s fair or right or not, that’s something else, but it’s there. It doesn’t have to be with a disturbing attitude, though. 

We could learn about the other Buddhist systems also through a university course. I studied Buddhology – you know, Buddhism – at university, and at the university, there was no judgment about one tradition being more authentic or more correct than another; it just presented everything, just, “Here it is. Here are the facts.” So, it could be like that. It becomes more complicated if we’re a practitioner and practicing one of them. Then, as I say, we have these exclusivist, inclusivist, or pluralist approaches, and then we have to analyze what makes it sectarian and what makes it nonsectarian within those three categories.

I think a general Buddhist education is very helpful. Perhaps a general education in the very beginning, and then a more detailed education at the end, when we are more advanced, when we’re more firm in one tradition because to present too many variants of one point at a time is too confusing for most people.

Original Audio from the Seminar