Last night I was blessed and privileged to receive the oral transmission of a particular Vajrayana practice from my tantric master. He himself received the same practice from His Holiness the Dalai Lama, so it was all very wonderful 🙂
Oral transmission is a key component of the Tibetan Buddhist tradition. Outwardly it may be little more than a lama reciting a text or a mantra and the students repeating it after him or her, or even simply hearing it. However inwardly far more is occurring. The lama inwardly connects with the living stream of blessing the outer text represents through his or her own reception from their guru. By this they connect with the stream back to the author or originator of the text or practice, who is almost always an enlightened being or Shakyamuni Buddha himself. In this way the student receiving the transmission is linked to its origin. From then on the practice draws directly from this origin and the enlightened being who first gave the teaching. This empowers the student to start using the practice and ensures the practice is overseen and connected to the pure source.
From a Tibetan Buddhist perspective engaging with a practice by simply reading a text is problematic. With some texts and practices it is simply not done. With others it is seen as still beneficial but not as much as receiving the text orally. There is also more likelihood of error and distortion creeping in because the student has to make her own connection to the pure source rather than being given the means to make that connection.
We may contrast this idea with those of some modern Protestant denominations. Drawing on the Reformation principle of Sola Sciptura (“by scripture alone”) this view sees the Bible as the ultimate and final guide to our spirituality and lives. Once we are saved by Christ the text itself is the answer, requiring no empowerment or teaching to reveal its mysteries and guide us. Neat and nifty and when first espoused a big ‘up yours’ to the established priesthood. From these principles comes the modern proliferation of numerous Protestant sects and denominations as by these lights anyone guided by God can, and often does, start their own Church or Fellowship. They do not need any external or temporal authority other than God Himself.
Catholic and Orthodox Christianity is different again seeing the Bible as one of three sources of divine authority, the other two being Church tradition and the Episcopacy, the unbroken Apostolic Succession of Bishops descending through time from the Apostles themselves. In this sense then traditional forms of Christianity have more resonance with the Tibetan Buddhist view. It is also why figures and myths in Catholicism, such as several Stations of the Cross and Veronica wiping the face of Christ, are not recorded in the Gopsels. Similarlily, there is much in Tibetan Buddhism not contained with the original Pali Buddhist texts.
These tensions and themes of succession, transmission, authority, innovation and tradition are also very much a part of the modern esoteric communities. And they seem to generate as much heat and acrimony as they do within the established religions. While we have not yet started killing each other or torturing members of the ‘wrong’ Order into recanting their mistaken ways it sometimes seems this is only because we can’t.
While there is much debate over the need for magical lineage etc one thing is absolutely clear which may be fully understood by looking at examples from Tibetan Buddhism. One of the ways a person is recognized as accomplished in the Tibetan community is the manner of their death. There is a phenomenon called the Rainbow Body which manifests after physical death and which amongst other things significantly delays decomposition of the corpse. So there’s nothing very subjective in the judgement of the individual – either the corpse stinks and there is no light, or it doesn’t and there is light. It is not too unusual for lay practitioners to die like this. These are women and men who may never have received initiations, teachings or practices and who mostly performed mantra and simple prayers all their lives. Yet they transformed themselves deeply. So too in the Western traditions. We may never get the opportunity to be initiated into the real Golden Dawn or the authentic Rosicrucians or the ancient Priesthood of Mukk, but by our deep altruism and simple practices we can transform and we can serve the One.
Without entering into any debate here, I’d like to share something from the Magical Church Society. I was told that the Society made more of Christ’s statement from Matthew than lineage:
For where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them.
Their Grade ritual initiations (other than Neophyte) were always preceded or proceeded within a week or so by a night of prayer. During the evening the temple or room was prepared and the initiate gathered with his sponsor and maybe one or two others. Favourite inspiring passages from the Bible were read and the initiate meditated on the particular Wound of Christ he was to receive (or had just recieved) through the initiation. Then there was just silent prayer and opening to the presence of Christ. That was all. Yet this simple evening was seen as the spiritual initiation of the wound to complement the mundane initiation in the temple where the initiate moved into the grade among his fellows. I have always liked this approach for its beauty and simplicity, but also for its understanding that it is the interior presence of Christ that imparts the lineage and Wounds. The mundane Society did not therefore hold the lineage, Christ did and He bestows it upon those who gather in His name to be open to it. Perhaps if the Golden Dawn community adopted such an approach it would help a little with the battle between the ‘need for lineage’ folk and the innovators? Just a suggestion.