Monthly Archives: October 2009

Self Power and Divine Power

November 2008

On the spiritual path both self power and Divine power are required to achieve liberation / salvation / illumination. Self power means relying on our own power, control, effort etc. Divine power means letting go, and relying on the blessings, grace and transformational properties of the Divine.

Tibetan (Vajrayana) Buddhist teachers tend to be exponents of Divine-power, emphasizing the role of the Divine (conceived as Buddha / Buddhas) in the development of virtue. A typical statement is “without the blessings of the Buddhas, it is impossible for a virtuous mind to arise.” (Geshe Kelsang Gyatso, Understanding The Mind).

Like the other great religious traditions, Buddhism is interesting because within it we can find a wide variety of practices and interpretations. There are exponents of Buddhism who strongly emphasize self power, and there are others such as Japanese Pure Land practitioners who rely completely on Divine power. The  main practice of the Pure Land school is nien-fo (Jap. nembutsu), repeatly reciting the name of Buddha Amitābha (Jap. Amida) in order to recollect and call on him for protection. There is a striking similarity here with the Sufi practice of dhikr.

One of the founders of the Pure Land school was Shinran who, according to Paul Williams in Mahayana Buddhism, “felt incapable of attaining enlightenment by his own efforts, so his last resort was faith in Amida” . Shinran developed an extreme Divine power view, believing that “salvation comes from gratefully accepting Amida’s saving grace, not by any good works.” After a single recitation of the nembutsu with faith all other recitations are superfluous, and according to Shinran even faith comes from grace. Shinran closely analysed the nature of self power and Divine power, and came to believe that relying on Divine power is the truly difficult path, because it is too easy to slip into believing that we have the power to rescue ourselves and that our own actions might be sufficient for salvation.

Although it has many good qualities, Pure Land is an extreme interpretation of Buddhism, similar to Calvinism in Christianity. It certainly seems a long way from the Buddhism described in the early scriptures (Pali Canon), although the practice of ‘letting go’ is found there. I think the following paragraph from Lama Yeshe reveals the fine balance between self power and ‘letting go’ in healthy Buddhist meditation:

“Now, you might think that Buddhism emphasizes control too much and feel that the lamas are saying, “Your deluded mind is so full of negativities that you must restrict it tightly.” But this is not what we mean . . . In Tibet we say that directing the mind is “like bridling a fine horse to make him rideable.” A horse is a tremendously powerful animal and if you do not have the means to control him properly he may gallop off wildly, possibly destroying himself and others as well. If you can harness all that energy, however, the horse’s great strength can be used for accomplishing many difficult tasks. The same applies to yourself . . . So the control we are talking about is similar to that of a pilot who does not restrict but rather directs the power [my italics] of his aeroplane.” Wisdom Energy, p125-6

In this analogy, the conscious mind that is capable of control is self power, and the horse is the unconscious power of the mind and the inner energy winds (Skt. prana). Correct practice means finding the balance between self power and letting go, so that the horse is under control, but is still able to express its unbounded energy. Another analogy is sailing, where the wind is outside of our control, and the elements of the boat such as the sail are self power. By correctly orienting those elements which are under control to the wind, the sailor is able to use (or be used) by the other power to good effect.

As well as balanced teachings like these, within Tibetan Buddhism it is easy to find teachings which tend strongly to Divine power. The Dakini can be considered an archetypal manifestation of Divine power. She appears to Naropa as a hag in order to shock him into a new, more honest phase of spiritual practice:

“All that he had neglected and failed to develop was symbolically revealed to him as the vision of an old and ugly woman . . . she is a deity because all that is not incorporated in the conscious mental make-up of the individual and appears other-than and more-than himself is, traditionally, spoken of as the divine.” Herbert Guenther, The Life and Teachings of Naropa.

Also, Judith Simmer-Brown writes:

“the Dakini is the ‘other’. As an outside awakened reality that interrupts the workings of conventional mind, she is often perceived as dangerous because she threatens the ego structure and its conventions and serves as a constant reminder from the lineages of realized teachers. She acts outside the conventional, conceptual mind, and has therefore the haunting quality of a marginal, liminal figure.” (from Dakini’s Warm Breath).

As well as the Dakini, the major source of other-power in Vajrayana Buddhism is the Lama (spiritual guide). In The Single Decisive Path, Gampopa says: “mahamudra [great enlightenment] has no cause; faith and devotion are the cause of mahamudra. Mahamudra has no condition; The holy Lama is the condition for mahamudra.”

Although the great monotheist religions of Judaism, Christianity and Islam emphasize the centrality of faith in God, most denominations assert the importance of self power too: “God helps the man who helps himself” neatly sums up this attitude, or “first tie your camel, then trust God”.

Increasing Equality

According to Lord Griffiths, the Conservative peer and Vice-Chairman of investment bank Goldman Sachs “we have to accept that inequality is a way of achieving greater opportunity and prosperity for all”. Has he hit on a clever, counter-intuitive truth? No, he is just plain wrong.

In their book The Spirit Level, Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett show that practically all the problems of modern societies, from child mortality to drug addiction, mental illness to obesity, murder rates to environmental pollution, have the same root cause – inequality.

“It became clear,” according to Wilkinson, “that countries such as the US, the UK and Portugal, where the top 20% earn seven, eight or nine times more than the lowest 20%, scored noticeably higher on all social problems at every level of society than in countries such as Sweden and Japan, where the differential is only two or three times higher at the top.”

We all know that the endless pursuit of economic growth is crazy, that higher GDP is a meaningless quest that does nothing to increase our collective happiness or well-being. What Wilkinson and Pickett show is that we must measure our society’s success in terms of increasing equality, because this is the only reliable recipe for “greater opportunity and prosperity for all”.


Gandhi famously said:

“I will give you a talisman. Whenever you are in doubt, or when the self becomes too much with you, apply the following test. Recall the face of the poorest and the weakest man whom you may have seen and ask yourself if the step you contemplate is going to be of any use to him. Will he gain anything by it? Will it restore him to a control over his own life and destiny? In other words, will it lead to swaraj for the hungry and spiritually starving millions? Then you will find your doubts and your self melt away.”

Tackling poverty is essential if we are to achieve an equal and just society. So is confronting greed. Although the Labour government has taken certain steps towards reducing poverty, such as introducing family tax credits, they have done nothing to restrain the rapacious behaviour of the economic elites. Peter (now Lord) Mandelson said in 1998 “we are intensely relaxed about people getting filthy rich”. We now see the damage that this laissez-faire attitude has caused, and is still causing.

So what is the answer, redistribution of wealth? In fact the first thing we need to do is STOP redistributing wealth. The current system is set up to redistribute wealth from the poor to the rich. We see this clearly in the bailout of the banking system, where we have all dug deep into our pockets to keep the bonus culture afloat. We see it evidently in the various forms of privatisation, taking property that previously belonged to us all, and handing it to a small section of the population. We see the government choose to fund public infrastructure through expensive private finance, when it could borrow the money itself at much lower rates of interest. All of this is designed to make the taxpayer fund the profits of private corporations. It is not sour grapes to say “enough is enough”, it is a sane recognition that for as long as the ever-widening gulf of inequality in our society is allowed to grow, we will become sicker, fatter, and more likely fall victim to crime and violence.

Natural Harmony

February 2007

Although there is strength in wanting things to be different there is also weakness. The strength is in compassion, because nobody should remain unmoved by other people’s suffering; we should all wish that the conditions causing suffering be removed. The weakness is because there is much learning to be had from the way things are right now, so by wishing them to be different we are passing up the opportunity to learn.

If we are annoyed and unhappy should we not wish for things to be different? Not for our own sake. We should take a step back and allow ourselves to look at the annoyance and unhappiness in our mind, to experience it. We should recognise it for what it is, and we should realise that, although we are annoyed and unhappy, our mind is working. How can it be working? The mind is a system which functions according to regular principles. The fact that the current state of our mind is annoyed and unhappy does not disprove this. Rather, we should seek to investigate our own mental system to understand how these feelings are being produced. They are being produced because our mind is working. But this does not mean that the feelings of annoyance and unhappiness should be encouraged!

Take the the analogy of a political system such as a country. Sometimes the country experiences angry demonstrations on its streets. This does not mean that the political system of the country is not working. It means on the contrary that it IS working. If the leaders of a country deny its citizens fundamental rights and prevent them from leading a tolerable life they will come out onto the streets to demonstrate. This is how the political system naturally works.

It is important to distinguish between the natural political system and the formal political system. The natural political system is necessarily always working, unlike the formal. If a country’s constitution says that all people have the right to be treated equally and then it enslaves a portion of them, its formal political system is not working. However, if there is enslavement, followed by pent-up tension amongst the slaves for many years, and then finally a rebellion, then the natural political system is working.

What is the natural political system? It is part of the nature of people’s minds, collectively and individually. It governs how much suffering people can bear and how creative they are in releasing themselves from suffering. Formal political systems are expressions of the natural political system. Religions or spiritual systems are also its expressions. Siddhartha could not bear his own or others’ suffering any more so he used all his creative powers to become Buddha, to release himself and others.

When an individual feels annoyed and unhappy he is responding to suffering, however he may not be responding very creatively. This may not be his fault – he may never have learned any other way of responding. Can we say in this situation that his natural political system is working?

The natural political system functions to produce responses to suffering. Because it is a system the laws governing systems apply. In a given system at a given time a specific input will produce a specific output. What the output will be will depend upon the way the system is working at that time. If you put 10c into a bubblegum machine and the machine ejects a gum-filled plastic ball then the machine is working in one way. If it crushes the plastic ball which then blocks the ejection hole it is working in another way. Either way the system is working, insofar as it is being systematic.

Normally we would say that the machine that destroys the plastic balls is not working. This is because we are applying conventional norms to how we think things should work, and not without reason, but we can learn more from how things actually DO work than from how we think they should work! The way we think things should work comes from our conscious, conventional mind. The way things actually work comes from the depths of the universe.


January 2008

As many of us come from a Christian background, one of the main things we consciously or unconsciously expect from a religion is forgiveness. Christianity’s starting point is our imperfection, our inability to keep moral laws (mitzvah), the fact that we are ‘sinners’. Christ embodies God’s forgiveness. His role is to restore our relationship (Covenant) with God despite the fact that we are unable to keep moral discipline ourselves.

I think we can say with some confidence that some of Geshe Kelsang Gyatso’s disciples have trouble keeping moral discipline. Some of us are ‘sinners’ who need forgiveness. We need to forgive ourselves, and we would like to be forgiven by others. When forgiveness from others is in short supply it can be difficult to have the confidence to forgive yourself.

The opposite of forgiving yourself is blaming yourself. It took me a long time to stop blaming myself for my failure to keep my moral discipline and fulfil the mission my spiritual guide had given me, of setting up Dharma Centres in Mexico. Learning not to blame myself doesn’t mean ignoring the faults that led to my downfall. For me it means looking at the wider context, and understanding that my downfall was a dependent-arising, and my own faults were just part of the story.

Given the type of person I was, with the limited skills I had, it was almost inevitable that I would fail. But as Hazrat Ali said, “failure is my greatest teacher”. I have learned a lot about myself as a result, and I have been forced to look at some of the parts of myself that I least wanted to see.

I think that one of the real challenges for Buddhism in the West – not just the NKT – is whether it can incorporate forgiveness. If it cannot, then maybe it will not flourish here. As with all these things, we are the ones who have to make it happen, we can’t be waiting around expecting others to do it. We need to forgive ourselves and others. If we can truly practice forgiveness then us `sinners’ can make Buddhism in the West great. Christianity is a religion for sinners which has produced great saints. Can Buddhism be the same?

A few years after I disrobed I had a dream. The dream was set 500 years in the future (about 2500CE). Kadampa Buddhism was flourishing. A group of historians were reviewing the different phases of its development. They concluded that the first generation, the Old Kadampas, were saints. The second generation, the New Kadampas, were scholars and yogis, and the third generation, the New New Kadampas were criminals! They had succeeded BECAUSE they were able to come to terms with and deal with their impurity — they had not made the mistakes of denial and holier-than-thou pretence.

Wishful dreaming on my part, no doubt. And there are many New New Kadampas practising purely to whom the word criminal certainly doesn’t apply. But to those of us who are ‘criminals’ I think we have a great part to play if we can really learn to forgive ourselves and others.

What Is The Self?

June 2008

A Swiss couple on vacation in India found a beautiful picture in a store. They bought it, and in order to protect the picture the store-keeper rolled it up and slotted it into a long cardboard tube.

The couple continued to travel around India and so for the rest of their journey they had to carry the tube everywhere they went. It was long and awkward, and they were forever trying to protect it, to stop it getting bent or dented as they climbed into buses, or clambered out of rickshaws.

Eventually they took the tube home to Switzerland where they opened it, only to discover that the store-keeper had deceived them — he had never put the picture inside. All the time they had been carrying around an awkward tube, trying to protect it, when really it was empty!

At first they were angry, but then they laughed.