Learning from other traditions

Bodhidharma, founder of Zen

Bodhidharma, founder of Zen

Reading in other traditions

I find it important to keep a balance between meditating and reading Buddhist books. There are times when I am greedy for one or the other. Then I either practice for hours a day, or gobble down every book on Madhyamaka I can find. But it works best when I both read and meditate. Books supply both understanding and inspiration. Without clear understanding of a practice, it’s possible to miss the point. Hard work with the wrong approach goes nowhere. On the other hand, intellectual understanding of a practice without thorough experience like reading the menu without eating the meal.

For Aro students, the books of our own lineage are the most important. But they are still few, and they can cover only a fraction of the ocean of Dharma. All Aro students read widely in other traditions as well. The recommended books page on our public web site includes authors from three of the four major Tibetan Buddhist Schools, plus Zen and Bön. These books are excellent starting points for anyone interested in Vajrayana Buddhism, and especially Aro Friends, Members, and anyone attending our weekend public retreats.

Not only do these cover topics for which Aro books are not yet available, they describe the same material from a different perspective. The Aro web site recommends Lama Yeshe’s Introduction to Tantra, and Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche’s Cutting Through Spiritual Materialism, even though they say much the same things about many of the same topics as Ngakpa Chögyam’s Wearing the Body of Visions. It is valuable to read all three because they provide (respectively) Geluk, Kagyüd, and Nyingma perspectives. Each also shows its author’s intense, brilliant, and utterly unique personality display. Each one deepens the understanding provided by the other two. (It is only by coincidence that the Sakya School is not represented on our public reading list; it is included in the list of books recommended for Aro apprentices.)

Classes and retreats in other traditions

For more committed students, such as Aro apprentices, receiving intensive teaching individually and in small-group situations is even more important than study. We attend retreats with our Lamas for most of a week, twice a year. That takes a substantial fraction of time off work for many of us, and it is often not practical to attend any other teachings.

However, classes and retreats with teachers of other traditions can again provide a useful alternate perspectives. The Aro Lamas recommend that their apprentices check with them before receiving such teachings, to clarify in advance possible confusions about apparent yana conflicts. From point of view of Dzogchen, all Buddhist teachings are equally valid; yet they may appear to contradict each other. Once a student has a sufficient grasp of principles and functions, truth and methods, this is no longer a potential problem.

Last week (early May 2008), I attended a retreat with Traga Rinpoche organized by the Drikung Dzogchen Community of Vermont. Traga Rinpoche is a master of the Yangzab Dzogchen lineage of the Drikung Kagyüd. I had been curious for some time about these teachings, because the Drikung Kagyüd are the closest “cousin” tradition to the Nyingma. I found descriptions of their presentation of Dzogchen intriguingly different from and similar to the Nyingma presentations I was familiar with from experience with Chögyal Namkha’i Norbu Rinpoche and with the Aro tradition. My Lamas encouraged me to attend a retreat with him to learn more. Although I found the intellectual content familiar, it was inspiring to see the different style of presentation. I will carry that inspiration into the “open retreat” I have planned for the rest of this month.

On quite a different note, for months now I have been attempting to attend classes or retreat with Brad Warner, an unusual Zen master whose blogs I admire. His Soto perspective is quite different from the Nyingma one. Yet, at a deeper level, the two schools seem to point in the same direction. He always manages to be where I am not; but I will catch up with him eventually.