A question arises for followers of Tibetan Buddhism, an important one in considering how you want to practise the Dharma. This is the matter of how to take the many personifications of Awakening found in traditional Buddhism. Apart from the Buddha Shakyamuni, there are sutras and practices involving Bodhisattvas like Avalokiteshvara, Manjushri, Samantabhadra, and if we include Vajrayana (tantric) practices, there are a host of yidams and consorts, such as Hevajra, Vajrayogini, and Vajrasattva.
In what way do these contribute to our Awakening to the truth? Are they real “people”, present now but unseen, and assisting our path? Are they representations of various qualities of our true nature, qualities we can barely conceive of without ascribing them to a person?
Traditionally they may be used as powerful presences to pray to, or as exemplars of ultimate compassion, wisdom, and so on. It is common to ask for their “adhishtana”, their blessing-power, for inspiration or assistance.
In Vajrayana the situation is more complex: they are purposefully imagined – their image mentally created, in order to make a connection with Awakened mind. This connection is then taken as being with a specific personal reality – moreover one with which the practitioner can merge, to experience their qualities.
What is the truth? Are there unseen beings with the ability to affect us, or is this mental gymnastics – using our imagination to bring about the result to which we aspire? Since Dharma is the truth of our direct experience, it would seem that, if we don’t call upon such beings, we have no evidence for their existence. If we did take them as existent and followed the traditional practices, we might feel there was an effect coming from them – but we wouldn’t know if we were fooling ourselves.
To understand Buddhism as “the science of direct experience” is to distinguish this approach from blind belief. Reliable truth is accessed by going beyond thinking – thinking being inherently untrustworthy. But another thing we know about thinking is that it has a great effect upon us. That’s why we suffer – if we think negative thoughts we feel miserable, if we think positive ones we feel happy. So we know that we cannot be sure of the existence or non-existence of unseen Awakened beings, and we know that if we take a position either way, this is a belief or assumption, a choice of thinking – one which can affect the way we respond.
how to practise?
A pragmatic strategy might be to decide which assumption would serve our Awakening better. Being a conscious decision, it would not be blind belief, but a conditional assumption. We need some assumption in order to carry on, so we choose which one to try. If we try assuming their non-existence, this denies us any possible benefits of practice offered by assuming their existence. If they are real, it is better to assume that from the start – because if they are not real, assuming they are allows us to reap the results of practising that way. And if they are not real, no harm is done.
This is actually the way we proceed in our life most successfully: we choose to trust a person, an assumption, something we are told – and we evaluate the result. If it goes well, our confidence in this increases and we are prepared to trust it further. This is how confidence differs from fundamentalist belief. When “faith” is mentioned in Buddhism, it is a faith we build, trusting our own experience. Otherwise, nothing ventured, nothing gained.
How do you deal with a panoply of religious figures, foreign to your upbringing, sporting various numbers of arms, heads, and skin colours, looming large in what otherwise seems to be a logical and effective path to liberating truth? You decide.
(Written in response to Lama Shenpen Hookham’s talk on “Vaster Vision” of 10 Nov 2018, available on youtube.com)
What do you think? Your comments are welcome!
P. S. These questions beg another question: what do we mean by a “real person” anyway? The idea of a person as a fixed entity does not match the truth of a changing mind and body dependent upon other minds and on physical circumstances. What is a “person” if they can be reborn from one form and set of circumstances into another? This is getting close to the question of ‘What happens to Buddhas after they die?’, which the Buddha declined to answer. Would the question of Awakened Beings still be a problem if we realised we are imagining ourselves to be a real person?
Now read: What is a “real person?”