Comments on “Essential Buddhism”

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Just so I don't get confused,

Just so I don't get confused, you say that the fundamental principles and functions are key, but those are only understood in relationship to phases and only the first few phases are taught on the web site:

1. Friend $40/year
2. Membership $40/month
3. Apprentice ? $
4. [Mentor]
5. [Lama]

Am I right in assuming that the details of the "phases" and their appropriate principles and functions are all kept secret until a person is committed to each new level.

I am sure if they are "secret", there is a fitting rationale as to exactly why they should be secret.

Is that fairly accurate?

Phases of Aro

Did I say that the fundamental Buddhist principles and functions are understood only in relationship to phases? (I couldn't find that in this page.) I'm not sure what I would have meant. I can't think of a way it would be true, offhand.

You have all the phases there, except for ordination—not all ordained people are in the teacher-training program, or "mentors."

There's no set fee for apprenticeship. It's on a "what you can reasonably afford" basis. The principle is that if you want to have a teacher who teaches full-time, and who has enough time to devote individual attention to students, they can't realistically have more than about 100 students (and none of the Aro Lamas currently has more than 70). That means that if the teacher is to have an average income, every student will need to donate something like 1-5% of their income to the Lamas. This is kind of a brute mathematical fact... There is no specific percent-of-income guideline, either, but that's what it takes.

Oh, hmm, maybe you were referring to the principles and functions of each phase, rather than of Buddhism itself. There's nothing secret about the principles and functions of the phases. (As far as I know—I'm not ordained—but I spend so much time with ordained people that I think I'd probably know if there were significant secrets I don't know about.)

The only secrets in Aro are the details of some "advanced" practices. I wrote about that here.

The principles and functions of the phases, briefly:

Friend: small annual donation to a cause you support, plus small extra opportunity for interaction with the sangha. There's a Friends-only web forum, and we have occasional Friends-only events.

Member: direct personal advice from a mentor in the teacher training program, for those who have specific personal questions about their meditation practice.

Apprentice: substantial in-person contact with Lamas, plus attendance at two annual apprentice-only retreats. This is the phase at which you are committed for the time being to Aro as your main spiritual/religious approach. You are expected to devote some time and energy to helping make the sangha work (e.g. organizing events, doing the books, working on web sites, putting up flyers, etc.)

Ordained: permanent life-time commitment to the lineage. There's quite a lot of details about what that entails ("The Fourteen Root Vows"), which was traditionally secret in Tantra. It's the same (with very minor variations) in Aro as in other Tantric lineages. After this material was made public by people from other lineages, the Aro teachers started teaching it publicly. Rig'dzin Dorje's book Dangerous Friend covers some aspects. There's another book in preparation that explains the whole thing.

Teacher training: partly this is being actively useful in teaching the public; partly it is preparation for being a Lama.

Lama: can give Vajrayana transmission; is more focused than teachers-in-training on the person as a whole, rather than being just a source of information and techniques.

Mentors

That was incredibly helpful. But a few more clarifying questions.
Here is how I understand the main "study" process:

  • Friend: study on closed website and 'friends-only retreats when they happen [and if close enough]
  • Member: under Mentors
  • Apprentice: study with Lama
  • Ordained: under Lama
  • Teacher: under Lama
  • Lama: this is the main teachers except they study under root lamas and each other?
  • So, my question, in which 'phase' is a "Mentor"? How are mentors chosen? I understand that by attending meetings, friends meet Lamas and thus can ask for the best fit Lama to study under as an Apprentice, but what about "members"?

    Thank you

The principles and functions of the phases

It seems you are using "The principles and functions" phrase differently, or I am confused.
Above you said, "The principles and functions of the phases"
I get that what you list in this comment are the social functions of the phases, but I would imagine that:
(1) "principles" is a broader term which discusses insight into the dharma or skills sought during a phase -- apart from all the structual, institutional functions.
(2) "functions" has another meaning too - the applications psychologically of principles gained through the practices introduced in the different phases.

Am I confused?
"Principles and Functions" seems so central to Aro and this site, I would think a more clear page (possibly in simple outline, rather than paragraphs) which illustrated these uses would be most helpful. Otherwise, up to now in my reading they seem only hinted at without clarity. But then, I might be a sloppy reader (no false humility intended). Thanx.

Phases

Mostly "Friend" is just an opportunity to make a small donation to the Aro charitable organizations. But yes, there is the web forum where you can get answers to questions. We don't make any promises about that, but in practice you're likely to get fairly prompt replies, usually from someone better qualified than me...

Regarding Lamas: yes.

There's a confusing terminological duplication -- "Mentors" are the same people as "ordained sangha in the teacher training program".

I'm not sure when you say "how are they chosen" whether you mean "how is it determined who goes into the teacher training program" or if you mean "how does a member choose a mentor"?

The Lamas choose who goes into the teacher training program. There aren't any explicit criteria, that I know of. All of them are people who have been ordained for several years (sometimes decades) and are consistently serious practitioners. Beyond that, I suspect it's mostly a matter of interest on the part of the potential teacher.

There's a list of the teachers-in-training (= "mentors") here. Members can ask for anyone on the list, and normally they would be paired with the person they asked for. Rarely, a teacher might be fully booked or otherwise unavailable. (If there were someone you had in mind, we can check whether they are available ahead of time.)

Phases

Yes, I was rushed and being sloppy, probably. And yes, I've been thinking that I should write more about "principle and function" and what that means.

However: no, the fundamental principles aren't connected with phases at all. Those are all totally available to anyone. They are not specific to Aro in any way.

Specific practices are mostly not connected with phases either. Among the Tibetan traditions, Nyingma (which Aro is a part of) is the most "liberal" with regards to access to practices. The Sarma (non-Nyingma) Schools generally have fairly strict linear curricula; you have to do this before that, then get permission for the next thing, and so forth. Nyingma Lamas tend to be willing to teach almost anything to almost anyone who sincerely wants to learn it.

Some things do have prerequisites, but those rarely involve what "phase" you are in. The prerequisites are functional: you have to have done enough of practice X for practice Y to be useful to you.

In case this is a concern: in Aro, there is never any charge for teaching a particular practice or doctrine. In particular, there is not a series of increasingly expensive stages you have to go through to get to the good stuff.

We do have to charge for attendance at most events, because we have to somehow pay the rent on the venue. On average, our events run at a loss; the difference is made up by donations. For many events (not all, depending on logistics) the charge can be reduced in cases of financial need.

There's no correlation between the charge for an event and how "advanced" the teachings are.

Charges

That clears it up and is as I thought it might be.
Clarifying about Nyingma and Sarma helped a lot too. The Finances sound very straight forward -- not what I would expect from a "cult". This is not looking very cultish yet -- just very unusual. :- )
Writing a page about Aro Finances where you make it as transparent as you are doing here would be a very valuable page for those "approaching" Aro (using this site, that is).
Also, One page listing "Phases of Training" with costs, who is who and links to Lamas and Mentors etc would be cool too.
(in all your spare time).

The transformative essence

Rufus's picture

As a work in progress, I am currently convinced that the essence of what is transformative for people can be found in the following 4 aspects of Buddhism:
1. Enabling people to live more consciously.
2. Enabling people to live in a non-escapist fashion
3. Enabling people to overcome intoxication (in the technical Buddhist sense of the term)
4. Enabling people to transcend the illusion of the separate self