The Vajra Master

Excerpts from an Interview with Ngak’chang Rinpoche & Ira Rechtschaffer

Alameda, California – March 1997

Q Here in the West Rinpoche, there are a number of questions that have come up through the years, in fact through the decades, about the difference between obedience and surrender. We talk about the power of the Vajra Master, or the intimacy of the relationship; and then here in the West it causes some concern about whether a student is going to be subjected to obedience as opposed to surrender. I wondered if you could clarify those two? Is there a difference?

R There is a theoretical structure… Whenever one speaks about the Vajra Master, people begin to speak in terms of ‘jumping off a cliff’ – ‘being prepared to jump off a cliff’. I am not sure if this is an Eastern analogy or not; but for a lot of Western people the image of a cliff comes to mind. I don’t know why this is – it is not ‘jumping into a chasm’, it’s ‘off of a cliff’. Theoretically, that is the case – one has to move into space in one way or another. If one looks at histories of Milarépa and Marpa, Naropa and Tilopa – one can see this kind of relationship in which the disciple is invited to the brink. However … I think it needs to be remembered that Naropa and Milarépa were always free to leave.

Q But wouldn’t that contradict the notion of the samaya vow – which, at the level of the Vajrayana practitioner, seems to be a commitment that glues one to the Vajra Master forever?

R Yes, but one ‘glues oneself’ as it were – the Vajra Master is not a cult leader who will have you forcibly brought back if you run away. Milarépa did leave on several occasions, in order to attempt to obtain teaching elsewhere. But let us look at the two aspects of this: there is the theoretical or internal application, and there is the practical or pragmatic application. We have to look at both. We have to look at the fact that Vajrayana does look like cult activity from certain points of view. Vajrayana is not cultic in the modern sense of the word, but some of its parameters could be misinterpreted or misapplied. So, for Vajrayana practitioners it is crucial to distinguish the two. One problem at this point in history is that anything that looks like cult activity is labelled as such whether it is or not. Now, to ‘obedience and surrender’… As far as I am aware, the most important point is being open – ‘open to-’. The only problem I have ever found, in the seventeen years I have been teaching, has been with people who have taken vows and then become rebellious about them. There have never been instances in which Khandro Déchen or I have asked someone to do something bizarre, immoral, unethical, personally harmful, or personally degrading. They have all been issues of personal responsibility or of interpersonal behaviour. There have been instances in which individuals have been called to task for some aspect of themselves which was anti-social. We have found that the ‘cliffs’ for these individuals have been issues such as requesting an individual to make suitable recompense and believable sincere apologies for their crass and insulting behaviour to others – or to refrain from sexual misconduct and sexual exploitation. This is just one example. We have never asked anyone to dance naked on the table in front of the assembled sangha. The cliffs over which we have requested vow-holders to leap have always been ‘self-created cliffs’ – fortunately, so far, only a few people have refused to address their anti-social behaviour, preferring to retain a self-justifying rationale.

Q How would that directive be different in tone and texture at the level of the Vajrayana relationship as opposed to the relationship in the lower yanas between a teacher and a student?

R Well, in the Sutric model, the student responds to his or her teacher’s criticism by saying: Maybe I’m wrong – can we investigate this further? In the Vajrayana model, the disciple responds: I am wrong. Now I must gain further teachings so that I can understand the nature of my mistaken view.

Q So the Vajrayana is not a democratic model, as we understand it?

R No – it is not. But the point is that the people to whom I have referred were not even responding within the Sutric model. There was no sense of: ‘Maybe I’m wrong.’ It was: ‘I’m right and you are trying to destroy me by overturning my self-justifying anti-social view.’ These have been examples of instances where we could not get any further. These people assumed that Vajrayana interested them, but when it actually came to the point of having to live Vajrayana, this proved impossible – their desire to be in some way, or to think in some way was too powerful to allow their vows to function.

(Ngak’chang Rinpoche had previously referred to a ‘romantic view of the military life’.) I think … equally with spiritual endeavours, there is romantic delusion – ‘romance’ in the neurotic sense of the word rather than the vajra-romance we mentioned previously. People seem to think of Milarépa as a ‘romantic figure’ – I do not know why. We have a history in which we find ‘the romance of war’. There can be a great deal of ‘romance’ before a war, when people sign up: I wanna wear a uniform. I want the girls to look at me and sigh. Yeah, here I am, wearing the uniform and I’m so proud of myself. I am going off to war prepared to die for my country! How glorious! I’ll come back again as a hero! I’ll be in the big parade of all those who whupped the enemy and saved their Ma and Pa and sweetheart.

Or, in terms of Vajrayana, the jingoistic banter might be slightly different: I am going to take vajra commitment, and storm the barrier of duality! I’m going to let the Vajra Master destroy my relative rational! And – I’ll come back again, with my ego intact!

I do not think so … The more we look at that, the more gross it becomes. First there is the romance, and then I am out on the battlefield, and I think: This is hell! The first battle is over – soldiers are screaming as their legs are being amputated, and the stench of infected wounds is making me vomit. Not that spiritual practice has to be like a battlefield, in particular. But I think that everyone’s battlefield, in spiritual terms, is precisely what it is. For example, one discovers one has some major refuge which outweighs Buddhism per se – let alone Vajrayana. If one hits against the refuge of a major neurotic reference point – then Vajrayana is going to feel like a battlefield, and the Vajra master is going to be the ‘enemy’. It is going to feel like leg amputation … at whatever level that occurs.

Q I like the metaphor of the battlefield if we look at the missing limbs as the limbs of ego. As we evolve in a spiritual path, perhaps there is a greater challenge and a greater assault on the narcissistic ego as we understand it in the West. But to put the question of obedience and surrender back into focus: Could you relate the metaphor, if possible, to the difference between obedience and surrender?

R Yes – there is a difference between doing as you are told because you have bought into some kind of a structure for self-advancement; and surrender to the view of the teacher, because you have a real understanding that that view is liberating. I think there is a difference there. If you look at a cult, people who buy into a cult and commit terrible atrocities within a cult at the behest of the cult leader – these are people who want some form of personal advancement. I think that needs to be carefully examined. The ‘evil cult leader’ may well take advantage of people; but why do they want to be exploited in this way? What is in it for them? What is within that paradigm that looks like an advantage for them? I think that is important. Some of these people may be insecure, frightened, and lonely – that is one ‘pull’. But I do not think these people are the major operatives within the cult. These are not the people who ‘do the terrible things’ – these are merely the people who go along with it or acquiesce to it. I think that the whole idea of surrender here, rather than obedience, is that it is a deeply informed position. It is a position at which one has arrived through critical experiential research. One understands extremely clearly: I am allowing myself to be challenged here, because I have hit up against the barriers of my own rationale time and time again. I know that my rationale is a closed loop and that the only way out is through surrender to the Vajra Master.

So, that is the beginning. Now, in terms of taking risks… in terms of trust, one gradually establishes a ground of trust. But this is a contradiction in terms. It is a contradiction in terms because trust is vulnerability. And if we call vulnerability ‘ground’ … then … This is interesting, in Buddhist terms. We are making emptiness the ground, and that is crucial when one is approaching Vajrayana – because emptiness is the basis of Vajrayana. So one’s trust expands in terms of knowing that: whatever I hang onto is going to be an obstacle. So – surrender has to be the evolved knowledge that emptiness is the ground. If one has that evolved knowledge, then one can enter into relationship with the Vajra Master. So it is not definitely not obedience in terms of obeying commands – in terms of an infantile ‘doing as you are told’. It is ‘an openness to ’ which is based on previous experience of growing openness.

Obviously at West Point, or whatever place – I use this one particular place because I have read about it – there it is ‘obedience’. It is obedience because: I want to get into this place; I want to get higher rank; I want to be an officer and a gentleman – I want to be thought well of. I want to be respected.

Now . … if one approaches the Vajra Master as one would approach the commanding officer at West Point – this could be a big mistake. One cannot approach the Vajra Master in order to gain ‘higher rank’ – but people do act in this way. They actually approach the Vajra Master from the position of obedience, rather than surrender, because they are actually seeking higher status – or some sort of ‘special closeness’ to the Lama. But then … they become enormously disappointed when the only status they are offered is the ‘status’ of their own liberated state.

Q In which case, do those students that approach the Vajra Master more from a need-fulfilling desire – do they run the risk of tremendous dissatisfaction and disappointment and ultimate criticism of the Vajra Master?

R Sure. Because what they want is not actually there to be had. It is not even being offered. They just perceive it as being possible – to be the Vajra Master’s right-hand man or right-hand woman. If one wants that position, then one is doomed to disappointment. If there is spiritual ambition there – or rather ‘non-spiritual ambition’, then this spells disaster. To want status or recognition of any kind is a doomed position. Obviously some kind of recognition from the teacher is important, but that ‘recognition’ has to be a greater level of intimacy, in terms of being understood. But for that to occur, one has to authentically enter into the nature of practice. Intimacy with the Lama is not expressed by being offered a merit badge; or being told: You can lead the practice every morning – you can have your very own little special seat there.

Q Could we look at loyalty?

R Yes – it is quite central to what we have been discussing. One’s loyalty to the Vajra Master, the lineage, and to Vajrayana in general cannot be based on a deal. Loyalty is not negotiable. That kind of loyalty is for mercenaries – soldiers of fortune. I think that loyalty tends to be based on having lived in a coherent society and we no longer have coherent societies. A coherent society is one in which the honourable code is universally understood. If one is brought up in a society and engages in the life-pursuits which are time-honoured – then one has a better ground for honour. Here, and in this time, I could say: Whoa! I’ve had it with Vajrayana Buddhism – I think this new American Buddhism is really a better way to go. If I say that, then I can leave everything behind without any obvious loss of face. I just leave all my friends and move to another part of the country. I act as if Vajrayana Buddhism never existed. All the people I knew as Vajrayana Buddhists are history. Gone. I could start apparently fresh, in a new situation where I could be seen as ‘a man of honour’ again. Now … that would not exist in Tibetan society – or at least it would be rather difficult. The problem is individualism without honour: What I want for me is more important than any duty into which I may have entered. What I want for me is more important than any promise I may have made – because I have to be true to what I feel in this present moment.

I have nothing against individualism – heaven forbid! Khandro Déchen and I encourage individuality – but individuality or individualism needs to dance with ideas of the community and the greater good. What we find repugnant in our culture is the idea that: Whatever I feel must predominate. I must honour my feelings and follow their dictates. Whatever I said before with so much conviction now has to be cast aside for the next strong conviction which dominates my mind. Situations are there for me to shape in relation to my present desire – rather than my being shaped by the confluence of my desires and my commitments. … and Marie’s the name – of his latest flame.

Q Rinpoche, I wonder if you could speak to the inherent dangers and opportunities in the Vajrayana level of the Buddhist path?

R I think the dangers are those of vow-breakage. If one deliberately breaks one’s vows, it is difficult ever to hold vows again. If one breaks vows, and does nothing to restore them, then one is stuck in the position of never being able to make vows again. One cannot rely on oneself. We have the memory of what it was like holding vows; and we know where we are now – and that is a kind of hell. This ‘hell’ is the hell of not being able to hold vows – of our lives being out of control. We cannot simply take the vows with other Lamas – because we have the visceral memory of vow-breakage. Maybe with this teacher it’ll go the same way. I have no knowledge that it can be any different – if I’ve done it once, I can do it again. How can I hold myself with vows, or be held by them when I know that they have not held me in the past?

So if vows are not repaired, there is nowhere we can go from there. That is the hell of vow-breakage. That is one aspect of the danger. Another aspect is tied up with psychology. I describe psychotherapy as ‘long-process’, Tantra as ‘short-process’, and Dzogchen as ‘instantaneous process’. With short-process, whatever my neuroses are, in terms of Tantra, if I have the relationship with the Vajra Master, I do not have to deal with my neuroses in terms of gradually uncovering them – slowly working through them. I can blast through my neuroses! They’re not there! I can override them! I don’t have to look into them, muck-around with them; I do not have to do anything. What sustains me here is my devotion to the Lama. With devotion to my Lama, I do not have to go into therapy and deal with it all; I can deal with it in a totally different way – through dancing in the mandala of my Lama’s presence display, personality display, and circumstances display!

But . … of course, if one loses that devotion … then everything comes back at ten times the volume. One gets all one’s neuroses in one’s face at once. There is the analogy of riding the tiger. You can ride; but once you are riding, you cannot get off. If you get off, you get eaten. One is not eaten by the Lama – the tiger is not the Lama, but the situation. One is eaten by the situation, and the situation is one’s one neurotic state. One claws oneself in a desperate bid to avoid pain, but the more one claws oneself – the greater the pain. I remember the student of another Lama breaking vows and creating all kinds of neurotic mess around himself. It was the usual story of a person leaving and trying to take as many others with him as he could. He was in a paranoid state to the degree that he failed to see the irony of telling a former fellow sangha member: I bet they’re all saying I’m paranoid. And all the while … people were actually trying to care for him and tell him that he could still be friends with everyone. It was horrible to witness even at a distance.

Q So that might be analogous to the calamity that could be brought about by the Vajrayana in its aspect of jet-propulsion?

R Yes – the elemental neuroses can be transformed into the five Buddha Families, but only in relationship with the Vajra Master and through one’s devotion. One really has to have complete trust. Because in all one’s potential paranoia, one has to be able to say: This fear is not real. I am not going to take my delusions seriously. Everything is as it was before I set myself spinning to avoid my own pain. I am not going to blame my Lama for my pain, because I know that this response is a fabrication of my dualistic clinging. This is actually a pure mandala in which I have been nurtured. I am the creator of my own nightmare, and if I start to attack the mandala of my Lama like a rabid mongrel I will destroy myself.

Q Rinpoche—in Western psychology—this state would be interpreted as ‘personal ego inflation’. It would be a sense of inflating oneself above and beyond the demand of dealing with one’s neuroses. Could you help clarify the difference between that idea of personal intoxication and inflation, and what you are describing as a pure perception?

R Yes. Pure vision is not personally easy; because one may have a very strong need to have it out with another person, and say: You bastard! You did this to me. It is not easy; it is not comfortable. One has to say: Right. I really want to say these things; but I am going to let that go. That is not important. It seems important … but what am I going to do with that? My Lama said that I don’t have a problem with this person. We don’t have a problem. That is very uncomfortable, but I will take that on board as reality. I will let go of the need to ‘process’ what happened. We will simply be friends again.

I think ego-aggrandisement, in that sense, would be more like saying: No, it’s the other’s problem; he is a bastard – but I’ll forget about the problem, because he is so inferior to me that he’s not worth it. So, okay, I’ll feel okay about it then.

But that does not work in Vajrayana. According to Vajrayana you are both intrinsically enlightened beings. You have to emphasize the non-dual quality. Whatever our individual neuroses are, it depends where we put the emphasis…

The position that Khandro Déchen and I take is that we are practising the role of Vajra Master in the same way that our disciples who are in vajra relationship are practising vajra relationship. Now for those in vajra relationship with us, this is a double-bind. Because for them to be in vajra relationship, they cannot really perceive us as practising being Vajra Masters, although we say that is what we are doing. And we mean that that is what we are doing. So they are very much in a double-bind situation; because they very much want to view us as being the real thing. And we are saying, ‘We are not the real thing’. But we can understand that you are practising in that way. This is like a clash of information.

Now we say that we are practising the role of Vajra Master for various reasons – one of them being that that is what we are doing. The other reason is that there is some level of accountability there. We like things to be very clear at that level. This is an enterprise in which we are all involved – it is very new in the West.

Q Here you are as the Vajra Master, and it seems that the students have to live the contradiction or the paradox that you are a practising human being; and at the same time in their practice they have to envision you as a fruitional manifestation of the path. That seems to imply that there is an infallibility to who you are as a human being; and yet you are a human being. So that seems to be a sharper bind.

R Yes, absolutely.

Q Does that imply that samaya would work for you also? That there is a mutual samaya?

R Yes, absolutely yes.

Q Could you speak about that more? In the West, we hear about samaya or think about it as it applies to the student, not to the teacher.

R Now here we are going more into something that is personal to Khandro Déchen and myself. This is not traditional. But we would regard our commitment to those in vajra commitment as being the same commitment to those people. We have to be prepared to die for those people. That is not a traditional expression. It is usually one way – toward the Lama. I think each Lama has his or her own view of what their relationship is. But for me and Khandro Déchen it is very much like that – that we respect the commitment of those who give it; and whatever their commitment is has to be our commitment too. It has to be absolutely reciprocal – because this is a massive thing. This is not something that is handled lightly as a feudal lord or some kind of thing. So whatever our manifestations are at the level of personality or personal eccentricity – we have to be careful of those things in terms of how it is for the student …

If one understands the nature of power, than one actually has power whether one wants it or not. And one is careful, then, about how one uses it. So that one makes a suggestion, and someone looks like they are carrying it out, then one has to say, Be careful with that suggestion. Take responsibility for it yourself. This is a free suggestion. Rather than saying, Ha, ha! He or she is taking my suggestion. Maybe I can ‘up’ it a bit, and that will make me feel even better. I think Trungpa Rinpoche said something once about a real Tantrika panicking every second. The onus is really on the teacher to be incredibly cautious and careful about everything – that you have to be prepared to die for every word. One has to have a massive tentative quality about whatever power one has; or whatever power is allowed by one’s students.

Q What about the more poignant sense of the Lama offering a directive to a student – seeing the student making a certain mistake. And the student coming back and saying, No, that perception is off – it is not true. And yet the student offers a samaya bond with the teacher? That often becomes a big picture in Vajrayana communities here in the West.

R That is very difficult, really. I do not know quite what to say about that without thinking of a particular instance. I know what you are saying. But advice given by a teacher is not usually that directive in terms of one’s personal circumstances, so being ‘off’ or whatever would be a perception of the student. I have never really given advice that pertained to somebody’s life or employment or relationship that was not based on the teaching. Now it being often a result occurring that was not wanted would not be particularly connected with that. Advice given at the level of teaching has to be understood at the level of experience, rather than through the outcome of the event. It is not as if the teacher says, ‘You do this’, and then everything is nice and fine and you enjoy it. It is more about relationship and the understanding of one’s own samsaric pattern.

The rôle of the Lama is really to manifest the goal. And one has to look at that and say, ‘Would I like to be like this person?’ So one really has to come to an understanding of the qualities of this person; and one can only do that through practice. I really have to explore the situation. I have to discover what the quality of the teacher is. Now I think one of the problems in the West is that we hit on it like romance. This person is a great object for projection. And so we fall in love with the teacher. But this is not what is meant by devotion. I think a lot of people mistake that for devotion; because ‘my mommy didn’t love me enough, my daddy didn’t love me enough, but here is this nice, smiling old man – oh! He loves me, he’s nice to me, he will be a good mommy or daddy to me.’ This is a big mistake.

Q Does that mean that as we go from outer to inner to secret, within the Vajrayana path, that the ante—so to speak—is raised? I wonder if you could speak a little bit about the inherent dangers as we evolve further within the Tantras.

R I think one becomes increasingly more adult – or one is forced to become increasingly more adult – less dependent upon the teacher as protector. One, in fact, becomes more equal with the teacher as an inherently enlightened being. Because you cannot move up these yanas with this emphasis on beginningless enlightenment without some kind of a quality manifesting … I often compare this with the developmental psychology of children as they grow up. At first mom and dad are very god-like; they know everything. And that is how it should be, because that means the children feel safe – when I have a tummy-ache, and mom gives me a pill, then that is what I need – I do not need to be frightened of my tummy-ache. Then later the whole idea that the tummy-ache could be cancer comes up; then there might not be an answer to it, and one has to cope with that. If mom and dad are not sure of my tummy-ache, then they will have to take me to the doctor; oh, so the doctor knows everything – the doctor will put my tummy right.

Q Using that metaphor then, would the inherent dangers or risks in the Vajrayana mean that one’s radius of exposure would increase? That one would be introduced into a deeper, more intimate connection with reality proper according to the phenomenal world?

R Yes.

Q … then a more enclosed situation? We go into a more open, open, open …?

R And one becomes increasingly alone, and self-reliant. The props get taken away. The danger of that is that one is just stripped out there and naked in the universe, in terms of one’s experience. And one might really not be up for that; and one might lose the teacher in all that.

Q Lose it in terms of not having recourse to the teacher in that state?

R Yes, because one’s teacher is … One is milking the dri or herding the yak with the teacher. The teacher is wearing the same clothes and just chatting, whatever. So, the more equality there is in terms of outer circumstances, the less signs there are of the teacher being the teacher – the easier it is to lose the teacher. If the teacher is always in brocade, always nine foot in the air on a throne, then you cannot lose the teacher. There is a big neon sign that says ‘Teacher’ and one that says ‘student’; you are not confused about that.

Q So here you are talking about the transition from the human person of the guru to the guru-principle in action; the principle of the teacher radiating through one’s experience. So there is less sense of territoriality – I am here, the teacher is there? Aha.

R And the whole thing becomes a lot more subtle at that level. Because one’s own relationship with one’s own enlightened state becomes more subtle – the difference between what I am and what my enlightened state might be … And it gets closer and closer. That becomes very subtle and very dangerous. Because I could be the enlightened being. And then I am called ‘Rudra’ (Matamrudra) an utterly negatively inverted freedom; complete ego. And then I become like this drunken elephant …

Q Yes, yes. This is quite interesting. I think in many ways what you have just said is very clarifying and also very threatening. It seems that in the initial stages of the path there is a need for more contrast between the samsaric and the nirvanic aspects …

R Yes.

Q … whereas as one gets closer to the true self-actualisation of one’s Buddha nature, one’s personality becomes the vehicle through which that enlightened nature shines through …

R Yes.

Q Therefore there is more of an ordinariness than an extraordinariness.

R Absolutely.