Essential Characteristics of Vajrayana – devotion

question & answer session with

Ngakma Shardröl

Q What is devotion, exactly? Everyone talks about how important it is, but it is hard to find a clear explanation.

Ngakma Shardröl: So far, the best definition I have been able to come up with is ‘harmoniousness with the Lama’. Like having no resistance to anything combined with a strong attraction toward that person in any sense at all, but especially in terms of seeing that person as an actual embodiment of the enlightened state.

Q Devotion has been called an ‘intelligent emotion’. What does that mean?

Ngakma Shardröl: I think it’s ‘intelligent’ in the sense of being in tune with Reality. It is intelligent (natural) to be attracted to the quality of enlightenment as we catch glimpses of it, mainly in the form of something that seems somehow more joyful and more free than we feel ourselves to be.

Q What are some other examples of intelligent emotions?

Ngakma Shardröl: Hmmm, falling in love with someone who falls in love with you? The feeling of being drawn to things which are noble and heroic, etc? Wanting to help beings who need help.

Q Is it how one feels that is essential to devotion, or what one does? Or are both required?

Ngakma Shardröl: It is both. The feeling animates the practice and the practice generates the feeling so it is a kind of self-reinforcing dynamic.

Q Would it be correct to say that devotion is not something you have to understand, you just have to do it?

Ngakma Shardröl: Well, speaking as a great compulsive understander, I am beginning to think that maybe I cannot understand it, I can only experience it. But I also would not say you ‘just have to do it’ – it is more like you need to be able to let it happen. The outer form of devotion can be practised deliberately but only the outer form. You can try to keep the view in mind, but basically it generates itself from the inside or not at all. The outward forms could be some sort of gateway but that is all…

Q Devotion has been described as ‘seeing someone else’s enlightenment’. Might one not do this without any particular emotion?

Ngakma Shardröl: I would not say exactly ‘seeing someone else’s enlightenment’. More like experiencing it, and in that particular moment actually sharing it, or some aspect of it, and knowing and experiencing that, which is really the only kind of recognition possible. You cannot really ‘see’ someone else’s enlightenment from outside it; you can only ‘experience’ it from within it. For some reason that I do not particularly understand, this experience seems to be accompanied by a lot of emotion. How could you not be emotional if you had been locked in a cage for 40 years and you suddenly found yourself momentarily outside it, not even in the same universe as it had been, and this experience was due to the intervention of another being? At the very least you would be pretty darn grateful, I imagine.

Q Would you say that emotion is critical to devotion?

Ngakma Shardröl: I do not know much about taking the route of emotion to devotion, but I would say that devotion generates its own emotion, and inevitably so.

Q If one had a well-developed capacity for pure vision, one might see the enlightenment of many people. One would not have devotion for all of them, would one? Or would one?

Ngakma Shardröl: Well as I said, I don’t really think that devotion means seeing the enlightenment of someone else. More like experiencing it. How could one have a well-developed capacity for pure vision without also having a well-developed capacity to appreciate one’s own innate enlightenment? I think if one is experiencing oneself as generally unenlightened but having occasional experiences of the enlightened state facilitated by one’s relationship with a Lama, then one feels devotion toward that Lama. If one has a well-developed capacity for pure vision and is generally having experiences of the enlightenment of many people then what one would feel toward them would not be devotion, exactly, but more like bodhicitta. One would want to do everything possible to get the person to be able to experience that enlightenment themselves.

Q It is said that some students mistake strong positive feelings for authentic devotion. How is it possible to discriminate between the two?

Ngakma Shardröl: I think a lot of times it isn’t, especially in the beginning. But any kind of strong positive feeling can transform into genuine devotion through experience of practice. If one has trust in the Lama, one does not need to worry about discriminating the nuances of one’s positivity; one can just trust that the Lama will be able to work with it in some kind of useful way. If it’s just something like a crush, and not really serious, it will probably evaporate when its expectations are disappointed, which will inevitably occur. Maybe you can tell the difference between devotion and infatuation by how you react to that.

Q Devotion is sometimes compared with falling in love. In what ways is it similar, and in what ways different?

Ngakma Shardröl: It’s similar in the sense of the feeling of intense attraction and can even be similar in feelings of jealousy, possessiveness and all sorts of other neuroses of ‘romance’ that may come into it. The difference is that the person you are falling in love with is not operating by the same deluded pattern. They are working ceaselessly for your benefit so that, aside from having one’s expectations disappointed and other versions of not getting what one wants (which may cause occasional fits of petulance), the situation is manipulated by the Lama in order to facilitate the student’s enlightenment. And since one’s feeling of love, however deluded, contains a large proportion of gratitude, it can evolve into something less neurotic.

Q It is normal in Buddhism to deny or minimize one’s own spiritual accomplishment?

Ngakma Shardröl: Not always. I don’t think it’s some kind of requirement of Buddhist etiquette, ethics or even style to deny or minimize spiritual accomplishment. But it is not thought of (by the accomplished one) as accomplishment or even as anything special. If the only point of all activity is to benefit beings, there would have to be a situation where it would be beneficial to relate to one’s spiritual ‘accomplishment’ as accomplishment and to speak about it in that way. But if we are trying to attain the natural state (which is kind of funny in itself, trying to attain something that we already are) then it is probably not useful to view it as some kind of big deal or accomplishment. In fact, that kind of thinking probably creates problems. But I do think that there could be times when a Lama would speak quite openly about their own experience if they thought it would actually be useful to the student.

Q It is also normal to speak hyperbolically about the intensity of one’s devotion.

Ngakma Shardröl: You are calling it hyperbolic, but I do not think it is.

Q These are commonly combined, which puzzles me.

Ngakma Shardröl: When you label it hyperbole, you make it sound as though it’s not real, whereas you’re assuming that the hidden ‘accomplishments’ are real. I wonder why that is.

Q To accurately perceive realisation in another requires that one have some non-conceptual understanding of what realisation is…

Ngakma Shardröl: I would say it requires experience of realisation oneself, if only momentary.

Q If one could fully recognise someone else’s enlightenment, one could recognise one’s own always-already enlightened nature.

Ngakma Shardröl: Quite so.

Q To recognise one’s own beginningless enlightenment is to be enlightened. So, if I were understanding this properly, to say ‘I have vast devotion’ would be tantamount to saying ‘I have vast spiritual accomplishment’. Yet the former is taken to be humble, and the latter to be arrogant. How come?

Ngakma Shardröl: Well this goes back to where you were defining devotion as recognising another’s enlightenment, with which I don’t particularly agree. I think devotion is more like the tremendous gratitude that comes from having a glimpse of one’s own enlightened nature and understanding at the same time that this happened as a result of the Lama. It is not a question of humility or arrogance or accomplishment or anything like that. As I said above, I do not think people deny their own spiritual ‘accomplishments’ out of humility, it’s because it is not useful to view them in that way or encourage others to do so.

Q Would it be correct to say that belief in miracles (embodied in the guru) as a basis for devotion is characteristic of outer tantra?

Ngakma Shardröl: Not so much belief in miracles but maybe having the expectation that the enlightenment of the guru will manifest in that style is characteristic of outer tantra. As a basis for devotion it is iffy because it is quite primitive and deluded (in the idea that enlightenment has to manifest in that style or it cannot be perceived).

Q And that in inner tantra, devotion ought rather to be based in belief in ultimate siddhi, i.e. enlightened mind (also embodied in the guru)?

Ngakma Shardröl: Not so much belief as experience. But I suppose belief is a good start until there is experience. And I mean experience in the sense that one comes to actually know that following these practices with the guidance of this teacher actually will result in enlightenment.