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One Truth, Many Paths: So What’s Wrong with Mixing Them?

You are the Guru, you are the Yidam, you are the Daka and Dharma Protector;
From now until I attain enlightenment I shall seek no refuge other than you. (Offering to the Spiritual Guide)

As was previously demonstrated, context changes everything. Now, I would like to put back into context the following quote by Geshe Kelsang Gyatso, especially in light of the above prayer to Je Tsongkhapa, as his commentary is often cited by detractors as inviting a narrow-minded attitude:

Experience shows that realizations come from deep, unchanging faith, and that this faith comes as a result of following one tradition purely—relying upon one Teacher, practicing only his teachings, and following his Dharma Protector. If we mix traditions many obstacles arise and it takes a long time for us to attain realizations. (Geshe Kelsang Gyatso, Great Treasury of Merit: How to Rely Upon a Spiritual Guidep. 31, © 1992)

The aim of this post is to bring out the real meaning of Geshe-la’s words. The book cited here is a commentary to the Guru yoga of Je Tsongkhapa called Lama Chöpa in Tibetan, and it is Je Tsongkhapa who is the “one Teacher” referred to in the quote above. This is confirmed by the quote’s preceding context, as well as in the book Heart Jewel, a commentary to another Guru yoga practice of Je Tsongkhapa, which says:

Many sadhanas of Dorje Shugden state that Dorje Shugden is the embodiment of the ‘Guru, Yidam, and Protector’. Here, ‘Guru’ refers specifically to Lama Tsongkhapa. Thus, when we practice the sadhana of Dorje Shugden we are indirectly practising the Guru yoga of Je Tsongkhapa, as well as the practices of Yamantaka and Kalarupa. (p. 115)

To show how Dorje Shugden can be one’s Guru (Je Tsongkhapa), his Yidam (Yamantaka), and his Dharma Protector (Kalarupa) all at once, Geshe-la reminds us of Atisha’s advice for accomplishing all Tantric Deities within a single Deity practice, saying “it is much more meaningful to practise one Deity sincerely, regarding that Deity as the synthesis of all Deities, than it is to practise many Deities superficially.” And just as one Deity is the same nature as all Deities, so too are all Gurus in essence the same. Geshe-la explains that not viewing one’s Guru as being equal with all Gurus “would display a complete misunderstanding of the nature of the Guru” (Great Treasury of Meritp. 50).

But, if realizing the synthesis (or indivisibility) of all Buddhas is so actively encouraged, then why is mixing different Buddhist traditions so discouraged? After all, in Understanding the Mind, Geshe-la claims that “If we try to create a synthesis of different traditions we shall destroy the special power of each and be left only with a mishmash of our own making that will be a source of confusion and doubt” (p. 162). One form of synthesis (or mixing) speeds our progress towards enlightenment, while the other proves to be a major obstacle. What is the difference?

Consider the person who feels that practicing one Deity is insufficient. He or she does not understand that this single Deity already embodies them all. As a result, he comes to regard his spiritual practice as somehow being incomplete, and so he supplements it with many other Deity practices. Atisha encountered this impractical approach when he travelled to Tibet: “Some of you Tibetans have tried to accomplish a hundred Deities but have failed to gain a single attainment, while some Indian Buddhists have gained the attainments of a hundred Deities by accomplishing the practice of just one.”

The parallel between practicing one Guru, Yidam, and Protector and practicing one tradition is now not so difficult to infer. Every Buddhist tradition is in essence the same as all the others; that is to say, each is a perfect and complete path to liberation unto itself. If out of ignorance someone does not realize their pre-existent synthesis, he may become dissatisfied and try to create it himself. The spiritual eclectic pursues ‘the one through the many’ because he cannot imagine the possibility of there already being ‘the many in the one.’ (If he did, he would never become discontent with practicing only one since, for example, practicing two traditions instead of just one cannot give us twice the wisdom.) In response, Geshe-la might very well say that this displays a complete misunderstanding of the nature of one’s tradition! Indeed, it is not hard to see how such an inflexibility of mind makes it take a long time to attain Dharma realizations.

For the person who doesn’t believe in there already being ‘the many in the one,’ some traditions have things that other traditions don’t have, implying that none of them is complete. So unless he freely takes from them all, he believes he is ‘missing out on something.’ This perceived incompleteness hinders his faith in any one tradition as being able to provide him with a complete path to liberation. So I have to ask, how is it possible to achieve ‘the one through the many’ if none of them individually is “good enough” for us? Moreover, even if all taken together, would this ever add up to be a complete path? How would we know?

In contrast, for the person who does believe in ‘the many in the one,’ he has confidence that his tradition of choice can in fact take him to the other shore. And because every Buddhist tradition is equally a complete path, he believes liberation is possible for all Buddhists, each through his own respective tradition. So, the person who practices in terms of ‘the many through the one’ actually thinks more highly of other traditions than the eclectic does! In reality, it is the eclectic approach that shows disrespect towards all the different traditions, while it is the non-eclectic approach that actually regards each of them as supremely precious. Some people take it the wrong way and think that the exclusivity that comes with practicing only one tradition is motivated by sectarianism or disdainful intolerance for anything other than one’s own, when actually it is a wish that all traditions be preserved intact for generations to come. If it ain’t broke, don’t “mix” it!

P.S. Please note that the words tradition and path are not synonymous. There is only one Buddhist path—the three higher trainings of morality, concentration, and wisdom—but there are many different unique presentations of this path, which are the great variety of Buddhist traditions we have today. This is why, technically speaking, Geshe-la says in his Tricycle interview (p. 76) that every Buddhist tradition has a complete path, not is a complete path.

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