Although we all have an intuitive feeling for specialness and ordinariness, they are not easy to define. Specialness—as I am using the word—is not merely “extraordinary” or “better than most.” Nor is ordinariness just “what is common.”

Specialness is often confused with extraordinariness. Some people are extraordinary. They are talented, famous, beautiful, or accomplished, in ways others are not. Often they are mistakenly thought of as special. Maybe they can even convince themselves they are special—some of the time.

No amount of talent, fame, beauty, or accomplishment can make you feel consistently special, though. Extraordinary people feel ordinary much of the time. That can be highly disappointing. It is not possible to become special through our own actions, by doing something extraordinary.

The problem is that extraordinariness never manages to escape into the transcendent. People vary as to how strong or clever they are—but that is just something that happens, as a matter of ordinary variation. And talent, fame, beauty, and accomplishment fade—whereas it seems specialness should be eternal.

So what is specialness, then? A special person is singled out, from birth, for a particular role in the cosmic plan. Their life-course is laid out in the plan in a special way, giving it a special meaning and value. That does not depend on any objective, personal characteristics—although we might mistake those as evidence of specialness.

Since there is no cosmic plan to choose special people, there are no special people. It is actually impossible for anyone to be special.

That might be depressing, if the only alternative to being special was to be ordinary. Luckily, there are other possibilities.

Specialness in Buddhism

No matter how many years you sit doing zazen, you will never become anything special.
—Zen Master Kodo Sawaki

Some of us become Buddhists partly as a way to become special. This is especially true in Vajrayana Buddhism. We hope that esoteric practices can somehow make us special, or bring out the hidden specialness we already had. Since it is not actually possible to be special, this distorts our motivation and practice. It can be seriously counter-productive.

We also want our teachers to be special. We may have the idea that somehow their specialness will rub off on us. Or, if we do everything they say, maybe they can grant us specialness too. In the Tibetan tradition, lamas, tulkus, and tertons are particularly regarded as special. This distorts the teacher/student relationship. Also, if we discover that a teacher is not special, we might jump to the conclusion that they are ordinary. That could be a horrible disappointment. We might become angry at the teacher and look at him or her with disdain.

In fact, a special teacher would be of no use, at least in Inner Tantra. Inner Tantra aims at full realization. In Inner Tantra, the teacher functions as a role model, which is why we view our Lamas as Buddhas. If the teacher were special, and we weren’t, they couldn’t be a role model—unless they could magically make us special. But Buddhism is a do-it-yourself religion; no one can accomplish it for you.

In Outer Tantra, the teacher is viewed as special, and that is a key part of the method. There is a story about this in Tulku Urgyen’s Blazing Splendor. The Karmapa came to visit an aristocratic family in Sikkim. Some family members concluded that “It would have been much better if the Karmapa had never come here. He wasn’t a Buddha after all! We cooked his food and we saw that he ate it. Later, we looked in the toilet after he had been there and we saw what was lying inside the bowl! So, realizing that he is just a human being, we have now lost half of our faith.” Tulku Urgyen says that “they had expected him to be a deity without a real physical body.”

In fact, there is nothing special about a Buddha. A Buddha is extraordinary, because Buddhas are rare, and because they can do interesting, useful things other people can’t. But they are not singled out by a cosmic plan, and have no defined destiny. They live and die like everyone else, and their future is as uncertain as anyone’s.