Two Old Debates Resurface

Two Old Debates Resurface

Humorous and not outdated excerpts from a 2010 Lion's Roar interview.

Debate # 1: Sudden or Gradual?

Buddhadharma: Since realization is self-existing, it is available on the spot. Yet the path is so very long. How do you reconcile that?

Dzogchen Ponlop Rinpoche: By not trying to reconcile that. [Laughter]

Buddhadharma: That’s a profound answer. Thank you.

Dzogchen Ponlop Rinpoche: You posed a good question, and I should have a good answer, but I don’t. I’m sorry. [Laughter]

Buddhadharma: I thought not reconciling the instantaneous path and the long, gradual path was the answer.

Dzogchen Ponlop Rinpoche: No. I retract that answer.

Buddhadharma: Shall we try again?

Dzogchen Ponlop Rinpoche: It is true that the Vajrayana teaches about sudden awakening, but all of those teachings are based on the idea that our mind is primordially awake, already awake. So, we discover that. That’s very different from instant gratification.

Debate #2: Can vajrayana work in today's world?

Anne Carolyn Klein: Will a few short, intense retreats ever add up to what people were able to do in Tibet?

Larry Mermelstein: I firmly believe that tantric practice is workable in the world we live in. If the Vajrayana actually began with King Indrabuti supplicating the Buddha for teach­ings that would work for him as a king, who was not will­ing or able to give up his worldliness and responsibilities, by definition that means the Vajrayana teachings ultimately are meant for householders.

Our world is moving a lot faster than it probably was back in those days and so, yes, the stresses and complexities seem to be much greater than centuries ago. But so what? The very choicelessness of it is good for us. We have to do everything we can to incorporate the teachings on a continual basis in our lives, knowing full well that many of us may not have a lot of time for intense long retreat—though at times we might have some semblance of that. The teachings are geared to being applicable in our lives, as they are. It’s extremely work­able. We have thousands of people currently engaged in that experiment in the West. Many of us, as Rinpoche was saying earlier, do experience the frustration of wanting it to be better, but that is the essence of path.

Dzogchen Ponlop Rinpoche: The Buddha’s response to King Indrabuti’s request clearly indicates that the tantric path is meant primar­ily for lay practitioners. In many of the mahasiddha stories, their families also begin to thoroughly engage in a Vajrayana practice. They manifest in many walks of life: as a carpen­ter, bartender, or farmer like Marpa. Khenpo Rinpoche has taught that it is primarily a yogi tradition. Of course we can be monastic yogis, but in many ways these methods are more suitable for lay practitioners, lay yogis and yoginis.

Anne Carolyn Klein: Even if we feel that tantra is a workable path for householder yogis and yoginis, we still need to work with time management. It helps if we can constantly reflect on what is meaningful in life, and how precious time is. That is an extremely significant ongoing support for practice. It refreshes us. In the end almost any amount of practice is going to be beneficial. It’s not all or nothing. There’s a black-and-white thinking that can intrude. If I can’t be the next Milarepa, why bother? It’s always worthwhile to do what is possible and we need to get over the superstar, overachiever syndrome.


Dzogchen Ponlop Rinpoche is a meditation master, scholar and author in the Nyingma and Kagyu schools of Tibetan Buddhism. He is the founder of Nalandabodhi.

Anne Carolyn Klein is Professor of Religious Studies at Rice University in Houston, Texas and co-founding director and resident teacher at Dawn Mountain.

Larry Mermelstein is director of the Nalanda Translation Committee and a retired acharya in Shambhala International.

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