A recent email conversation -- reproduced by permission --
I came across your name from posts to the "rational
buddhism" group. I hope you don't mind the intrusion.
I was interested in your comments on one particular
post (message 144) in which you say that you don't
particularly believe in reincarnation nor in the kind
of karma that "looks you up." I have an interest in
buddhism (and even attended KCC for a little while)
but I find my reluctance to believe in certain things,
namely karma and reincarnation, a major stumbling
block. Vajrayana practice, as I understand it,
involves certain "mystical" elements like meditation
deities. I remember trying to visualize chenrezig at
an all-day saturday event (that frankly totally
Anyway, I guess my question is, how do you,
personally, reconcile your nonbelief in things like
karma and reincarnation with the mystical parts of
vajrayana and really, buddhism in general?
No intrusion at all, I enjoy thinking and writing
about this sort of thing.
> Anyway, I guess my question is, how do you,
> personally, reconcile your nonbelief in things like
> karma and reincarnation with the mystical parts of
> vajrayana and really, buddhism in general?
Actually my nonbelief in karma and reincarnation
don't clash with the mystical parts at all:
they clash with the theoretical or cosmological
parts of Buddhism. There's no legitimate way, I
think, to move karma and reincarnation out of
the center of Buddhist thought. So by some
definitions I don't qualify as a Buddhist.
If I thought of Buddhism as fundamentally a set
of beliefs about the nature of the universe and
reality, I would have a big problem. I don't,
though: I think of it as fundamentally a set of
methods for ending suffering, cultivating
compassion, and developing a more serviceable
I guess a parallel would be my attitude to
acupuncture. I think the theory behind
acupuncture is probably a lot of hooey, all
that stuff about winds and chakras and
different colored energies and what-not.
But acupuncture works, demonstrably, for
many things. The evidence for that is quite
scientific and solid. So I have no qualms
about going to an acupuncturist, even though
I know he believes in a bunch of stuff that
Buddhist practice works. So I do it. I don't
know why it works, and I don't think anyone
else completely knows why either. (But then,
I don't think anyone knows completely how
I could say plenty more -- there's some
support for holding this point of view within
Buddhism itself, if you take the teachings on
Emptiness seriously -- but it might be more
useful if I first knew more about your
discomforts with Buddhism. I'm not sure,
for instance, that I know what you mean by
"mystical," and I suspect that you have
some unnecessary difficulties there.
Thanks for your response. I appreciated your points
about doubt in karma & reincarnation mainly
conflicting with buddhist cosmology and that it's
possible to practice buddhism strictly for its
I think some of my problems with Buddhism have to do
with wanting to see myself as a rational person, one
not easily suckered into believing silly things about
how the world works. Visualizing Chenrezig just seemed
so bizarre to me, made me fear that I was joining some
kind of cult. That is another problem I have - does
the process that you go through as a buddhist actually
give you a clear mind or does it just convince you
that you have a clear mind when you are actually still
deluded? More fundamentally, I waver on the question
of whether I am unsatisfied with "ordinary" existence
and want a radical alternative or whether I just want
to get a little better at living than I am now.
In terms of the mystical things I am averse to, the
best example might be praying to Dorje Chang (I'm not
sure if you do that or if that's another lineage). If
I don't believe that there are any such things as
deities, how can I pray to them?
> I think some of my problems with Buddhism have to do
> with wanting to see myself as a rational person, one
> not easily suckered into believing silly things
> how the world works.
Ah, yes. One hates to look like a chump :-)
> Visualizing Chenrezig just
> so bizarre to me, made me fear that I was joining
> kind of cult.
An all-day Chenrezig sit is probably not
a very good entry-point for someone who wants
to see himself as a rational person! I just
practiced Shamatha for a long time, many
years, before I gingerly took up vajrayana
practice. But I'll pick this point up below.
> That is another problem I have - does
> the process that you go through as a buddhist
> give you a clear mind or does it just convince you
> that you have a clear mind when you are actually
There probably is no way to tell really, beyond
observation and experience. I had the advantage
of watching my wife practice Buddhist meditation
for years, before I ever took a stab at it. It
was plain to me that her mind was growing clearer,
not foggier. And in general the Buddhists I know
seem a bit less deluded than the non-Buddhists,
but of course there could be lots of explanations
> More fundamentally, I waver on the question
> of whether I am unsatisfied with "ordinary"
> and want a radical alternative or whether I just
> to get a little better at living than I am now.
> In terms of the mystical things I am averse to, the
> best example might be praying to Dorje Chang (I'm
> sure if you do that or if that's another lineage).
> I don't believe that there are any such things as
> deities, how can I pray to them?
Actually, we're traditionally instructed NOT
to believe in the deities. Quite emphatically.
We are supposed to bear in mind, as we visualize
them, that they are "not there." What you are
praying to when you pray to Dorje Chang is
your own unobscured mind -- nothing more,
There are a couple basic goals of deity
practices. One is to produce a vision of
something that you know damn well "isn't there"
with so much clarity and vividness that you
realize -- experientially, not just
intellectually -- that your perceptions
of ordinary things are also "visions,"
that is, that your perceptions of things are
not the things themselves. (This is something
that everyone knows, but few people really
believe it, in their heart of hearts.)
The other goal is to recognize the deity
in ourselves -- that is, to try on the
persona of a being that is perfect in
wisdom and compassion. At the heart of
Vajrayana practice is the idea that the
mind can't really be permanently or
essentially corrupted, and that it's
possible (tho extrememly difficult) to
recover its purity by jump-starting it
Whether this idea is correct or not,
I don't know. I personally have found
vajrayana practice very fruitful, but
rather mysteriously so. That is, I
notice a strong correlation between
how much I'm practicing and how much I
am able to break long-standing negative
habits. Correlation is not causation,
of course. And dealing with your own
mind, you never have a control group,
so it's hard to know. A difficulty that
just goes with the territory.
Anyway, I was a member of KCC for years
before I took up any vajrayana practices.
Plain old Shamatha, "calm abiding," (what
the Zen people call "sitting Zazen"), is
probably a better entry-point for us
rationalists, and in any case it's
considered a foundation practice, sort
of a prerequisite for the vajrayana
PS, please don't hesitate to ask more, if
you have more questions or objections. I'm
> PS, please don't hesitate to ask more, if
> you have more questions or objections.
Okay, I'll take you up on that offer! One of the lines
I remember from the Dhammapada was something like,
when you have a lesser happiness and you see a greater
one, it only makes sense to put aside the lesser for
the greater. To me this is saying, ordinary life is
okay, but what you get from following the buddhist
path is so much greater that it's worth the
sacrifices. That's something I can't seem to decide
yet. I mean, why should I have to give up a beer now
and again, a glass of wine with a nice meal? When I am
attracted to a beautiful girl, why should I want to
try to focus on the disgusting or loathsome aspects of
her (advice I have come across more than once to
counteract the afflictive emotion of lust)? Why should
I not become angry when I see gross injustices causing
suffering to innocent beings?
The major competing alternative vision of happiness
for me is something along the lines of eat, drink, be
merry. I want to be as open and loving as I can. I
want to try be a positive influence on the world
around me. But I also want to have fun, to enjoy life.
Is the happiness that can be achieved through hard
work on the buddhist path truly greater than secular
happiness? Would buddhism be so effective in helping
me to become open and loving that it would be worth
the hard work and the things I would have to give up?
Lots of questions for you. I really appreciate your
willingness to field them.
Ah, well, this is why you go for the Tibetan
tradition :-) This is *not* a path of
renunciation. There are a lot of wild men
in this tradition -- yogis who left monasteries
or never went into them, who broke precepts
left and right. The original Buddhist tradition,
which the Theravadins still keep up, emphasized
extinguishing desire & anger & so forth
altogether. It's a perfectly good path, and
probably a safer path. But in the vajrayana
we *don't* want to extinguish desire: we want
to harness it & transform it.
You do have to get the upper hand of your
desires, even in this tradition, which does mean
working to undo compulsive craving. If you
*have* to have a fancy new car, even though you
can't afford it, or if you *have* to try to
seduce a woman even though she's married to your
friend, or if you *have* to have a fifth of
whiskey to face the afternoon-- that sort of
thing -- then your life is simply going to be
too turbulent to allow any kind of meaningful
practice. (And you'll be miserable to boot, in
the long run.)
Sure, one of the five precepts for lay people
is that they not drink intoxicants. I have a
drink now and then and feel fine about it: I
think I understand well enough what that precept
is aimed at to know what kind of drinking it
refers to, and having a glass of wine at dinner
isn't it. (Although if I *had* to have that
glass, it probably would be it -- it's not the
object of desire, but the quality of the desire,
I don't think of it as two competing kinds of
happiness at all. I haven't made any sacrifices,
and I don't plan to make any. Giving up
compulsive cravings is not a hardship -- it's
a relief. & it opens up the world to all kinds
of unexpected pleasures.
There are unworldly pleasures too -- glimpses
of the bliss that may be at the end of the path.
Sometimes that can happen in some kinds of
practices. Sometimes it just comes down out of
nowhere as a free gift, apparently -- all my
life I've been susceptible to moments of
inexplicable, apparently unmotivated joy, when
everything I experienced was almost unbearably
beautiful. I imagine enlightenment to be like
that, but sustained, and I guess that's what I
think I'm working toward. I don't know if
anyone ever actually gets there.
I don't mean to denigrate the Dhammapada or
the Theravadin tradition at all. The path of
renunciation is a valid one, and I think for
some people it's probably the only one. There
are some people for whom worldly pleasures are
just plain toxic, and they have to get away
from them, just as a alcoholic has to get away
from alcohol, altogether, all the time. But
Tibetan lay Buddhism, as practiced at KCC, is
a quite different path.
Thank you very much for sharing your perspective with
me. For some reason it makes me feel good to think
that a buddhist path is possible for me, which is what
your emails have convinced me of. I guess maybe I was
reading too much Theraveda stuff and maybe taking
everything a little too seriously. Your words have
also reaffirmed my sense of affinity for KCC (although
I've no plans to be in Portland anytime soon). Anyway,
thanks again and I wish you the best with your
practice and life. Or lives! ;)
Glad I could help. It's easy to take things
too seriously, or too literally anyway,
especially if you come out of the
monotheistic traditions, where scriptures
are often taken to be absolutely valid all the
time in all circumstances -- it takes a while
to get used to the comparatively free-and-easy
way Buddhists often relate to their scriptures.
There's a couple books I'd recommend: "Buddhism
Without Beliefs," by Stephen Batchelor -- he was
a monk in the Tibetan tradition for many years,
but eventually broke with that tradition, which
he sees as having accumulated too much
superstition. I don't agree with everything
he says, but it's a very thoughtful book, by
someone who's earned the right to talk about it.
The other book would be "Tantra," by Lama Yeshe.
A beautiful introduction to what tantric practice
(which roughly corresponds to what we've been
calling Vajrayana practice) is all about.
Would you mind if I posted our exchange on my
blog, if I took out names & email addresses?
I think a lot of people have the same questions,
though few ask them so clearly.
warm regards -- & look me up if you do come
through Portland --
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