This post is part of a series, beginning here.
“I have a question regarding Schuon’s claim that Vajrayana (or Kashmir Shaivism) is incompatible with the Western psyche. Isn’t it the case that Tibetan Buddhism ultimately derives from an Indo-Aryan spiritual current, mixed though this is with some of Tibet’s own Bon tradition? Such a tradition thus finds itself within the range of Indo-European religiosity and understanding of reality, like the Hinduism it is very similar to, and it is by extension related to archaic Greco-Roman traditions and to the Druids among the Celts, who as I’m sure you know are the equivalent of the Brahmins, shared a similar cosmology, and—according to Caesar—professed belief in the indestructibility of the soul (Atman) and transmigration.
“The various Indo-European pagan religions seem to all stem from a common Proto-Indo-European tradition, of which the Vedas are the earliest record but likely represent an oral tradition extending much further into pre-history, possibly as far back as 8000 BC, according to certain theorists like Bal Gangadhar Tilak. Whether we accept such a notion or not we are still left with a very archaic spiritual tradition. Of course Tantra is a much later development, but leaving aside the heterodox left-handed forms, Tantra is still quite similar to preceding forms of Indian metaphysics, seeing itself as an adaptation to the needs of the men of the Kali Yuga, who in their spiritual constitution are quite different from the men of earlier ages.”
“All this being so, why should the Eastern survivals of this form of spirituality be incompatible with the Western psyche when such traditions were once theirs as well and for a much longer time than the devotional Semitic faiths that have since replaced them? Christianity and, especially, Islam deny cyclical time, ignorance or avidya as the cause of the ‘fall’, and transmigration, while professing a doctrine of eternal heaven or hell, all of which doctrines are incompatible with the Indo-European view. Why should these traditions be too ‘heavy’ or ‘complex’ when the West has produced its own difficult metaphysics, as one finds for example in the Enneads of Plotinus, which went on to influence both Christian and Islamic mysticism? Is Schuon suggesting that only the more simplistic, devotional, or ‘bhaktic’ paths that place an emphasis on a heaven or ‘Pure Land’ are suitable for Westerners? If this is truly the case, are there no exceptions to this rule?”
The inquirer speaks of the “heaviness” or “complexity” of certain Eastern traditions. It’s important to clarify whether this is in reference to doctrinal teaching or spiritual practice. As he rightly points out, the Platonic tradition, which flowered perhaps most fully in Plotinus, is in a very real sense the Western doctrinal parallel to such Eastern metaphysical schools as Vedanta and Madhyamaka—and it’s certainly no less difficult and demanding. When it comes to practice, the question of simplicity can be misleading, for the simplest of practices can have transformative depths unknown to the aspirant until these have been personally plumbed. The Hesychast Jesus Prayer is a case in point. What could be simpler on its face? And yet this “easy” practice has repeatedly demonstrated its capacity to produce illumined and deified saints, as can be seen in such works as the anonymous Way of a Pilgrim or Metropolitan Hierotheos Vlachos’s A Night in the Desert of the Holy Mountain. It’s very shortsighted to underestimate such a practice and to go in search of more “interesting” and exotic spiritual fare; even an “Indo-Aryan” spiritual authority of the stature of Ramana Maharshi considered the simple practice of japa, performed with devotion, to be one of the most valuable supports to the practice of self-inquiry. The Ramayana makes the same point:
“In the first age of the world men crossed the ocean of existence by their spirit alone. In the second age sacrifice and ritual began, and then Rama lived, and by giving their every act to him men lived well their ways. Now in our age what is there to do but worship Rama’s feet? But my friend, the last age of this world shall be the best. For then no act has any worth, all is useless … except only to say Rama. The future will read this. Therefore I tell them, when all is in ruin around you, just say Rama. We have gone from the spiritual to the passionate. Next will come ignorance. Universal war. Say Rama and win! Time cannot touch you!”
One comes away with the impression that this inquirer may be attracted by complexity and difficulty for their own sake and may have therefore developed somewhat skewed priorities. It’s certainly understandable that the methods of Vajrayana—its visualizations, pranayamic exercises, use of mudras, etc.—might be attractive to someone who finds himself bored, as it were, by the simplicity of bhaktic faith and who wishes to submit himself to a more “technical” discipline. To such a person two things may be said in response: First, Christian and Islamic mystical traditions are far from lacking their own “technical” aspects; second, a sincere and attentive trust in “other Power”, as embodied for example in the Name of Jesus, may seem something simple … until one tries it! As for what I’ve called skewed priorities, I can imagine Schuon saying something to this effect upon reading this inquiry: “The first concern of every man should be to avoid Hell and seek Heaven’s mercy”—”Hell” here meaning simply the loss of a central state, however prolonged and whatever the samsaric imponderables. The first and by far the most important motive any serious seeker should have is a desire for salvation after death. Only when he has taken all the sacramentally necessary steps to ensure that he is in a state of grace—regardless of how merely “exoteric” these steps may seem to him—should he concern himself with seeking integral spiritual realization in this life, supposing this to be his vocation.
One more point, and this should be emphasized: The tantric teachings and practices of Tibetan Buddhism would have been taught traditionally only to monks who had taken monastic refuge vows; who were well established in the practice of the moral and ethical precepts of Buddhism, particularly those aimed at loosening the grip of the ego (bodhicitta); who were well grounded in the sutra tradition, especially with regard to understanding the emptiness and dependent co-arising of all things; and who were in a position to receive direct instruction and guidance from a rinpoche, or spiritual guide. A fine overview of such prerequisites is given in Pabongka Rinpoche’s Liberation in the Palm of Your Hand. In other words, Vajrayana tantric practices were only taught to and practiced by a “spiritual elite” under highly controlled conditions. The point to stress is that these reservations applied to Tibetans themselves, people already steeped in Buddhist culture and civilization from birth. Think how great would be the additional demands placed upon a Westerner seeking admission into so select a circle. It’s surely for this reason, among others already mentioned, that Schuon chose to write (in a letter):
“I would not advise a Western Buddhist any other path than that of the invocation of Amitâbha, whether in its Japanese or Tibetan form, assuming of course that he has a valid reason—valid in the eyes of God—for being a Buddhist and for entering upon a path so foreign to our traditional climate in the West.”