Open secret

A transparent tradition

Ronseal” is a brand of transparent wood treatment. It is famous for the slogan “does exactly what it says on the tin.” Aro is like that—and, unlike Ronseal, it contains absolutely no castor oil.

Internal and external reasons for secrecy

Vajrayana Buddhism was traditionally secret—at least in theory. Its practices and doctrines were reserved for those who had undergone suitable initiation rituals. These might be difficult to get—depending on who you were.

There are many different reasons Vajrayana was secret. That is a fascinating topic, but I am resisting the urge to go into detail. Instead, I will suggest that there are key internal and external reasons for secrecy. The internal reasons have to do with the principles and functions of Vajrayana itself. External reasons have to do with the historical, cultural, social, and political environment surrounding Vajrayana.

The biggest external reason for secrecy was that Vajrayana has always been subject to political oppression. Even where it was the official state religion, its expression was extensively regulated and censored by the powerful. This has meant that some aspects, at least, of Vajrayana always had to be hidden in Asia.

disastrous Buddhas

Vajrayana is seen as dangerous by rulers because it empowers individuals. At worst, it produces Buddhas. That can be disastrous. Buddhas disrupt smooth institutional functioning. They pop up out of nowhere, are accountable to no one, teach strange dangerous ideas, inspire fanatical devotion among their followers, and may act as an independent political force that cannot be predicted or controlled.

an open buffet

The Nyingma tradition has had almost no political power for the past thousand years. Perhaps for that reason, it has the least interest in secrecy among the Tibetan Buddhist Schools. The other (Sarma) Schools generally have a set, linear curriculum. Each stage was revealed only when you have mastered the previous one. Nyingma teachers (including the Aro lamas) tend toward a more freewheeling approach. They present an open buffet of doctrines and practices, from which students (in consultation with their teachers) choose depending on their preferences and abilities.

Both of these approaches are valid. Each may be more appropriate for particular sorts of students. That brings us to the most important of the internal reasons for secrecy.

More exciting if you don’t read ahead

Some Vajrayana concepts make no sense until you completely understand others, or until you have sufficient meditation experience. Some Vajrayana practices are useless until you have sufficient understanding and experience. Therefore, there is a natural loose sequence to the Vajrayana teachings.

There is an advantage to not knowing about a stage of understanding and practice until you are ready for it. If you wait until you are ready, it is fresh and exciting and perhaps a bit shocking. It has more impact. The buffet approach is like getting all your presents at once, without wrapping paper. You might look everything over excitedly and then walk away. This is the biggest internal reason for secrecy.

On the other hand, there is also an advantage to “reading ahead in the book.” The first several stages of Buddhist study and practice can be a long boring slog—years of preliminary work before you get to the good bits. (Depending on your personality, of course. I’ve found all the stages of Buddhism I’ve encountered to be enjoyable, but people differ.) Having something to look forward to can provide inspiration in the early stages. This is particularly true in Western cultures that provide no social encouragement for Buddhism.

Vajrayana secrecy today

The external reasons for secrecy are irrelevant in the West. In democratic countries, we do not have to worry about persecution by governments. Other Buddhists are the main opponents of Vajrayana traditions; and they can usually be politely ignored.

Liberal Tibetans recognized this 25 years ago. As a result, Vajrayana secrecy is mostly gone. Pioneers like Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche and Chögyal Namkhai Norbu Rinpoche taught openly in the West doctrines and practices that were reserved for the elite in Tibet. At first, they got a lot of flak from more conservative Tibetan lamas. Now everyone recognizes that the genie is permanently out of the bottle, for better or worse. English-language books contain general explanations (at minimum) of all major doctrines and practices.

What remain secret are the details of specific versions of practices. This is to make it impossible to do the practice without having received “transmission” from a qualified teacher. For example, any large bookstore has detailed explanations of how yidam practice works. Each yidam, however, has a mantra, and usually a chanted sadhana text. You need those to actually practice the yidam. Mantras and sadhanas are mostly unique to specific traditions, and are mainly kept secret.

Transparency and secrecy in Aro

The Aro gTér is one of the best-documented Vajrayana lineages. In addition to several books, the Aro web sites have thousands of pages of information. This is a “what you see is what you get” situation. Like Ronseal, it simply does what it says on the web site.

That is helpful, because it makes it easier to decide whether the Aro tradition is a “good fit” for you. It could take much more effort to decide whether some other traditions, about which little is publicly known, are a good fit.

The Aro Lamas have been careful not to reveal publicly anything that has not previously been revealed by ethnically Tibetan lamas. However, now that virtually everything is public, secrets within the Aro tradition are limited to details of practices, such as the words of mantras.