Yanas, contradictions, and understanding

Yanas do not conflict

Image of duck boat courtesy Wikimedia Commons

“Yanas” are approaches within Buddhism. Different yanas appear to contradict each other. On this page, I discuss some implications of that.

If you are unfamiliar with the three yanas Sutra, Tantra, and Dzogchen, I would recommend the page “An uncommon perspective” on the Aro web site. (It uses the word “yana” only at the end, but its topic is their differing principles.) For a more extensive explanation, I have found this book exceptionally useful.

“Yana” means “vehicle.” A yana takes you from one place to another, spiritually. Which yana you should use depends on where you are and where you want to go. A submarine is a good way to get from shore to the bottom of the ocean. It is a bad way to get from Denver to Chicago. An airplane would be better. You can use an airplane to get to the bottom of the ocean, but I don’t recommend it.

In the same way, yanas are incompatible. They are all valid, but you can only use one at a time. Each yana has a few fundamental principles, which are entirely different.

When you read a Buddhist book or web page, or hear a Buddhist talk, it is critical to know which yana is acting as the framework of the discussion. A statement based on the principles of one yana often appears false or nonsensical if you try to understand it using the principles of another yana. This leads to serious confusion, or even yana shock.

violently insane . . . spaced-out blather

This is especially true when a student understands Sutra (general Buddhism) but not yet Tantra or Dzogchen. Tantra and Dzogchen each have their own beautiful logic. If you do not understand the logic of Tantra, it is likely to sound violently insane. Almost everything in Tantra is forcefully opposite to Sutra. If you do not understand the logic of Dzogchen, it is likely to sound like the spaced-out blather of a stoned hippie.

In order to understand Vajrayana (Tantra and Dzogchen), it is necessary to understand the relationship between truth and methods in Buddhism. The Buddhist perspective is that the contradictory statements of the various yanas are not a problem, because they are methods, not ultimate truths. It is also necessary to understand the principles that underlie each yana.

why it all makes sense

Aro Lamas frequently explain how specific teachings relate to the principles of particular yanas. This is one of the most distinctive features of the Aro tradition’s teaching style, in my experience. I have found it enormously helpful in getting to understand how the whole of Buddhism fits together and why it all makes sense.

The Aro Lamas teach all the yanas, but especially concentrate on Dzogchen. (On another page, I explain why this emphasis on Dzogchen is important to me.)

fake, crazy, or evil

Lamas of all traditions generally teach mainly one yana. This can lead to unfortunate hostility between students of different Lamas. If one Lama teaches mainly Sutra, his students may understand mainly only Sutra. If another Lama teaches mainly Tantra, her students may understand mainly only Tantra. When students of the two Lamas meet, they cannot understand each other. Practically everything one of the Lamas said appears to contradict what the other one said. Soon the students may be hurling insults at each other and accusing each others’ Lamas of being fake, crazy, or evil. The Lamas themselves might have complete respect for each other, because they understand the principle that yanas do not actually conflict.

The Aro tradition teaches mostly Dzogchen, which is the least widely understood yana. That is one reason some people are confused about it. They do not understand that statements by Aro Lamas are perfectly accurate—as Dzogchen—even though they contradict Sutra or Tantra.