Last night I was in London for a talk by a well-known Tibetan Dzogchen teacher, Namkhai Norbu, who doesn’t visit England very often. The hall was packed with at least 300 people. I’d sort of gone along for the ride, because I’d done some of this guy’s practices about 11 years ago and found them quite powerful, and the people around him aren’t, on the whole, too earnest.
The talk was rather long and his English isn’t very good and the hall was rather hot. And I couldn’t really argue with what he had to say, particularly as he doesn’t advocate renunciation. In fact, as a re-born bigwig, he was under pressure when he was 20 to become a monk, and he stood up to the Karmapa and various other archbishops and said no, and I thought that was impressive.
He’s also been a scholar for many years, and one of his points is that the Dzogchen teachings are also to be found within the Bon tradition, which pre-dates Buddhism within Tibet; and that Dzogchen was not physically taught by the historical Buddha. When he first started saying these things, a deputation of high lamas came to see him to try and shut him up, because Tibetan Buddhism is a religion and religions like to have an exclusive hold on their teachings and do not like their authenticity questioned. But he insisted as a matter of intellectual integrity, though also for another reason: the usual story is that Buddhism came to Tibet and gave it a high, ‘spiritual’ culture that had not been there before. His Dzogchen finding contradicts this. In a way, it gives Tibetans their self-respect back, whereas the usual approach by Buddhism is to denigrate, or even demonise, the Bon tradition. This is no different in principle to how Christianity dealt with the pagan religions in Europe. As I say, religions like to have an exclusive hold on the truth. It’s about power.
The rather long talk amounted to a basic introduction to Buddhism, concluding with the Dzogchen teachings, so it was familiar ground. As I say, I didn’t feel inclined to disagree with the teachings except for one big, telling point. Apart from banging on and telling stories about the need to listen to the teachings (which kind of infantilises the audience), it was clear that Norbu thought everyone needed a path and a set of teachings, and that the Dzogchen teachings are about the best available.
I think very often we do need some sort of guidance or structure from outside ourselves, at least to start with. But there’s a very important stage that a lot of people go through of casting all that off and trusting in their own inner sense of guidance. This is what is so difficult for many people, and it is why you have religion (which performs a useful function for this earlier stage). It is why you get the Zen teaching “If you meet the Buddha on the road, kill him!” You can see people teetering on the edge of this for years, half in and half out, not quite able to stick the knife in, to give up the seeming security of what they've been doing for so long. Or you see a kind of opposite, people going from one teacher to the next, searching for something that can only be found within. Of course, as astrologers we also encounter it regularly, people looking for answers, looking to be told the future, and our job is to help them locate their answers, or better their questioning, within.
Of course, there are people who don’t need that structure in the first place. But teachers of a traditional mindset often don’t seem to properly recognise this crucial stage, whatever their other qualities. And you can’t say it to people who are following a particular path, assuming it was your business to do so, because to them it would be offensive.
The real experience of the day, for me, was seeing the ancient Assyrian and Egyptian sculptures in the British Museum, particularly the animal sculptures, mythological or otherwise. They were big, yet very finely sculpted, and fully expressed their natural power. Like the 2 stones lions, life-size, at ease in the way that only an animal that has no predators can be, yet there was no doubting the power that was ready to spring; the heads held up, looking sideways at you, regal. The animal world has all these different characters with their unique powers that can be drawn on, that we resonate with. As humans we are not confined to one expression of power but many, though we do have to go out and find them. Give me that any day over being sat chanting earnestly in some foreign language, my mind set on an abstract idea of perfection. Or even remaining in my ‘natural state’, as the Dzogchenists do, which I think is much better than aiming for perfection. The Egyptians and Assyrians were obviously still connected to something raw and instinctual, yet there was no lack of refinement. But they also had their priests and hierarchies!