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On Prejudice, Vajrayana, and the Perception of “Otherness”

Introduction by José M. Tirado (‘ö-Zér Jamgön Dorje)

Across the world today, racism and prejudice are on the rise. In India, the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has fostered a renascent form of Hindu nationalism, creating an atmosphere in which millions of Muslim citizens are frightened for their safety. In the United States, Mexican Americans and other Latino Americans are routinely demonized as talk of tightening border controls and continuing demeaning characterizations of them by US President Donald Trump and members of his administration have emboldened acts of violence across the country. Across Europe, in Poland and Hungary, as well as in the UK, France, and elsewhere, fear of immigration and the rise of anti-Islamic and anti-Semitic violence and rhetoric are alarming. How should Buddhists respond? This is a question I have considered for more than 30 years and have attempted to answer in some ways in my work as a social activist and writer.

Here, Ngak’chang Rinpoche and Khandro Déchen, spiritual directors of the Aro gTér lineage of the Nyingma tradition of Tibetan Buddhism, offer one response. It is distinctly not one of “engaged” Buddhist practice, nor is it a secularized or psychologized version of the traditional teachings. Instead, it is an attempt to address this phenomenon exclusively from the Dzogchen view of Vajrayana, and is therefore a valuable contribution and perspective worthy of consideration to Buddhist readers and others.

Aro gTér is a small, yet lively sangha of the “go kar chang lo´i de,” the Vajrayana “white-skirt, long-haired” tradition of non-celibate ordination. Since 1971, Ngak’chang Rinpoche has been a student of a number of eminent Lamas, including Kyabjé Düd’jom Rinpoche, Dilgo Khyentsé Rinpoche, Künzang Dorje Rinpoche, Jomo Sam’phel Déchen, and Chhi’mèd Rig’dzin Rinpoche. He and his wife Khandro Déchen have been teaching since 1979 and are the authors of a number of books, including Shock Amazement (2020), Entering the Heart of the Sun and Moon (2012), and others. — JMT

Ngak’chang Rinpoche and Khandro Déchen, spiritual directors of the Aro gTér lineage
Ngak’chang Rinpoche and Khandro Déchen, spiritual directors of the Aro gTér lineage

Fear of otherness lies at the root of prejudice. From the point of view of dualized derangement, nothing is as “other” or dissimilar as the non-dual state. From the perspective of non-duality, therefore, one is prejudiced against one’s own natural state. Vajrayana is based on the experience of identification with the “otherness of emptiness.” “Otherness,” therefore holds no fear for those who practice according to the Vajrayana principle of transformation.

Tantrikas develop vajra pride which—because it is founded on emptiness—allows the possibility of assuming infinite forms of otherness: otherness of color; otherness of shape; otherness of gender; and otherness of disposition. Emptiness allows limitless varieties of “otherness.” Every variant of vajra-otherness is a glorious manifestation of non-duality when it sparkles through the appearance of every permutation of humanity.

Fear of otherness lies at the root of prejudice. From the point of view of duality, nothing is as “other” or dissimilar as non-duality. From the perspective of non-duality, “prejudice against the natural state” is the expected outcome of dualistic derangement.

In the condition of dualistic estrangement from emptiness, the beginningless non-dual state becomes alien, and therefore antagonism to its “otherness” arises in opposition to every form it assumes. From the basis of this primitive antagonism, every type of prejudice arises: racial discrimination, gender-chauvinism, homophobia, sectarianism, religious bigotry, myopic conservative bias, intolerance, insularity, fanaticism, xenophobia, and narrow-mindedness.

Within the self-created field of dualistic bewilderment, “that which is natural” seems unnatural and “that which is dualistically divisive” is seen as natural and normal. On the basis of this primitive prejudice against non-dual reality, all other forms of prejudice arise: prejudices against race, ethnicity, gender, physiognomy, sexual orientation, religion, nationality, class, intellectual capacity, age, and appearance—ad nauseam. Whatever variation of distinguishing “that” from “this” that has existed in the world, prejudice has existed with regard to it.

It is evident from this that the focus of prejudice is always “empty of the causes for prejudice.” The only cause of prejudice is fear of otherness. Although prejudice—as a distorted aspect of experience—is a phenomenon which people of good heart and humanity have sought to eliminate, it persists. Prejudice persists and will persist for as long as beings remain in ignorance of the non-dual state.

It is well known within Sutrayana that one practices for the benefit of all sentient beings, so Buddhists of all traditions cultivate the loving-kindness that one feels toward one’s mother; toward everyone, and everything, everywhere. This compassionate view with regard to renouncing prejudice toward other beings is well understood and, moreover, exists in only slightly differing forms in every religion. The compassion-view of Sutrayana is well understood. What is less well known (with regard to prejudice and the undermining of prejudice) is the view of Vajrayana.

Vajrayana begins with the premise that dualism is a state of prejudice against non-duality. On the basis of this prejudice against non-duality, infinite forms of prejudice will manifest in order to obfuscate non-duality.

The tantric phase of Vajrayana employs the dimension of symbolism in limitless ways because, as dualized beings, we are symbols of ourselves. We do not experience ourselves as real—while we cling to duality—and therefore what we experience ourselves to be is always symbolic of what we actually are. One exists within a dimension of mundane symbolism, but one is also a symbol of non-duality. One is a symbol of non-duality because the dualistic condition is merely a distortion of non-duality. Vajrayana employs extraordinary symbols in order to transform mundane symbols.

Although dualized beings are symbolic of “the real condition,” these symbols are radiant with the energy of non-duality. Beings may exist in a state of dualistic distortion, but that which is distorted is a distorted version of non-duality. Because of this, it is possible to employ the energy of duality to transform “what seems to be” into “what actually is.”

Beings are self-secret buddhas and the powerful methodology of Vajrayana enables the realization of this through the empty form of the yidam. From the perspective of the visionary practices of Vajrayana, it is possible to transform every aspect of prejudice against otherness—of every possible description.

Within Vajrayana there are two styles in which the yidam is practiced: external arising and self-arising (Tib: kyé-rim and dzog-rim). These two phases are also known as the development stage and the completion phaseKyé-rim is the visualization phase in which the yidam externally arises. Dzog-rim is the completion phase in which practitioners self-arise as the yidam. Both styles of visualization are central to the ecstatic and vivid appreciation of otherness.

In order to approach the otherness or “foreignness” of non-duality, it is necessary to approach individual identity through the medium of pure vision. Pure vision requires entry into the symbolic world of empty-form, in which practitioners either perceive or become the yidam. To effectuate such a transformation, there must be no obstacle to devotion toward the visualized form. The form of the yidam is none other than the lama from whom transmission has been received.

The yidam therefore—whatever the hue, gender, or appearance—must never be separate from devotion to the lama. The yidam is an anthropomorphic/andropomorphic symbol of non-duality, through which the dualistic condition is able to dissolve into luminous recognition of non-duality.

The purpose of symbolism is to transform the dualistically deranged symbols of conditioning into the non-dual symbols of the yidams—and the kyil’khor, or non-dual environment of the yidam. The yidam takes infinite forms because there are endless styles of misconstruing non-duality. These myriad forms, however, are classified into three groups: peaceful, joyous, and wrathful. These three are associated with the three distracted tendencies of the dualized condition: indifference, attraction, and aversion. There are also body types associated with these categories: peaceful forms are thin; joyous forms are voluptuous; and wrathful forms are powerfully large.

Because it is common for Vajrayana practitioners to receive empowerments into all three categories of yidam, it is necessary for practitioners to have a vital and vigorous appreciation of each form—in whatever color, gender, body type, or mode of appearance the yidam displays. Because devotion to the form of the yidam is crucial to Vajrayana, there can be no consideration with regard to negative aesthetic considerations.

If practicing external arising in order to receive the wisdom of the yidam, the yidam must be envisioned with pure vision. If the yidam is seen as visually unattractive, unpleasing, gross, or hideous, how can such a being be approached with the possibility of realizing non-duality? To practice self-arising in order to experience the non-dual nature of the yidam, practitioners must self-arise as the yidam and develop the vajra pride of being the yidam. If the yidam is apprehended as visually unattractive, unpleasing, gross, or hideous, how can the qualities of non-dual space arise through wearing the body of visions?

Seng-gé Dongma is a lion-headed dakini with pendulous, bathykolpian breasts. How can she be visualized as a yidam if her form is found repulsive in everyday life? Unless the sensuous glory and power of such a woman in everyday life can be appreciated, how can Seng-gé Dongma be approached with pure vision? Dorje Tröllö is the wisdom-chaos manifestation of Guru Rinpoche. He has a voluminous, sagging belly and a hideous, snarling grimace. How can he be visualized as a yidam if similar appearances in the world cause revulsion?

If practitioners revile their own bodies—and they happen to have forms similar to wrathful yidams—how can they have devotion to such yidams? How can practitioners arise as female yidams while having prejudice against women? How can practitioners arise as male yidams while having prejudice against men? How can practitioners arise as Tröma Nakmo, the Black Wrathful Mother, while having prejudice against people who reflect the color of Tröma Nakmo—black? How can practitioners arise as Yeshé Tsogyel while having prejudice against people who reflect the color of Yeshé Tsogyel? How can practitioners arise as any of the Seng-gé Dongmas while having prejudice against people who reflect the color of the Seng-gé Dongmas? She manifests in yellow, white, red, green, and blue forms. All human beings are included in her color display.

There is only one answer to these questions: people cannot be practitioners of Vajrayana if they have prejudice against any style of human manifestation. 

Yidams can appear conventionally beautiful or conventionally ugly. Yidams can appear as young or old. Yidams can appear as conventionally well-formed or conventionally misshapen. Yidams can even manifest the appearance of impediment—they can lack eyes and display a single breast, in the style of Mamo Ékajati. The forms are innumerable and even the forms that are known to exist represent no limitation on the forms which could exist in the future through the agency of gTérma.

Because all people are symbols of non-duality, there can be no form of human who is not essentially sacred according to the pure vision of Vajrayana. Although people have predilections with regard to what is attractive, they need to implement a vision of wider scope in terms of how they see the world and those many humans who ornament its environment. Practitioners can accept the limits of their styles of appreciation for what they are—there is no need to crush individuality—but as practitioners of Vajrayana, they need to recognize that they have to be able to take their pure vision of their yidam practice into the nirmanakaya—the sphere of realized manifestation. They need to practice to become open to the dimension of the everyday world as nirmanakaya, in terms of the kyil’khor (epicenter and periphery/mandala) of the yidam.

Those people who surround us in our world-kyil’khor are all essentially yidams. Everyone is a potential buddha, and therefore their forms are the forms which symbolize buddhas. To manifest the vajra pride of yidams, practitioners need to recognize that the forms of their yidams are sacred. In being sacred forms, the forms of all beings are therefore equally sacred in terms of the pure vision of Vajrayana.

Although we have individual personalities and predilections, it is not possible—as Vajrayana practitioners—to choose yidams that accord with personal preferences. The lama might find such choices inappropriate. Practitioners, therefore, might find themselves practicing yidams that they find relatively displeasing.

Practitioners cannot even agree to view the yidam with pure vision in the special context of practice, while despising forms that resemble the yidam in everyday life. This would be utterly divisive. It would betray the damtsig (vows) established with the lama. The practice must be incorporated. Practitioners must arise as the yidam and celebrate every manifestation of their yidam’s appearance in the world. Practitioners endeavor to experience all vision as the kyil’khor of the yidam, and to experience all sounds as the mantra of the yidam. Practitioners cannot retire into abstractions: keeping the yidam in one compartment and prejudices in another. This is not possible if one is to practice as an authentic practitioner.

Vajra pride in becoming the yidam precludes all forms of prejudice.

See moreAro gTér Lineage
Drala Jong (Facebook)

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