Can the Vajrayana Survive?

Warning: This post rambles a bit…

This post is based around a loaded question, “Can the Vajrayana survive?”. It invites polemic debate to even ask this question and I’m sure a number of friends of mine have the immediate answer, as Vajrayana practitioners, of “Of course it can!!” It does require some consideration though.

I’m using “Vajrayana” in a loose sense in that I am including all forms of Esoteric or, if you prefer, Tantric, Buddhism. This is the Buddhism that developed rather late in India, following on the development of Mahayana forms of Buddhism, and that had its development there ended, rather abruptly, with the conquest of Northern India by Muslim armies. (These armies had an unfortunate tendency to burn down monasteries or monastic colleges and slaughter the monks residing within them, making it difficult to practice.) Most people are familiar with its Tibetan forms, which actually go rather wider than Tibet into a number of Himalayan kingdoms, such as Nepal, Mustang, or Bhutan. It was imported in China during the T’ang Dynasty and went from there to Korea and Japan. It died out as a separate school in China after the T’ang and it is no longer practiced as a separate school in Korea, though elements of it survive. Within Japan, it survives to this day as practiced by the Shingon and Tendai schools, though the latter maintains non-esoteric practices as well. (And one must not forget the Mongolians, whom the Tibetans converted to their form of Buddhism and where it is practiced to this day…)

Since the Tibetan Diaspora (which is a nice way of saying “Since the Tibetans, especially monks, fled for their freedom and their lives from the Chinese in 1959”), it has been taught in the West in the Tibetan form. Japanese immigrants brought Shingon and Tendai to Hawaii and Shingon to the continental United States during the last 100 years as well. For some reason, until the 1990s, there was no official Tendai organized mission outside of Hawaii. Because of either the lack of presence or inclination within the existing presence, there has been almost no teaching of Shingon or Tendai on the mainland and most people are quite unaware of their existence even though both are important historical traditions in Japan. Good luck finding a book on either of these, for example.

All of this history means that if you encounter any form of Vajrayana in the United States and it isn’t part of your family history, you are generally encountering Tibetan Vajrayana. Otherwise, most convert Buddhists encounter Zen or one of the Theravadan-derived Vipassana schools. Both of these latter are well established in the West now. You can’t throw a rock in a major city on either coast, it seems, without hitting a Zendo. Tibetan Vajrayana isn’t doing too badly either, with Dharma Centers in many cities. There is one key difference though: Most Zen centers are run by American teachers who were, in turn, taught by other Americans. I can name a few that are run by Japanese teachers and there have been, quite recently, Korean and Chinese teachers here, but these are the exception, rather than the rule. Tibetan Buddhist centers, on the other hand, are generally run under the guidance of a Tibetan teacher. In most instances, that teacher doesn’t actually live at the center either but lives in India and visits periodically. When they do come, they teacher for a few weeks or months and then move on to another center and do the same before eventually returning to their home overseas.

There are many reasons why this is the case but I want to focus on one, which applies much more broadly than to just Tibetan Vajrayana. That is the level of complexity associated with Vajrayana. While Zen isn’t as simple as many make it out to be (nor are any of the traditions, I assume), Vajrayana has a high degree of complexity built into it. It has the multitudes of actual tantras, commentaries on tantras, mandalas, deities, and practices associated with all of these. It also has a more than thousand year history of elaboration by its practitioners who continued to develop what they had been taught in the nations where it has been practiced. An encyclopedic level of knowledge would be necessary to master just the intellectual knowledge. Because of this, in the Tibetan tradition, you have monks who go to monastic colleges from their childhoods and follow up this training with a three year retreat just to be in the position of teaching the tradition. All of this comes from an era with many less distractions than our own as well (no television, newspapers, quick communication or movement of people).

Now, it can be argued (and has been) that one doesn’t have to master all of this material in order to practice. That is entirely true. People generally focus on a specific tradition and a specific subset of practices. It is quite possible to practice Vajrayana without knowing the entirety of the tradition. When this becomes an issue is when the tradition needs to be passed on to another generation (and the one after that and so on). It needs people that are fully trained in the tradition in order to do so. The question then arises, especially here in the West, of who is going through this training and who is going to do this teaching. Outside of other considerations, this is probably why there are so few fully empowered Western teachers of the Vajrayana. Most Buddhist practitioners are householders, with careers, families, and lives full of distractions. The Buddhist Geeks podcast had an interview recently with Sarah Harding, a lama and teacher of Tibetan Buddhism, called “The Traditional 3-Year Retreat: Intensive Training for a Nonexistent Job”. Harding, who underwent the first three year retreat done in the West in the 70’s, talks about this issue in passing. She wonders how many people are really able to engage in this sort of time away from family and jobs necessary to be able to teach and where the resources come from to do so. Obviously, there are a few that have done it but the numbers are small compared to the number of practitioners.

I was reminded of this during Rev. Keisho’s class last week on meditation within Tendai. During discussion, he mentioned that while Tendai priests are trained in four core practices as part of the training to become a priest, almost no one engages in all four once the retreat is over. Since the goma (fire) ceremony contains the first practice and is in demand by the community, most just do the goma. The two other practices, which are associated with the two primary mandalas used within Tendai and Shingon, are not regularly practiced after training. He also mentioned that while there used to be 18 different schools of practice in Tendai, it is now down to three. Out of those three, almost everyone practices just one (Homan Ryu). He mentioned that the esoteric tradition was so complex that there are very few individuals, if anyone, these days who have mastered the entire tradition. There is just too much there, even if one is raised in the tradition within a priestly family. This brought to mind the same complexities within the Tibetan tradition.

I then look around and think about how many centers there are for non-esoteric schools of Buddhism and how, on one level, they are so much more successful in the West in creating the basis for continuing practice. Western teachers who have learned the Dharma, like Aitken Roshi mentioned in my previous post, who have then taught others, who have become teachers and taught others, etc. The same goes for the Vipassana centers. When I look at this, I wonder what Buddhism will look like in 100 years in the United States, at least amongst those of us who weren’t born to it. Will there be widespread Tibetan temples, Shingon temples, or Tendai temples in 100 years? I assume that they will survive but I do wonder if the overall complexity of esoteric Buddhism is going to be its downfall in this busy (possibly degenerate) age with all of its distractions. I am fairly confident that Buddhism will survive within the Chinese, Japanese, Thai, and other Asian American communities (just as it has done for over 100 years for many of them). I am also confident that the traditions of practice that have “jumped the gap”, so to speak, and have a strong collection of non-Asian Western masters will be present and doing well. (This is not addressing the complexities of the Asian-American experience of Buddhism, I realize.)

One of my frustrations when I was within the Tibetan Vajrayana community was around these issues, though not focused on the future. It was so very difficult to find teachers and a community with a teacher as a new Buddhist that, eventually, I wound up gravitating to other schools where I could actually work one on one with a teacher, especially during retreats. These teachers have wound up being Americans, like myself, as well. Looking at it in retrospect, I wonder if my experience is really that different than so many other people. It must be common to encounter these barriers and, even when a person can get past them, very few Americans, for example, are going to be in a position to teach the next generation. It just doesn’t scale well and this leads to the question of whether the Vajrayana will survive or not.