Where Mahayana and Vajrayana Meet

PTC Monastery was graced with a visit last Saturday, September 15, from Master Hai Tao, a master of Mahayana Buddhism from Taiwan. He came to meet Lama Norlha Rinpoche and to see the Maitreya Center, our new monastery building currently under construction.

The Maitreya Center is unique in that it incorporates both a traditional Vajrayana and a traditional Mahayana shrine room. The construction of the building’s exterior is nearly complete, while the inside is framed out just enough that the dimensions of the respective shrine rooms are visible. A shrine had been set up in each of these spaces, overflowing with offerings and adorned with pictures of Buddhas. Master Hai Tao and his entourage toured the Maitreya Center with Rinpoche and paid homage at each of the shrines. It was a very touching moment of pure devotion shared across cultures and traditions.

Master Hai Tao also gave a Dharma talk, translated from Chinese to English, in a spacious white tent facing the Maitreya Center, to an audience of about 150 people, including 60 visitors from Taiwan along with monastics, guests and volunteers from the PTC community. He remarked several times on our beautiful and auspicious view of the Hudson River and on the many trees on the PTC property and across the river.

He encouraged us to view all other beings with compassion and to devote our lives to working for their benefit—as both he and Lama Norlha Rinpoche have done with a degree of selflessness to which most of us can only aspire in this lifetime. It was clear from his words that his tradition and ours have much in common, and this was also evident when we all performed a fire offering together later in the afternoon.

First we chanted our daily Vajrayana sur offering for the benefit of beings in Tibetan, and then Master Hai Tao and his students chanted the Heart Sutra several times in Chinese. Mantras in both traditions are recited in Sanskrit, and it was  thrilling when we discovered ourselves all chanting the same words in unison. It was also thrilling and very touching when Master Hai Tao led us in the traditional chanting of “Karmapa chenno” at the end of his teaching, paying homage to the spiritual leader of the Karma Kagyu lineage.

One thing Master Hai Tao said particularly resonated with me: “Sometimes our need for privacy may get in the way of our compassion.” I’ve been mulling that one over this week in light of my own habitual patterns, and finding that it rings true for me.

In his teaching on the Bodhisattva Vow in his book The Heart of the Buddha, Chögyam Trungpa says, “Taking this mahayana approach of benevolence means giving up privacy and developing a sense of greater vision. Rather than focusing on our own little projects, we expand our vision immensely to embrace working with the rest of the world, the rest of the galaxies, the rest of the universes.”

“By taking the bodhisattva vow, we open ourselves to many demands. If we are asked for help, we should not refuse….By taking the bodhisattva vow, we actually present ourselves as the property of sentient beings: depending on the situation, we are willing to be a highway, a boat, a floor, or a house….As the earth sustains the atmosphere and outer space accommodates the stars, galaxies, and all the rest, we are willing to carry the burdens of the world.”

I have always found this chapter both inspiring and a little harrowing. Trungpa Rinpoche goes on to advise us, “From the time we take the bodhisattva vow, there is no privacy….In other words, we are not leading double lives any more; we are leading a single life dedicated to practice as well as to helping other beings.”

In the Path to Buddhahood study group PTC offers to the public every Tuesday evening, a similar point was brought up the week before Master Hai Tao’s visit by one of our regular participants, in the form of a question: “If a person fails to help another being when they could do so, does that lack of action accumulate negative karma?” He gave examples ranging from missing an opportunity to save a life, to just being too busy or distracted to listen when someone needs a sympathetic ear. Usually we think of negative karma as resulting from negative actions; was this a case of negative karma, or just failure to accumulate positive karma? I didn’t feel equal to answering this question.

Fortunately, I had the opportunity to ask it of Lama Norlha Rinpoche a few days later. He said that while a lack of helpful action is not as serious as committing a harmful action, some negative karma is indeed accumulated through failing to act when one can, with the degree depending on a combination of one’s intention and the gravity of the situation one has failed to respond to. As Trungpa Rinpoche warned us, we aspiring bodhisattvas have to be aware and on call all the time!

However, as we gradually train ourselves to be less and less focused on our privacy and more and more open to the needs of others, we can look to the examples of teachers like Lama Norlha Rinpoche, Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche, and Master Hai Tao. May we continue to meet them life after life, and follow their examples as best we can.

2 thoughts on “Where Mahayana and Vajrayana Meet

  1. Dan Gussin

    The struggle for myself is how to deal with a very pressing short term goal of protecting a life balanced aganst a longer view potentail danger.

    For example – a person suffering from Alzheimer’s diease who will wander onto a busy street. Since he likes sweets we use oreo cookies, his fav treat, to redirect him to a safe place. The bad news is thaat he is also borderline diabetic so the sweets he likes, and he can tell the difference, might bump his sugar up into a unsafe range and cause him to suffer a progression of his diabetis.

    As a practiceing Buddhist this is a bit of a dilema for myself from the prespective of Karma. How can one balance the very real needs of this situation ?

  2. Yeshe Chödrön Post author

    It’s a great question. As Jamgon Kongtrul says in The Torch of Certainty, how karma works is a vast and profound topic, and only someone who has reached a high level of realization can fully understand it. The rest of us just have to do our best! It sounds like that’s what you’re doing. From my perspective, saving someone from getting hit by a car would indeed be the priority; exacerbating their diabetes with a cookie would be a smaller, more distant, and less clear-cut risk. So many situations seem to fall into a gray area, where it’s not possible to benefit someone without incurring some other harm. Rinpoche often emphasizes the importance of our intention in any given action, and your intention is obviously to do the best you can for your Alzheimer’s clients. It sounds like a very hard job, and a way to put the teachings into practice constantly.

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