The question


Since I left the New Kadampa Tradition (NKT) close to five years ago, I’ve been spiritually promiscuous. I’ve tried on a number of Vipassana teachers and sanghas in hopes of finding some place that feels like home. I’ve toyed with a local Dzogchen teacher, studied Mahamudra with a Vajrayana teacher and earlier this week, I returned from a six-day retreat that combined Dzogchen and Vipassana.

Usually when I return from retreat there is a bit of an afterglow. The real world seems rather harsh in comparison to the quiet I feel inside. That wasn’t the case this time. It was an odd retreat. Not bad. Just different than what I’m been used to at past retreats at Spirit Rock.  This retreat was co-led by two heavy hitters in the Dzogchen and Vipassana worlds (whom I’m not going to name simply because I don’t want this blog to show up when someone Googles them).   The main draw for me was the Vipassana teacher who literally wrote the book on Metta/LovingKindness. But, since I had been dipping my toes back into the world of Tibetan Buddhism, I was also interested in what the Dzogchen master had to say.

I wish I had been warned that this was primarily a Dzogchen retreat with an emphasis on the teachings (approx three-to-four hours a day from the Rinpoche and another hour from Ms. Metta).  In the past, I’m used to four-to-five hours a day of sitting meditation, plus another two-to-three doing walking meditation. During this retreat I barely broke two hours of meditation per day, and the walking meditation breaks were really just 15 minute stretch breaks.

Which is not to say the teachings weren’t amazing. They truly were. All the things I loved about Tibetan Buddhism – the intellectual rigor, the precision, and the magical infusion of “blessings” – came flooding back to me. Ah, why did I ever leave?  But, then in the evenings, when Ms. Metta gave her teachings based in the Theravada tradition, I was reminded why I had changed direction. There is a beautiful simplicity and practicality, a psychological resonance, and a strong sense of morality.  I have found a teacher and a sangha I connect with and my practice is strong, why would I want to stray off this path?

Combining the two paths is certainly not unheard of. Many of the Spirit Rock teachers have also studied with Tibetan teachers.  Plus, wasn’t the whole point of this particular retreat to show that the two paths are complimentary and ultimately lead to the same place?  But one question plagued me for all of the retreat – what does that look like in my daily practice? It’s all well and good to discuss on a philosophical level, but when I put my tush to the cush, what method should I practice?

When it came time for my group interview with Rinpoche, I asked him that very question (though when I mentioned my spiritual promiscuity he had to  turn to his translator who probably gave him the Tibetan word for “slut”).  His answer was clear and precise. His said that there should be five elements to my pratice: refuge; bodhicitta; mantra or deity visualization; for the main meditation I could do either Dzogchen or Vipassana or concentration or Metta; and then finish up with dedication.  And while I appreciated the structure, I was already doing something very similar, and it never got to the question of what path to practice.

Two days later during my group interview with Ms. Metta, I asked her a similar question, but framing it based on her own experience of having studied and practiced both traditions.  She also gave me a very learned answer, explaining how there was no conflict between the two paths.  Again, that wasn’t getting to the answer I needed.

“So, practically speaking, however, if I want to be serious about awakening, can I practice both or should I just pick one?” I asked.

After a pause, she said, “yeah, just pick one. At least for a period of say six months or so. You’ll never be able to deepen if you keep jumping around.”

For the rest of the retreat I alternated between confidence and clarity and gut-wrenching confusion and doubt. My question still remained. What should my daily practice be?

Having received advice from two esteemed teachers, it was now time to ask the advice of my regular teachers.

During my weekly session with my Vipassana teacher/therapist, I told him of my quest to somehow bring these two paths together and about the advice I had received so far from the retreat teachers.

“Well, what do you think I should do?” I asked.

“I don’t really see telling you what to do as my role. I’m here to support you” he said, clearly in therapist mode.

“Look, you know me. You know my practice. Those two don’t know me from squat. I’m asking you for your advice.” I said.

“I agree with Ms. Metta. Just pick one. So, why don’t you just focus on Metta for the next six months.”

I mulled his answered for a few minutes. I resonate with the Metta practice. It opens the heart and strengthens the concentration. Yeah, that might work. But there was one more person I wanted to ask before I could feel completely settled about the issue.

Two days later I met with the Lama with whom I have been studying Mahamudra (a close relative to Dzogchen, just a slightly different approach). I had been coming to her weekly class for over six months and we had never spoken. While I enjoy her teachings very much, I don’t feel connected in any way to the sangha. I simply slip into class and then slip out, never really making contact with anyone there. (There are reasons for that, which mostly have to do with my own preferences and personality and is no way a reflection on the people there, who have been quite lovely to me.)

I liked the Lama a lot. She is a Western woman, a psychologist, but with all the bona fides of an authentic lineage holder in the Kagyu tradition including completion of her three year retreat. We spoke of my how I was drawn to aspects of both the Theravadan and Vajrayana paths, and how I was at a bit of loss to integrate both.  We also discussed the NKT and some of the residual side effects of my time there. For instance, the path of guru devotion is simply not an option for me.  I can offer my respect and gratitude, but “devotion”? I just don’t think so, at least for the foreseeable future. She didn’t see that as a problem. Whew.

Towards the close of our conversation, I finally asked her The Question – given my interest in both paths, what should my daily practice be?  Her answer: refuge; bodhicitta; Metta as a concentration practice; Mahamudra inquiry; dedication.

Yes! That was it! That is the right practice for me at this time.

For now, I’m feeling pretty confident going into the next stretch of road on my spiritual journey. I feel very fortunate that I am surrounded by the wise counsel of my current teachers to help guide me down this path.

11 responses »

  1. I would submit to you that you never left the NKT, the NKT left you ~ which means you have been “on your own” since. The reality is, if we can use such a term with any consistent meaning, that we are always alone on our spiritual path. Teachers can guide us and Sangha can offer support but in the end it is up to each individual to walk the walk according to individual karma.

    So long as you feel a connection with the structure of your practice I think that is all that matters. If love wisdom and compassion are increasing then how can anyone, including yourself, judge the situation one way or the other?

    In the I think any sincere spiritual aspirant has to face the fact that there is no savior, no one size fits all solution to the problem of consciousness ~ use it or lose it is what it all comes down to in the end.

    • I’m not quite grokking the differentiation between whether I dumped the NKT or the NKT dumped me. And by your own definition, I was on my own even when I was in the NKT’s slightly creepy embrace.

      Part of the reason I’ve been so concerned about treading two paths is some of the indoctrination I got whilst in the NKT. I’m sure you’ve heard or even used the analogy (I know I used back when I was teaching) that while there are many paths up the mountain, if you’re serious about reaching the top, find a reliable guide and follow them exclusively. To jump about from path to path will merely confuse you and slow you down.

      I’ve been fairly confident until recently that what I was doing was right for me. I could taste the fruit of the seeds I had been planting. Yet, I felt this pull back to Tibetan Buddhism. While the beauty of the path was familiar to me, it has also touched a few nerves that are still surprising raw. Hence the quest for a way that was still mine, yet was in alignment with the teachers and the teachings I admire and respect.

  2. That whole “one path” philosophy makes me angry. It was such a major instrument of manipulation in the NKT. Though I never quite fell for it, because I was involved with other groups for most of my time there, it did leave its propaganda imprint on me too. It’s taking me a long time to unlearn the NKT. But unlike you, I haven’t been promiscuous at all. I think that’s just blind luck – I went straight back to the FPMT, which is where I first became a Buddhist. Whether I’m setting myself up for another fall, well time will tell. But I don’t think so.

    • Hi Ron –

      Glad to have you check in. I figured you’d have an opinion on this one. 🙂

      Have you read the chapters about the NKT in David Kay’s book about Buddhism in Britain? It’s online and well worth a read:

      Click to access Tibetan%20and%20Zen%20Buddhism%20in%20Britain%20Transplantation,%20Development%20and%20Adaptation.pdf

      There’s so much good information in there in why the NKT evolved to be the organization it is today. While reading it I had many moments of “ohhhhhh. That’s where that line of thinking came from.” Which, of course, doesn’t make it right, I just now understand the context better and it cleared up a lot of misconceptions, particularly around the whole “one path” thing.

      With all the recent internal sturm und drang over practicing two paths, having two teachers, I realize how deeply ingrained that one path message became. And even though my teachers don’t seem at all concerned about it, there was a part of me that was afraid I was going to miss the boat to enlightenment. Reading Kay’s chapters made me feel a whole lot better about that. Whether or not we were involved in a cult is open to debate, but we most certainly (and probably by Geshe-la’s own admission) were involved with a fundamentalist. And whether Buddhist, Christian or Muslim, fundamentalism, in my mind, is bad news.

      One of the things that have attracted me to the Theravadan practices is the simplicity and the honesty. You arrive at the truth through your own experience. There’s nothing to fake. I’ve also found that I prefer the Theravadan community. In the four Vipassana retreats I’ve done in the last couple of years, I have never experienced a moment of unkindness. In the one retreat that mixed Tibetan and Vipassana, I experienced a handful of exchanges that, at the very least, were unmindful. Not to say Theravadans are better people, but it seems the teachings are more down to earth with the focus on mindfulness and following the eightfold path.

      Yet, like you, I like the intellectual sophistication and precision of the Tibetan presentation on emptiness. It’s part of what has drawn me back. But, at this point, I don’t know if I’m interested in taking on the full path and doing the preparatory and yidam practices.

      At some point one or the other path will need to take center stage. There are two year advanced studies programs being offered on both paths in the near future. I won’t be able to do both. I don’t know. It’s a work in progress.

  3. Hi LB

    The Tibetan emphasis on mindfulness often seems inadequate, I agree. It is there, but its just overwhelmed by the elaborate character of the religion. I love Thich Nat Hahn for precisely the reason that his emphasis on mindfulness takes centre stage. He is Mahayana (zen), so it’s not purely a theravaden characteristic. In tibetan buddhism the mindfulness training comes in these elaborate excercises – the precision of the offerings, the countless mindful reminders, prostrations, prayers et al. It’s just such a different approach.

    The problem I think for most of us including me is that its hard to simplify the tibetan approach. You have to take the package, to a greater or lesser extent. But theravadans seem to be able to get down to basics much easier.

    HOWEVER….I have come to believe that theravadan beliefs are a later development. I used to think Mahayana was a development of the 1st century and that hinayana was a true reflection of the buddha as glimpsed in the pali cannon. I’ve now been studying special insight at the FPMT for a year and a half. There are only a handful of us and it is very high level. This has lead me to supplement my study by looking at the historical development of the mahayana and I now know that in fact it stemmed from mahamika and this extended all the way to the second council. That it was in fact the theravadans who seem to be a break away from early buddhism. Mayahana tenets were not created later, it seems. Its more likely that hinayana developed by rejecting some of the mahayana tenets.

    Badly put, but I hope you get my meaning.

    The long and the short of it is that I can’t help but believe that in many ways its the prasangika view that is most like that of the buddha.

    I would therefore be unable to go theravadan, but might be able to go with something like certain schools of zen, which is essentially prasangika too.

    There are no easy answers. I think we are lucky to have had exposure to the teachings we’ve had. And there’s no reason to lose or give up any of those insights even if we choose other paths. That is probably what the buddha would have advised anyway, if you consider what he had to say in the kalamma suta.

    By the way, I have read Kay’s book a few times.

    Yes, fundamentalist is the right word.

    My experience at the FPMT is so different. I don’t miss the dogma one little bit.

  4. I did not mean to denigrate theravadans. I do indeed like the honesty of their practice, as you say. The thai forrest tradition seems marvellous and in my imagination that is the way the buddha and his first disciples must have lived. However, I guess for me the emptiness teachings are pivotal and, were it not for those emptiness teachings, and the teachings on dependent arising, I wouldn’t even be a Buddhist. From that perspective I have been convinced by Nagarjuna, Chandrakirti, Tsongkhapa, and Kelsang Gyatso among others. However, many others are not inspired by these teachings much. On other aspects, I think I would find it much easier to accept Theravadan views, which they hold in common anyway with the Mayahana. It comes down to the fact that we’re all different and no one path suits everyone. I am so far from enlightenment that I don’t think being Mahayana or Hinayana would make any different to the results of my practice. But it happens to be the emptiness teachings that have engaged me enough to even have a practice. So…your friends are right…it’s very hard to advise anyone else. 🙂

    • No worries. The Theravadan side of me was not offended (though my Vajrayana side is pissed off as all hell – joking).

      Since I’ve been out of the NKT, the teachings I’ve received are all either inspirational or instructional. I’ve been focused almost exclusively on my practice rather than contemplating the philosophical and historical finer points of the teaching. I remember when I started taking the Mahamudra class, I was really hoping we’d have some texts to discuss. Nope. The teachings were all coming from the Lama’s own experience, with a bit of discussion about selected prayers or dohas. It’s been an interesting transition for me.

      I really enjoyed the study aspect of the NKT. I like to hoard knowledge. But, truth be told, my meditation practice was shit (and not the shits, which would imply quite the opposite). My home practice was nearly non-existent. I figured being in class twice a week and teaching once a week, I was getting in maybe an hour or so of meditation per week. Besides, who had time for meditation when there was all that merit to be gathered?! Oy! I can honestly say I didn’t know how to really sit until after I left the NKT and my 10 years of practice there.

      At some point (maybe soon), I’ll re-enter a more formal study program and will be able to discuss the finer points of approaches to emptiness. But, for now, I’m just grateful I have a stable practice and I’m plugged into two wonderful teachers.

  5. Having read your blog postings (mainly the NKT stuff to be honest) I was never sure why you hadn’t given Theravada or Zen a try. For myself, I want to continue in Buddhism but I think Tibetan buddhism is too complex and too mixed up with Bon for me – but it seems to be the Buddhism most available in the West (NKT, FPMT, Samye Ling etc) Was hoping to find a Zen home with the OBC but they have a slightly odd history too. Your stance against guru devotion suggests Tibetan Buddhism may also not be for yoU? Let’s not forget the first Westerners who encountered Tibetans thought they worshipped Lamas and called it Lamaism.

  6. As someone who’s gone back and forth between Tibetan and Theravadan Buddhism for over 20 years, I found this exchange quite interesting. I could write a book on this topic. But I’ll just make a few points here…….Unless you have a time machine, historical inquiry for a practitioner into “what the Buddha really taught” is a dead end, and is really prompted by the assumptions of our Judea-Christian culture. Buddha is not our savior. Do we reject Einstein because Newton didn’t teach Quantum Mechanics? This pursuit is also fruitless because the final answer is “nobody knows”. And finally, it is pointless because what is relevant to a practitioner in 2012 is only what teachings and teachers are available in 2012…. A fundamentalist, or worse, sectarian approach to Buddhism is ludicrous and destructive for Westerners, though many adopt this pose. If your family has been Gelug for 15 generations then fine, you are Gelugpa. But if you took refuge 2 months ago and fervently believe that you are then you have been brainwashed and taken on board many foreign cultural beliefs and cultish attitudes that your mind will eventually reject. If you’re lucky!…..”Your path” is the path you’re on. Look down at your feet. Figure out where you want to go (a surprising number of people striving for enlightenment don’t actually want to be enlightened). Choose what works for you, but make sure the “you” is not just your neurotic ego. Forget the labels. Enjoy the trip.

  7. I offer you an ancient piece of British wisdom handed down through an impeccable lineage (my nan and my mum) :

    Sh*t or get off the pot.

    Seriously. Just get on with it. Don’t let the perfect get in the way of the good. Pick one and get on with it.

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