Nowadays we tend to see secrecy as a bad thing. When secrets are kept by governments, we suspect repression, and as recent events in Tibet have shown, we’re often right on that count. On the personal level, the secrets people keep from each other are found as plot devices, from Shakespeare to soap operas, that lead to all kinds of conflict and sorrow. In our post-Enlightenment (and I mean the 18th-century kind) world, do we need secrecy?
Secrecy that is of course very much a part of tantric Buddhism, which is also known as ‘secret mantra’. Keeping the tantric practices secret from those who have not been initiated into them is one of the fundamental samaya vows undertaken by those who do receive empowerment in these practices. When modern suspicions about secrecy are applied here, we find people suggesting that the secrecy in tantric Buddhism is all about the gurus (or in Tibet, the lamas) keeping the teachings to themselves, and thereby gathering numerous disciples, fame and of course, wealth. This is to see secrecy as a power issue, like the secrecy practised by governments or corporations.
I’d like to suggest a more sympathetic view of secrecy in tantric Buddhism, using the poem that we looked at in the last post. As you may remember, this was a poem about the decline of Buddhism since the time of Lang Darma, a decline caused not by too few people practising Buddhism, but too many practising tantric Buddhism:
Masters who are lost in the errors
Of not judging the levels of meditative experience
Know nothing of the transworldly meaning.
For every hundred students there are a thousand teachers,
And nobody listens to the divine dharma.
For every village there are ten masters,
And the number of vajra assistants is uncountable.
Everyone thinks “I am accomplished as the deity.”
In the end, since there are so many of this type,
Won’t the vajra body be destroyed?
Let’s think about the situation described here. Clearly the tantric teachings have become very popular, which should not be a bad thing. The statement that there are ten masters per village may be a rhetorical exaggeration, but it does indicate that Buddhism has ‘trickled down’ to the lives of ordinary people in the villages. The problem, for the author of our poem, is that disproportionate number of these ordinary people have set themselves up as tantric masters, having decided that they have achieved the necessary accomplishments without applying any empirical tests to their own meditative experiences.
Now, I’m a great believer in looking at manuscripts as a whole, rather than plucking individual texts out of them. The poem we’re looking at here is on a scroll (Pelliot tibétain 840) with other Tibetan texts, all written in the same handwriting. That is to say, it was the same person who wrote all these Tibetan texts on the scroll (which he picked up somewhere to reuse–it already had a Chinese sutra written on the front).* The main text that he wrote on the back of the scroll is a long tantric meditation practice. So, for a start, we can see that he had no problem at all with tantric practices as such. Then he turned the scroll over and wrote some more Tibetan texts in between the lines of the Chinese sutra, an unusual thing to do: paper must have been scarce.
The poem I just quoted is one of the texts written ‘between the lines’. Interestingly enough, the text that was written above it is all about the samaya vows. There are different ways of presenting these vows, and this text uses one that was popular at Dunhuang, and later found its way into the Nyingma school: the three root vows (see this previous post on the subject). These are: to respect the guru, always to practice the mantras and mudras, and to keep the tantric teachings secret. This text, then, seems very much related to our poem. The author of our poem seems to imply that the problems he describes are due to an ignorance (willful or not) of these vows. So what does the text above it have to say about secrecy?
There are three types who will damage the samaya if the secrets ever get out to them: (i) frauds who bestow tantric texts when they haven’t received the samaya, and haven’t had an empowerment, (ii) those who practise based on the words alone, and (iii) those who don’t practise the divine dharma.
The justification of secrecy seems quite clear here. When the master-disciple relationship (symbolized in tantric Buddhism by the ceremony of empowerment), fraudulent teachers can get hold of texts and teach others, without ever having had personal instruction. Individuals might think that it’s fine to pick up a book and put what is written there into practice without any clarification. And finally, people might think that tantric Buddhism can be practised in isolation from the rest of the dharma.
It does seem to me that these were genuine concerns, not merely the justification for keeping knowledge and power in the hands of the few.† For our writer, the evidence of the problems caused by ignoring the reasons for secrecy were evident all around him, with more masters offering to bestow the tantric teachings than students putting them into practice. This was no local problem: the same complaints about village tantric masters appear in the edict of the West Tibetan king Lha Lama Yeshé Ö, written in the 980s, and it was these very concerns that led to the reforming movements of the later transmission (phyi dar) of Buddhism in Tibet.
* * *
Just to show that the suspicions that I alluded to at the beginning of this post were common among Tibetans as they first came into contact with Buddhism, and with tantric masters in particular, I’d like to add one of the questions and answers from Nyen Palyang’s 9th century text Questions and Answers on Vajrasattva. I’ll let the answer stand for itself.
“When the tantric master requests an offering at the time of empowerment, isn’t this just something they’ve made up?”
The enlightened path to liberation is an eternal treasure
That is found after having been lost on the road of samsara for innumerable aeons.
It wouldn’t be excessive to offer one’s life ten million times, not to mention anything else.
The truth or falsity of this can be checked in all the secret tantras.
* * *
Karmay, Samten. 1980. “The Ordinance of lHa Bla-ma Ye-shes-’od”. In M. Aris and S. Aung San (eds.) Tibetan Studies in Honour of Hugh Richardson. Warminster: Aris and Phillips: 150-160.
Pelliot tibétain 840/2: … dam tshig ma nos pa dang/ slob dpon dbang ma bskur ba’i rkun gnas kyis lung phog pa dang/ yi get tsam rnyed pa la rten cing spyod pa dang/ lha chos mya spyod pa gsum car ‘dra ste// ‘di dag la gsang shor na/ dam tsig gting nas nyams par gyur te// …
IOL Tib J 470: … /slobs la dbang mnod pa’i dus su/ /yon ‘bul ‘tshal lo/ zhes bgyi ba rang bzo ma lags sam//skal pa grangs myed ‘das par lam skol gdod rnyed pa//bla med byang chub thar lam g.yung drung gter//des ni lus srog bye bas gcal kyang ma ches na//gzhan lta ci smos bden rdzun gsang ba’i rgyud la kun ltos/ …
* I denote the writer of the Pelliot tibétain 840 as ‘he’ throughout this post. This isn’t done thoughtlessly, but because all of the Tibetan scribes I have come across in the Dunhuang manuscripts are male. If in future I come across evidence for a female scribe, I will be very interested indeed, and will probably write about it here.
† Though this probably doesn’t need to be pointed out to most readers, the same issues are very much at stake today. Only just now I received Google Ad directing me to a website that makes the following promise: “Instantly Meditate Like the Greatest Gurus!” The author of this website, who shall remain nameless, makes much (mis)use of the idea of secret teachings.