Saturday, March 14, 2009

Spiritual Risk Management: Master Yin Shun's Lam Rim

I would like to share here with my readers a corporate concept which I think can also be applied into our spiritual endeavour. I feel it is even more important in our age of spiritual decline, when there are many false gurus around and many people who think that they have "made it" when actually they have not. There are many who have so much spiritual enthusiasm and gung-ho spirit, but have sadly gone mentally astray somewhere along the path. Most people will not even investigate and compare what they have heard with the Sutras or other clasical buddhist texts. On the side of sentient beings, they (we) would always choose to believe what we want to believe. In view of all these, I would like to propse a spiritual risk management and spiritual governance framework into our daily practice. A little bit of internal "check and balance" is good for our spiritual pursuit. In this writing, I will use Venerable Yin Shun's text 'Way to Buddhahood' to illustrate my point in the application into the practice of forming a guru-student relationship in the practice of Tibetan Buddhism.

I like to read Ven. Yin Shun’s Lam Rim text because it presents the Lam Rim path from a Chinese Mahayana perspective, hence it is devoid of all the tantric and Tibetan Buddhist cultural elements. I find that it is good practice to step back at times from my main practice of tantric Buddhism and look from the perspective of Masters from other traditions. I feel this is a good spiritual “best practice” and spiritual “risk management” in order to keep my practice focus always on the right track. In this way too, I hope to be able to benefit sentient beings more extensively than if I were to be able to share dharma only from the perspective of one tradition. By having some knowledge in this manner, I can compare and contrast and take all the “best spiritual practices” and incorporate that into my practice and spiritual risk management. I am fortunate in the sense that I am very familiar with these terms “best practices” and “risk management”. Hence, I use these corporate concepts in my spiritual practice.

Not only Ven. Yin Shun’s teachings, but having some knowledge in other Mahayana tradition, including Pure Land Buddhism, Ch’an or Zen, (and I would include even theravada) one is able to have an idea of managing one’s own expectations and one’s own attachments to concepts. I give you one example.

In tantric Buddhism, we are always taught to see the guru as nothing short of the Buddha himself or a particular yidam (who is also an aspect of the Buddha). By “Buddha”, I donot refer to just Sakyamuni Buddha, or historical Buddha. I meant the generic Buddha position attained by all Buddhas past, present and future. This is because in the practice of guru yoga, the inter-mingling of our own mind with the mind of the guru as well as the Buddha-yidam is important. It is meant to invoke our intrinsic Buddha qualities within in a much (or rather, it is supposed to be) quicker way. We are further told that whether the guru is actually a Buddha or not is unimportant. Some Tibetan Buddhist practitioners take this to mean that it does not matter even if the person has zero knowledge in the Buddha dharma, and zero realizations, as long as you believe in him as a Buddha (Yes, we are talking about merely having the power of faith here!), then there is a chance that one day he will lead you to Buddhahood. In a Tibetan Buddhist text by Arya Deva, it is mentioned there are 10 qualities (I think so, need to check on this) that the student must check that the guru possesses, before we are to take him as our guru.

In the text by Venerable Yin Shun, he explained the concept of guru devotion without the concept of deity yoga. And I feel that in this tradition, one will be far less susceptible to attachment to guru devotion than in Tibetan Buddhism. In the past, I have cautioned that the practice of deity yoga without the proper foundational practices (ngondro) and developing the mind of renunciation, bodhicitta and having a correct view of emptiness, then it may potentially lead one astray to being delusional. This is where some knowledge of other tradition comes in handy. Venerable Yin Shun’s text explained the necessity of having “guru devotion” and not “seeing the guru’s fault” and telling you the reasons in a way that do not need to resort to frightening a person that he/she will burn in vajra hell if he sees the latter’s fault. And in this tradition, you do not need to see your teacher in a superlative manner than what he is. Ven. Yin Shun explained that there are 5 qualities of a person whom is fit to be a “good and knowledgeable person”. But “ in this age of the decline of the dharma, however, it is extremely difficult to encounter such a person... So, one may have to settle for the second best”.

It is pointed out in the text that, “a sutra say, “One can associate with those who have one-eighth of the virtues.” Further, the Nirvana Sutra talks about one group of people, “… on whom others can rely are those who, although they have neither eliminated all afflictions, nor realised the true nature, have understood one-sixteenth of the meaning of Buddha nature. In short, because it is hard to meet a good and knowledgeable person in this period of the decline of the Buddhist teachings, you should properly associate with a person who is even just a little bit better than you in the understanding and the practice of the Buddha Dharma.”

With this explanation by Ven. Yin Shun, the concept of guru devotion is explained that, in fact it is not necessary to regard your teacher as enlightened, if you seriously know he is not enlightened at all. This is different from the tibetan tradition where enlightened or not, you need to visualise him as enlightened. Of course, that is done for very good reasons. But I am sayng that, having some knowledge that even though the tantric practice is taught that way, at the back of our mind, we should know that we can also learn dharma from normal unenlightened persons too. I say this because I know of some Tibetan practitioners who donot at all wish to listen or read teachings (or hesitate to do so) from any other persons than their guru, simply because they are unable to see the latter as enlightened. To regard their own guru as enlightened is not an issue because it is in fact, the proepr way to practice in tantric Buddhism. But to not wish to receive teachings from someone else even though he is a proper teacher just because you can't see the teacher as a Buddha, is it correct? If you have some knowledge of Ven. Yin Shun's teachings, you would know that it would not be a problem for you.

According to Ven. Yin Shun here, the thing that is most important is the little knowledge that he may have (and you hope to gain even that little knowledge from him); not withstanding his enlightenment status.

This is one way to avoid being caught up in a cult or a fake guru simply by blind devotion. Sakyamuni Buddha taught us to evaluate what we have heard and to contemplate them, think them over and try to elicit our own realisation, i.e. internalise them so that our guru's wisdom becomes our own wisdom. If it is not internalised, it is just knowledge, not wisdom. So, by checking to the Sutras, classical Buddhist texts by past confirmed great masters (and not just accept what we hear), contemplate the teachings over and over again, then we will derive great benefit from genuine gurus. (Note: And of course, in order to derive true benefit, one must have great positive merits and no obstructing karma. So, devotion to a guru is still important in tantric Buddhism and also purification of karma). If we donot do this risk management, we will not be able to find out that we have been following a fake teacher all the time. And we will not be able to realise that we have not truely learned anything at all even after following the same guru for umpteen years.

If we have not learned anything at all, it is actually not too bad compared with learning all the wrong things. The latter situation is far far worse. So, by studying this text by Ven. Yin Shun, we will know that it is essential that the person whom we accept as a guru must have true virtue, even if he is unenlightened. That is important even in tantric Buddhism. And after finding out that he has true virtue, and we accept him as a guru, and he accepts us as student, we should listen to his advice wholeheartedly and do everything he instructs. We should not have doubts anymore. But remember, we still need to implement our spiritual risk management by checking the Sutras, the classical texts and contemplate our guru's teachings to internalise it. This is especially relevant from the side of ignorant sentient beings who may have much knowledge but no wisdom. By listening to our guru's teachings, and then reading up the relevant Sutras on the same topic, or other classicial texts, we will be able to transmute what we merely understood intellectually into genuine pearls of dharma wisdom. Also, this risk management metod, will help us spot points in our guru's teachings where we need further clarification, especially if what he says contradicts or seems to contradicts with what are stated in the Buddhist Sutras and other classicial Buddhist texts. So, we are not merely acting on power of faith, but cultivating our inate wisdom as well.

Spiritual risk management (like corporate governance) is not based on doubt, instead it builds the foundation of strong faith and practice.

So, this is as much as I can share here for now. May All be Joyous!
- edited on Mar 14th, 2009 later in the morning.


Dharma said...

Hi - Good article on faith in good knowing advisors. I thought you would like to know that Yin Shun advocated faith in Buddha Dharma above all else. And this faith is something that one develops through way of vigor, self-investigation and certification.

I have a blog post about this:

I like the corporate reference too - Yin Shun also said the Buddha Dharma does not go beyond the Dharma of the current age (this phrase is difficult to translate from Chinese).

Mahabodhiyana said...

Thanks for your comments. I feel Master Yin Shun's wisdom is under-appreciated. But he really makes a lot of sense.