The Dual Character of Buddhist Theories

This essay was written by Lazhen on March 28th, 2009, in response to H.H. Penor Rinpoche leaving this world and assesses the state of Buddhism in the world today.


Yesterday Pema Norbu Rinpoche, a dharma king of the Nyingma sect, passed away. While I am gratified by the dharma king’s accomplishment and liberation, I also feel sorry that Buddhism in this earthly realm has lost a person of great virtue and profound learning who impeccably observed the precepts. Therefore, I beseech the dharma king to come back to the human realm soon so as to again turn the wheel of the dharma and pervasively save living beings. Seeing these people of great virtue leave us, many feelings well up in my heart. Looking back at all of the changes that have taken place during the history of the spreading of Buddhism on earth, I have a deep feeling that the karmic connection living beings have with the holy dharma teachings of the Tathagatas is becoming weaker by the day. Thus, I now specially write this essay called “The Dual Character of Buddhist Theories” to awaken people of the world.

When Shakyamuni Buddha first established Buddhist theories, there was no dual character of Buddhist theories. There was only the sameness of theories and nature (the essence of everything). The theories in the Tripitaka expounded by the world-honored Shakyamuni Buddha came from the Buddha’s state of realization. They are a kind of explanation of the ways to realize the holy state and attain liberation and nirvana. They can be called objective writings. Such Buddhist theories were born from true holy realization. They are not groundless writings based on assumptions that arose from the level of consciousness. This is recorded in the Buddhist scriptures.


In the beginning, Buddhist theory and Buddha-dharma realization were one integral body. At first, a complete body of dharma theories and rituals were born from true realization of the Buddha-dharma holy state. Later, people attained the holy state of true realization from this complete body of dharma theories and rituals. Theory and dharma were in harmony. Theory was used to further the dharma. The dharma was manifested to further theory.


However, as the karmic connection living beings had with the dharma changed and as a large amount of dharma and rituals were lost, Buddhism’s sameness of theories and nature (essence) imperceptibly and gradually generated a dual character. One aspect was the complete retention of theory and holy realization where each brought out the best in the other. The other aspect was pure theory that arose out of a fundamental separation from the holy state of realization. The advent of this dual character of Buddhist theories objectively caused Buddhism to form two main sects. No matter what the sect or school may be within Buddhism—whether it be Mahayana, Hinayana, exoteric or esoteric Buddhism—all sects or schools ultimately belong to one of these two main sects. The first is “the sect of theories and true holy realization.” The second is “the sect of theories, views, and understanding.” Of course, the theories I am referring to here are Buddhist theories based upon correct understanding and correct view. I am not bringing up a third category of misunderstandings and heretical views that go against the sutra teachings.


“The sect of theories and true holy realization” is in accord with the sutras and abhidharma. Those of this sect apply cognition based on correct views to directly understand cultivation, the nature of the mind, and ultimate reality. They truly realize holiness that transcends intelligence and theories. Moreover, they manifest their actual realization and thereby prove that they have attained the ultimate nirvana. This sect uses the orthodox theories contained in the Tripitaka and esoteric scriptures as its foundation. However, its goal is not the useless speaking of theories. Those in this sect must manifest their holy state of realization. The purpose of cultivation and practice for this sect is to actually transcend, in both body and mind, the fetters of samsara. This sect has an integral lineage, integral teachings, and integral rituals. Those of this sect are able to manifest supernatural wisdom powers that transcend both the material and mental spheres. It is a sect that truly accords with the essence of the Tripitaka, the esoteric scriptures, and the various commentaries and treatises. This is the sect of perfect Buddha-dharma where theory and nature (essence) are in accord. This was the original characteristic of Buddhist theory. Such Buddha-dharma played a decisive role in the liberation and accomplishment of living beings. Included in this Buddha-dharma is the Buddha-dharma of Shakyamuni Buddha during the True Dharma Age, the Buddha-dharma transmitted by Guru Padmasambhava, the Buddha-dharma transmitted by Venerable Atisha, Master Marpa, Master Milarepa, Master Tsongkhapa, Master Nairatmya, Master Rigdzin Jigme Lingpa, Bodhidharma, Xuan-zang, Hui-neng, Master Xu-yun, and the Buddha-dharma transmitted by other truly holy beings and patriarchs throughout history. All such Buddha-dharma is the Buddha-dharma of “the sect of theories and true holy realization.” Unfortunately, at this present time on earth, this sect is very rare and very seldom seen. “The sect of theories, views, and understanding” has taken its place and become the mainstream.


“The sect of theories, views, and understanding” also uses the orthodox theories contained in the Tripitaka and esoteric scriptures as its foundation. Those of this sect apply cognition based on correct views to approach and directly understand the nature of the mind in the hope that in the end they will realize nirvana. The Buddha-dharma of this sect is only able to express theories and that which arises out of mental processes. Those in this sect do not have actual holy realization that they can display. Consequently, all they can do is use the realization states and achievements of patriarchs in earlier generations as cases in point. Most present-day Buddha-dharma belongs to this sect. This is a prevalent phenomenon in current Buddhism.

However, we must see that although the theories of this sect are also based on correct understanding and correct view, it is very difficult for this sect to produce complete liberation. It is easy for this sect to fall into meaningless intellectual frivolity. It is still a question as whether those of this sect can truly attain the liberation of ultimate nirvana. That is because it is extremely difficult to lead people into the state of holy beings by relying solely upon theories. Moreover, these theories were expressed by different people and therefore vary. For example, the views expressed in the prajna writings and Middle School (Madhyamaka) writings are not the same. The “other emptiness view” also has its own way of explaining things.


I will use the modern terms of “software” and “hardware” to give an analogy. Which one of these schools of theories is practical software that can attain the positive results that hardware can attain? It is very difficult to determine this by relying only on software itself. Only when the positive results of hardware are actually produced can it be shown whether a certain theory (software) is right or wrong. Furthermore, that which is called the dharma of Buddha-dharma should be dharma that transcends the ordinary and leads to liberation. Theories alone cannot express this extraordinariness.


This phenomenon of seeking liberation from theories and views alone is mainly the result of the loss of many dharma teachings and rituals in the course of passing down the Buddha-dharma. In the case of Tibetan esoteric dharma, there has not been much change in the theoretical part since the initial stage of esoteric dharma until now. The greatest change has been in the true realization part.

When the patriarchs of Tibetan esoteric Buddhism transmitted dharma in the past, there were countless manifestations of supernatural realization powers. These astounding supernatural realization powers caused people of the world to regard Tibetan esoteric dharma as holy and special. Guru Padmasambhava and Venerable Atisha displayed a great many supernatural powers. Master Marpa practiced a dharma whereby he brought back to life animals that had already died. Patriarch Milarepa flew in the air and entered the horn of a bull to avoid hail. Guwen Rinpoche flew into the air and took with him his entire family, including the tent and domestic animals. Both of the 4th Dodrupchen Dharma Kings displayed wondrous realization powers, and so on and so forth. One can give endless examples of such holy realization powers.


The original special quality of the Buddha-dharma was that it was of “the sect of theories and true holy realization,” which manifests actual realization powers. However, with the arrival of the Dharma Ending Age, many dharmas are no longer whole. The practice of them will not produce realization powers. Much Buddha-dharma, especially the esoteric dharma, has begun to devolve toward “the sect of theories, views, and understanding.” Take, for example, the colored sand used to form a mandala during an inner-tantric initiation in the holy form. During the time of Guru Padmasambhava, this inner-tantric initiation dharma required that certain things be done. On the surface of a large flat stone, colored sand would be used to form the shape of a mandala or a vajra seed character. A person would then apply holy realization powers, causing that design on the surface of the stone to penetrate the stone and form the same design on the sand in the mandala plate underneath that large flat stone. Such sand design in the mandala plate thereby became vajra sand that went through a stone.


However, at this present time, there is no integral dharma. People cannot produce holy realization powers through dharma practice. Thus, inner-tantric initiations in the holy form cannot be performed. The above-described process of using colored sand to form a mandala has already devolved into sprinkling colored sand directly into the mandala plate to form a mandala design. As such, there is not the slightest manifestation of holy power.


Another example is vajra pills used in inner-tantric initiations. Sixty or seventy years ago, most of the people of true and holy virtue within Tibetan esoteric Buddhism were able to make a vajra pill come to life by telekinetically making it shake or even move around. However, in present-day Tibetan esoteric dharma, a vajra pill is nothing more than a medicinal pill that is a symbolic expression of dharma.


Another example is secret-division initiations relating to gods of wealth. This is inner-tantric dharma in the holy sense. The practitioner receiving such an initiation will generate a holy stage right then and there in the mandala. Moreover, gold dollar treasures or a treasure-spitting mongoose made of three white things and roasted barley flour will turn over and jump into the air before the practitioner, demonstrating a holy state of physics not produced by humans. The practitioner receiving the initiation will right then and there ingest a “dharma mother seed.” Out of this practice of dharma, the god of wealth will naturally descend, thereby accomplishing the completion stage. However, this type of dharma has also been lost. It is not just these few dharmas. Most inner-tantric initiation dharmas have already deteriorated. Accomplished ones who attained the rainbow body basically cannot be found, even in the Kathok Monastery, which was the monastery of Padmasambhava and the place where more people attained the rainbow body than anywhere else.

In modern times, many dharma kings did not transform into the rainbow body and fly away at death. There are many people now who at every opportunity leave their hand prints or footprints on stones to show their realization powers. However, such realization powers were not manifested under the observation of masters and witnesses there at the time. What credibility do they have?


In an interview, the famous Kasuo Rinpoche of the Longwu Monastery of the Geluk sect talked about the special societal circumstances that existed in Tibet during the fifties and sixties. As a result of those circumstances, a large number of sutras, treatises, and dharma manuals were burned. Many people of great virtue were unable to pass down integral dharma before they were forced to die. Those people of great virtue who fled to India did not take with them many dharma manuals. After that, at most only twenty or thirty percent of Tibetan esoteric dharma still remained in the world. Most such dharma has been lost forever.


It is because of this type of loss of dharma that most present-day Buddha-dharma does not produce people who can show actual realization powers. Candidly speaking, people do not understand dharma and get bogged down in hollow theories over a long period of time. Many people even misunderstand the Buddha-dharma as simply something to comprehend that is theoretical or mental in nature. Of course, they are apathetic to the matter of realization powers or even feel that it is very normal not to have realization powers. This way of thinking is actually very wrong. Theories can be used to distinguish the holy ones from the ordinary ones. However, the most important way to distinguish the genuine ones from the false ones is seeing who actually manifests holy realization powers.                    


Take, for example, emptiness. Even practitioners with a little knowledge are able to speak copiously about theories related to emptiness. However, are those well-organized and impressive theories, understandings, and views right or wrong in the end? This is something that understandings and views alone cannot determine. It is also something that no conscious experience born of causes and conditions can determine. Only when one abides in emptiness and true such-ness and generates supernatural wisdom powers can one truly know whether an understanding or view is right or wrong.


There was a time when Ananda had not yet realized holiness. The Arhats excluded him from the hall where they were assembling the sutras. After he realized true such-ness, returned to that hall, and stood outside its door, Venerable Mahakasyapa asked him to enter the door through the keyhole to prove that he had become enlightened. Ananda then entered the hall through the keyhole. Those who have realized emptiness and untied the knot must have supernatural holy powers enabling them to enter another dimension that ordinary human ability cannot reach. Additionally, they must have this “software accomplishment” in the form of actual and extraordinary holy powers. Only then can they prove whether a given “theory software” is correct and practical.


Thus, as for this issue, the difference between “the sect of theories, views, and understanding” and “the sect of theories and true holy realization” is that the former stops at theoretical understanding. Whether people of “the sect of theories, views, and understanding” actually realize and enter the holy state that is beyond consciousness and thereby attain liberation is something unknown. It is not that people of such sect feel secure and therefore do not manifest holy powers. Rather, they do not manifest holy powers born of enlightenment because the incomplete dharma of that sect has resulted in its followers being unable to realize such powers from their practice. “The sect of theories and true holy realization” also propagates correct dharma theories. However, it definitely does not stop at purely theoretical, quick, sharp, and incisive repartee on the dharma, nor does it get entangled with theories on understanding emptiness. Rather, by following integral dharma and rituals, the people of this sect truly realize the essence or nature of true such-ness, transcend the level of consciousness, untie the knot of suffering, attain holiness and the resulting structural transformation of body and mind, and actually reach the dimension of holiness that is beyond the cycle of reincarnation.


Although both “the sect of theories, views, and understanding” and “the sect of theories and true holy realization” strive for nirvana based upon orthodox Buddhist theories, nonetheless, due to the Buddha-dharma of each of these two sects, there are great differences in the time it takes to become accomplished and the level of accomplishment. Furthermore, because “the sect of theories, views, and understanding” is limited to purely theoretical understanding and inquiry, it is often very difficult for its followers to see things from the standpoint of the pure, liberated state of holiness in order to understand the original meaning of some super-mundane (other-worldly) dharmas. This leads them to easily adopt mistaken views and understandings. If they are slightly careless, they can even slide toward heretical views.


In this Dharma Ending Age, it is very rare to be able to learn the integral dharma of “the sect of theories and true holy realization.” Moreover, this sect is not something that is fixed. Rather, it is something that evolves. It is like those Buddha-dharmas I mentioned above. When the patriarchs transmitted Buddha-dharma, they were still part of “the sect of theories and true holy realization” in which theory and nature (essence) were one. At that time, there were numerous manifestations of true realization states. The mandala dharma rules were strict. There was an orderly distinction between what was inner-tantric, outer-tantric, and inner-tantric in the holy form. However, dharmas gradually became lost. Dharmas passed down to later generations devolved into the hollow theories of “the sect of theories, views, and understanding.”


Many people of great holiness and virtue think that because of the loss of Buddha-dharma “the sect of theories and true holy realization” composes only about one or two percent of Buddhism in the world today as compared with “the sect of theories, views, and understanding.” So-called “greatly virtuous ones” within Buddhism who have heretical understanding and views are cropping up everywhere. It is distressing to see this trend in present-day Buddhism.   



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