If You Meet the Buddha on the Web, by Arch Stanton

The impulse to believe the absurd when presented with the unknowable is called religion. Whether this is wise or unwise is the domain of doctrine. Once you understand someone's doctrine, you understand their rationale for believing the absurd. At that point, it may no longer seem absurd. You can get to both sides of this conondrum from here.

If You Meet the Buddha on the Web, by Arch Stanton

Postby admin » Mon Jun 15, 2015 12:13 am

by Arch Stanton
September, 2001



One of the most compelling arguments in favor of Western science is that based on an appeal to human life and health. Regardless of how one views the trade-offs to the Western approach, one must admit that the yield in terms of these metrics is phenomenal when compared with all previous (or alternative) systems of medical science.

Perhaps the most ironic aspect of Western medicine is its irreverence. There is a peculiar cock-certainty in our methodology that allows us to venture into areas which other cultures shy away from - for better or worse. Take, for instance, pathology: this discipline requires the most comprehensive understanding of human chemistry, biology, and physiology of any - and its practice both exemplifies and contributes to the success of our entire approach. Yet, although the ultimate goal is that of maximizing human life and health, the pathologist requires no contact with either live or healthy human beings.

Instead, the encyclopedic canon of Western medicine is brought to bear on the problem of analyzing and diagnosing disease - so that it may be detected sooner and treated more accurately. Make no mistake, I intend no mock praise: this unsentimentally pragmatic approach represents a potentially exemplary extreme. Moreover, this precise and unsentimental approach is almost entirely overlooked by those who claim to represent "America" yet portray it as some vague, yet sunny amalgam of political and philosophical constructs. Those who preach the virtue of "Western ways" would do well to study the full extent of our heritage before holding forth on the matter.

It is not difficult to imagine a group of pathologists marveling over a particularly well-developed tumor. It may well have killed the patient, but to the degree that it clearly demonstrates the attributes that render it malignant, it is a valuable aid in education. By studying the "textbook" cases, one becomes familiar with the nature of the disease, and this familiarity ultimately contributes to the ability to detect and treat cancers in the earliest possible stages.

It is from this perspective that I present the following particularly clear case study. The subjects in question - Charles and Tara Carreon - appear to have developed a seemingly harmless growth in the form of "reasonable doubt." Unfortunately, failure to apply appropriate methods resulted in rapid metastasis - ultimately leading to their current and unfortunate condition:

The solution, this student says, is to abandon Tibetan cultural belief systems, stripping Buddhism to its core values of straightforward inquiry and insight into emptiness, supplementing these values with Western virtues of optimism, creativity, and the scientific method.

Notice the prominent and characteristic display of contradictory positions. Unless the term "student" is being used in smug irony (and I admit this is a distinct possibility), it implies the existence of a teacher. But a healthy student neither "strips" nor "supplements" the curriculum. The extent to which cultural vectors must be factored out of one's practice and view is entirely the domain of one's Lama. This is evidently a statement in terms of Vajrayana Buddhism, but hopefully if you are reading this, you understand that Damtsig holds as its sole charter the explication of the fundamental invariants of that system.

Therefore, when we speak of health, we speak of the undistorted relationship with the Lama - as opposed to a definition of health based on any other criteria. Obviously this standard is not applicable to all people generally. Nor does it apply even to primarily Sutric practitioners. Even nominal Tantric practitioners must be afforded some lenience - in that the profound practice of Guru yoga requires a substantial "break-in period," during which genuine confidence is incrementally developed. However, the moment eventually arrives when one must commit.

I'm writing this article from the viewpoint of having spent the last 26 years immersed in Buddhism, 22 of those in Tibetan Buddhism.

22 years is a long time. The Dalai Lama has suggested that one take as long as 13 years to examine a potential teacher. Given that the Carreon's have stated that they spent 20 years with their teacher, it seems safe to say that they have exceeded even the maximum period during which "experimentation" could be helpful.

I received the entire transmission of Nyingma teachings from beginning to end, including the Dzogchen Trekchod and Togyal teachings, and at the end, my teacher declared that I needed no further teachings, and should simply practice what he had taught me.

Let us assume that Tara Carreon's account is accurate. It would not be inconsistent with her previous statement: as I said, 22 years is a long time. Because the content of her article is so clearly anti-traditional, Tara Carreon's claim to having "gotten her papers" may be slightly confusing for those still acclimatizing to the language and function of the yanas that comprise Buddhist Tantra. From a standard Western perspective, one could interpret such a proclamation as some sort of irrevocable imprimatur. However, it is no more irrevocable than manifest enlightenment is guaranteed. That is to say: enlightenment is beginninglessly present and cannot be revoked or otherwise eliminated - but it can be endlessly occluded by tedious acts of self-preservation. The conditioned habit of uncomprehendingly performing this occlusion is called samsara.

Being told that one requires no further teaching is "simply" a statement of Dzogchen view. Of course anyone who has fully received the teachings of Trek-chod and Togyal requires no further instruction. That is not to say that such an individual has accomplished these practices - only that they have been introduced to the unfiltered potential for enlightenment. Of course, once one has been shown the direct route, one can no longer justify exploratory detours. The act of deliberately occluding one's own enlightenment - once it has been authentically pointed out - is called vow-breakage.

Three years ago I began a radical reevaluation of my relationship with the dharma, and those two other far more troublesome "jewels," the lama and the sangha.

A properly functioning teacher-student relationship on the order of that suggested above could hardly inspire a practitioner to view any of the three jewels - least of all the Lama - as "troublesome." There are two alternative interpretations of the view presented. We could see this "radical reevaluation" as a further development on the "path of no more learning;" or we could view it as a marked distortion. It may be difficult to come to terms with this latter possibility. How can a person make such a drastic reversal? Would not receipt of advanced teachings inoculate a person against the possibility of catastrophic deviation? Trungpa Rinpoche's commentary may shed some light on these questions:

Student: Is the candidate for vajra hell a person who has worked through all the yanas and then suddenly freaks out?

Trungpa Rinpoche: I think until a person is caught up in the higher maha ati level of practice, he cannot be called a candidate for vajra hell. Up to the mahayana level, a person is immune to such consequences.

Chögyam Trungpa, The Lion's Roar, p. 210.

Far from being a guarantee of any sort - participation in advanced practice is, in actuality, a qualification for accountability. The more ultimate the vehicle, the more ultimate the consequences. Very young children are practically immune to the ramifications of their behavior. Later, one risks parental punishment, or even juvenile detention for a sufficiently serious offense. But it is not until one reaches the age of legal majority that one achieves the parity of both full adult privilege and full adult responsibility. Likewise, only those who have "received the highest teachings" are really in a position to consciously reject them. Practice leading up to that point can be seen as education and preparation - either to hold vows in an ultimately meaningful way; or to make an equally meaningful demonstration that you have not actually understood the lessons. For this reason, it is not advisable to "pretend you understand" in order to be passed on to the next class - because once you "graduate," you must make your own way - or not.

Additionally, the inner compulsion to perform ritualistic practices in which I had lost faith, and the need to overcome the fear that abandoning these practices would cause me to suffer terrible consequences, has made for many painful days and nights.

This may as well say: "The inner compulsion to get in bed on time and do my homework, which I no longer enjoyed doing, and the need to overcome the fear that abandoning these rules would cause me to lose my allowance, has made for a severely dysfunctional career." Presumably an adult practitioner who requires "no further teaching" is competent to oversee her own compassionate engagement with ritual - just as an ordinary adult finds no conflict between the real need for limits and the simultaneous absence of directly enforced parental prescription. In both cases, the result of error is simply the natural consequence implicit in the parameters of a situation; angst brought on by deliberating the appropriateness of breaking a rule is de facto proof that one has not yet outgrown that rule.

The name "American Buddha" was inspired by Chogyam Trungpa. ..

One of the fantastic qualities of Rig'dzin Trungpa Rinpoche's speech was that his teachings are self-evidently accurate according to their own formulation. His personality display was so compelling that even vow breakers take inspiration from him - but his expression was such that no "spin" can distort the clarity of his message. Here is his comment on the expedience of efforts toward "breaking the fall" of vow breakers:

Student: Would it be beneficial to try to help somebody in vajra hell?

Trungpa Rinpoche: Helping doesn't particularly change the karma of that person.

S: So it's best to avoid such people?

TR: Best to leave them as they are.

S: But how does that relate to the bodhisattva vow?

TR: In taking the bodhisattva vow to save all sentient beings, you could add "except those who are in vajra hell." Even bodhisattvas can't reach the helpless.

Chögyam Trungpa, The Lion's Roar, p. 69.

While, from the assimilated perspective of Vajrayana there can be no question as to the evident pathology of the view Tara Carreon has expressed; the point may still bear tedious repetition - on the off chance that some readers still do not understand the principle and function of this spiritual cancer. Here is the reported result of abandoning one's Lama and path:

And they've been looking for freer, happier, more positive, and more correct views ever since. And they think it is their JOB to discover what is true Buddhism, and what is cultural bunk, and to discard the latter, and transform the former if need be to make it truly useful to all of us. And they feel qualified to do this, because they've gone through the whole trip, and are able to see it for what it is.

Note the explicit and insubstantiated subjective comparisons: "freer," "happier," "more positive," "more correct." Note the claim to absolute knowledge: "true Buddhism". Note the disparaging vernacular: "cultural bunk." Note the invocation of the disparaged authority as a credential: "they've gone through the whole trip, and are able to see it for what it is."

With these "wild and wooly" remarks, Tara Carreon herself stakes a claim to the very unilateral inequalities that she accuses the Vajrayana tradition of projecting. With the last item ("And they feel qualified because... and are able to see it for what it is.") she consigns her entire monologue to the realm of incoherence. To state that she has "gone through the whole trip" is to say one of only two things: either she has achieved enlightenment, or she has passed judgment on the path and abandoned it. If she has realized her own enlightenment, then seeing the path for "what it is" is not some sort of "debunking" - it is the precise awareness of how every stage of the path can function and how it can be distorted. While the "Carreon Call" has a heroic ring, it also has a messianic/anti-authoritarian flavor that really does not correspond to the experience it implies as its basis.

If I may be forgiven a slightly tangential digression, I must ask: from where does the impetus for this often-used bit of logical inanity come? One can only assume that Western cultural conditioning, with its unconscious assimilation of Christian logos, is responsible for the ridiculous idea that one can "graduate" from a tradition then insult it - while simultaneously deriving authority from it. After all, Christ, so full of righteous anger, was the ultimate reformer; so it might occur to those who still hang on to Christian concepts - that "reform" is the ultimate expression of realization. But this is a fallacy brought on by belief in the fallacy itself: Christ may have named himself, "the completion of the law," but when he did so, he cited independent spiritual wealth as the basis of reform. For this reason, no genuine Christian would ever attack the Christian social institution on the basis of their position within that institution - only on the basis of their independent understanding of Christ's teachings. But those who feel that their pursuit of an "alternative" religion is in itself righteous may be tempted to apply the false logic even further - not realizing that the buck has to stop somewhere. Only a three-timing "Western" practitioner of "Eastern" religion could express a view as transparent and saccharine as Tara Carreon's unfounded appeal to Western "Good Christian" axioms.

Let me put it another way: suppose I tell you that I am a graduate of the Cordon Bleu Culinary Academy; that I have a world-class training and 20 years professional experience in the preparation of fine French cuisine - and by extension mastery of the culinary arts generally. And suppose I then tell you that, "The French are actually a bunch of food snobs. American cooking is a lot better - I should know; I've been through it all, from quah-sahnts to crème brulée," and proceed to shove a plate full of greasy french fries and a french dip sandwich across the counter; you might be somewhat taken aback. You might dismiss my opinions as slightly superfluous. So what is it about "America" that makes the current crop of voluble vow-breakers believe they will be taken seriously with the same shtick?

Like all the rest, the Carreon's would like to have it both ways. They imply claim to iconoclastic "insider" reformation - and to "objective" spiritual fact-finding as well.

Is it really not possible for an individual to realize the truth without a prescription? Buddha, presumably, was an individual, who through the exercise of his own mind, found freedom.

This can only be an appeal to the primacy (and presumably greater worth) of "independent" discovery. But whether or not one wants to re-derive well-known truths, one cannot really claim to have discovered them "on one's own" once they have entered the established canon. For this reason, it is a fundamental error to cite Shakyamuni Buddha's historical exposition as evidence that guidance is unnecessary. It is precisely because the parameters of spiritual practice are well understood that "individual" investigation is suspect. Analogously: the bar for scientific investigation has been raised so significantly since Newton's day that any so-called researcher who based her work on Newton's premises could hardly expect to receive either Newton's acclaim or his credibility - regardless of the result.

Few of us took vows of refuge with various lamas because we longed to chant in a foreign language and bow before enthroned teachers. Those who did should have no complaints. But most people were trying to find some inner peace and self-understanding. If we're not getting that from involvement with the lamas, it isn't sacrilege to say so, and return to our original spiritual concerns. We are entitled to ask, "WHAT IS BUDDHISM?" After 22 years of being a "Tibetan" Buddhist, I'm finding it hard to answer that question. Actually, it would be hard for any Tibetan Buddhist to answer this question. Tibetans have little need for the Buddha, who has been eclipsed by Padmasambhava, the Karmapa, or whatever tulku-dynasty is revered by the sect. So Tibetan Buddhists know about as much about the Buddha as Mormons know about Jesus Christ (not much).

This passage requires little comment. I simply point to it as a self-evident gesture of the author's inability to refrain from tempter tantrums, self-justification, and unsubstantiated, non sequitur insults. If this were a literal lecture on pathology, I might say, "Please notice the gross deformation of internal organs due to the rampant expansion of unregulated carcinoma."

At this point I would like to continue by simply highlighting a few structures characteristic of this particular manifestation.

The demagogue inflects personal opinion with the pronoun, "we," as though speaking for "all" members of some vaguely specified group - in this case, presumably, "good, intelligent, freedom-loving people."

Tibetan symbols do not speak to us, nor do we learn from reciting a sadhana in a foreign language. (It took the Catholics until the 1960's to stop saying the Mass in Latin, though, so this folly is equally the result of our own cultural absurdity)."

The American bigot prioritizes "American political values" above all else. Even in the midst of a supposed manifesto of spiritual reformation, jabs at failed military/political endeavors are irresistible (after all, we won our Revolutionary War). I find this indictment odd coming from a woman who celebrates her own alleged victimization:

The Tibetans themselves suffered greatly due to their blind faith in a theocratic system that failed utterly to provide two essentials of governance: (1) good foreign relations, and (2) a reliable military. As a result, two million Tibetans have died due to Chinese aggression that has gone basically unredressed by the international community.

... However, Tibet's political leaders owed their constituents a modicum of protection from foreign aggression, at least through diplomatic avenues. Unfortunately, the ingrown monastics of Tibet were unsuited to international political life, and practiced the defense tactics of an ostrich.

To highlight the absurdity of this anti-Tibetan bias, let us look at the result of insisting on a spirituality that refuses "Eastern" membership. Here is the list of officially sanctified "modern buddhas:" [The erstwhile "modern buddhas" section of american-buddha.com has apparently been reclassified as "Remarkable Persons" - 27 October 2002]


This may seem strange until you know that "Buddha" has been redefined as follows: "Also noted here are people that anyone would recognize as humanitarians, earth advocates, and various other types of people who actually do shed light on and suggest ways to improve our world." Even with this amendment, the official list of saints (according to the American Buddhas) seems a bit haphazard. That's because the Carreon's are following the time-honored tradition of vow-breakage and making it up as they go along: "If you have a candidate for modern buddhahood, please Email Us." [Tara, if you read this, please accept my nomination of Cat Stevens - I assume the omission was a simple oversight.]

Notice the logical fallacy: "Don't accept their authority; accept ours."

"These symbols were created by Tibetans and likely can only be understood by Tibetans. We Westerners will never be able to understand these things, or translate them into our culture. Fire pujas, exorcisms, prayers to oath-bound protectors. These practices are beautiful, but non-translatable. Period.

... Buddha's acts of cultural defiance are far more inspiring: his abandonment of kingship, his rejection of existing doctrine, his transcendence of gurus and asceticism. His self-reliance, in a word."

[Note: If "self-reliance" really qualifies as a word, it is worth mentioning that it was the title of an 1841 essay by Ralph Waldo Emerson, an American Transcendentalist. It concludes, "Nothing can bring you peace but the triumph of principles."] Must we really rename practice "cultural defiance," and compare Shakyamuni Buddha's spiritual heroism to Henry David Thoreau's tedious "Civil Disobedience?" [Thoreau's 1849 essay, in which he writes, "The only obligation which I have a right to assume is to do at any time what I think right."] Tara Carreon would have us believe that Shakyamuni went to the bodhi tree because he wanted to live deliberately.

As history unveils the future of Tibetan Buddhism in this country, we are not going to see a careful translation from Tibet to the West. Tibetan Buddhism is finished for Westerners. Along with Japanese Buddhism, Thai Buddhism, Indian Buddhism, and the rest.

... We don't need lamas. We don't need any authority figures. We don't need temples. We don't need a lot of books. We don't need to give anyone money. We don't need someone holding our hand. We have everything we need to realize our true nature already inside us, because we have our minds and individuality.

We don't need no steenkin' badges.

We need to love ourselves, and trust ourselves.

Whatever happened to, "Come on people now, smile on your brother, everybody get together, try to love one another, right now?"

As a guide for social governance, the U.S. Constitution is far superior to King Trisong Detsun's code, which provided harsh punishment, even death, for those who violated Buddhist rules.

Does not the U.S. Constitution allow the capital punishment that we have not yet - in our enlightened "social governance" - eliminated? If "Buddhist Rules" are so inappropriate, why name the web site american-buddha.com? And conversely, if the U.S. Constitution is such a marvelous manifesto for the disbursement of spiritual guidance, why don't we all just become attorneys? It is one thing to relate to the features of one's ordinary life as ornaments of the path - but when one wishes to supplant the formal path with one's own personal pre-occupations, this is called megalomania.

Contrary to what the Tibetans think, that their doctrine has codified absolute and immutable principles, I think rather that they can be improved and developed. Maybe the Tibetans had a much lower expectation about everything than do we Westerners, not only culturally speaking, but also spiritually speaking, and we can do them one better.

To put this in perspective, "one better" is an ambition that takes "the entire transmission of Nyingma teachings from beginning to end, including the Dzogchen Trekchod and Togyal teachings" as its starting point. Can Tara Carreon really say that she does not hold her subscription to modern, social, and transiently expedient platitudes as "absolute and immutable?" If she cannot even recognize the cultural bias inherent in this statement, it is no wonder that she has failed to recognize the subtlety of the inner Tantras.

Besides nostalgic yearning, Americans have no need to provide a cultural hothouse in which to preserve a displaced theocratic culture. It will be humiliating for Tibetans to continue to sell their traditions on stage for small change. Better to move on. Old things are lost forever. And often times, this is not a bad thing. Things die so that new things can be born. The Tibetans can let new ideas be born in themselves. Why hold on to old ways that aren't useful or relevant any longer?

This is the timeless logic of a cancer - the rationale that insists on justifying even the most heartless, bigoted, and aggressive sentiments with the cold logic of "natural order:" Everything dies eventually. Now is the time for the strong and the willing. Multiply as I do, and together we will see the death of our host! It seems that Tara Carreon is not content to desert her own religious practice, or even to support that desertion by attempting to undermine the whole basis of the religion on which her practice was once founded. Rather, she has apparently suffered such great injustices that she will not rest until both Vajrayana Buddhism and Tibetan culture have been "purged" from the face of the Earth. I wonder what secret indecency she has committed - that she will go so far to try to eradicate all that reminds her of it.

Now that I am no longer a "Tibetan" Buddhist, and have learned to think for myself, and am not hammered down by negative views of myself and the universe, like sin and samsara, etc., the World seems very exciting to me in a way I never knew before.

I will not deny that Tara Carreon has been hammered down by negative views, but I will point out that those who "no longer" value that in which they have invested the greater portion of their adult lives are hardly worth listening to. Obviously it has been more than twenty-two years since the Carreon's considered and believed the stock democratic/scientific/protestant views they now preach as post-devotional religious dogma. The rhetoric they peddle here is no more or less than the reflex regurgitation of adolescent conditioning they have fallen back to - as a result of evident and flagrant samaya breakage. It may indeed be "exciting" to see the bulge as one flexes the muscle of one's own individualism - but it is simultaneously horrifying for those around to see this "muscle" expand without regard for the physiology of the entire human being. The decision to point this out is no more motivated by malice than is a pathologist's decision to perform an autopsy. Certainly I mourn the death of a practitioner; I sincerely hope all Tantrikas will practice regular "self-examination" - in order to avert such tragedy wherever possible.

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