Wednesday, July 9, 2008

Three Vehicles, One Path

Among the many books I have been reading lately (the stack beside the bed was about a foot high when I settled down to sleep last night) is Daring Steps Toward Fearlessness: The Three Vehicles of Buddhism by Ringu Tulku. In typical Tibetan fashion, he explains the core concepts of the Three Vehicles (the Sanskrit word is “yana”) by commenting on existing texts. Also in typical Tibetan fashion, he devotes about 23% of the book to the Individual Vehicle, the Shravakayana (more commonly referred to as the Hinayana), about 27% to the Messianic Vehicle, the Mahayana (I’m borrowing Robert Thurman’s designations of the vehicles), and fully half the book to the Vajrayana, the Apocalyptic Vehicle. Vajrayana is the particular treasure of the Tibetan Buddhist system; the only other Vajrayana tradition, to my knowledge, is the Shingon Buddhism of Japan. Whereas Shingon is one particular sect or school in Japan, in Tibet the Vajrayana is mainstream and seems always to have been so. Also called Tantra or Mantrayana, it is essentially a magical system intended to accelerate the process of attaining enlightenment and give the practitioner conscious control of death and rebirth.

Ringu Tulku’s exposition of the Vajrayana is the first extended account of Buddhist Tantra that I’ve read. Once my head stopped spinning, I realized all over again that Tibetan Buddhism is a whole religion, a complete system, and that our Western traditions, pagan, Christian, Gnostic, magical, what have you, are instead fragmented, scattered, half-buried, perhaps lost in part. All the pieces may be there, but they are not in order, like shards of a broken stained-glass window. Is it possible to reassemble them according to the pattern? Do we even have a picture of what a complete Western tradition would look like? You can find lots of books on lucid dreaming, for example; Vajrayana teaches those techniques at a particular point in one’s development. Tibetan Buddhism emphasizes that first you take the Individual Vehicle, the basic teachings, and work on yourself; then you establish yourself in the Great Vehicle, the Mahayana, and make the liberation of all other beings your motivation for achieving Buddhahood. Only then are you ready to undertake the advanced disciplines of Tantra. Perhaps some occultists like Dion Fortune emphasized maintaining a Christian devotion, however Gnostic or heterodox, because Christ the Savior was the only Mahayana they knew, and they felt an instinctive need to ground magical development in compassion and service.

Tibetan Buddhism is my religion now, and I hope to make it to studying Vajrayana and practicing it in this lifetime. But I also hope that, given a few hundred years, we will evolve an American Buddhism that has all three vehicles, and that it will help those who aren’t Buddhists put the Western Gnosis back together again. Tibetan Buddhism models for me a religion that has all the best parts of paganism, occultism, and Christianity, combined with a surpassing wisdom and truth. I do think we once had that in Western culture, or could have had it (feel free to blame Constantine), and perhaps we shall have it again, with help from the East.

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