Do we really need to rely on a tradition?


Do we need to follow a tradition to attain enlightenment, or can we attain enlightenment on our own by following our intuition? Hear both sides of the debate, and make up your own mind…

The following is a mock debate held by students of Madhyamaka Centre, a large Kadampa Buddhist Centre in the UK.

Freethinkers appear in normal text.
Traditionists appear in italics.

Freethinkers: The essence of spirituality is to emancipate our mind by bringing to light the wisdom and compassion that lies buried within all of us. We advance spiritually by freeing ourselves from the shackles of social and cultural conditioning and following our own inner wisdom, our inner Guru. How can we do this if we hand over responsibility for our spiritual development to a tradition? A tradition is a political structure in which the wisdom of the original teachers has become dogmatized in order to preserve a political hierarchy. Tradition is an expression of ego. We think “I am a Christian” or “I am a Buddhist” and therefore feel we are better than other people. What tradition has not claimed to be the best? Historically, the result of clinging to traditions has been nothing but violence and misery. Following a tradition is therefore the antithesis of true spirituality.

Traditionists: By equating tradition with a political structure I think you are using the word too narrowly. You need to distinguish between the living tradition, which is essentially a transmission of spiritual experience, and the external structure which ought to facilitate this transmission. When people lose sight of the inner tradition and their religion becomes involved with worldly considerations—like political power, nationalism, or money—you get the problems you describe. But an external organization is not an actual spiritual tradition. It is the shell of tradition which, if preserved purely, makes the wealth of spiritual knowledge of the past accessible to us. However, if it is corrupted by people with bad motivation, it becomes the death of tradition.

For me, a tradition is simply a tried and tested way of doing things. For example, Hershey’s has a tradition of making candy. If you put all the ingredients together in the traditional way, you will get the result you are after. A spiritual tradition is similar—it is a way of going about spiritual practice that has been tried and tested and can guarantee results.

Following a tradition is a kind of moral discipline insofar as it involves putting a boundary around your spiritual practice. Within the boundary there is tremendous freedom for flexibility, creativity, and spontaneity.

Freethinkers: Why should I want to limit my spiritual practice in any way at all? I want to free my mind, not limit it!

Traditionists: If water is channeled through a fire hose, it has immense power; but if it is allowed to trickle everywhere, its power is dissipated. The boundaries of a tradition give our spiritual practice focus and power. Who has ever attained full enlightenment on their own? Even Buddha Shakyamuni had a Teacher. If someone has attained enlightenment, why not follow them? Why look elsewhere? To do so will just lead to confusion and doubts and many false starts.

Freethinkers: It is extremely arrogant to suggest that one person or one tradition has a monopoly on the truth. The truth transcends all conceptions and formulations. Every religion claims to be the sole possessor of the truth and believes it has logical reasons for saying so. Christians will say that it is obvious that there is a God—you just have to look at the world and see how wonderful it is. Buddhists say it is obvious there is not a God—you just have to look at the world and see how awful it is. Clearly, neither religion sees the whole picture. Since all religions have some truth in them but not the whole truth, why should we choose one and reject the others? We should weave our own path between traditions, like a honey bee extracting the choicest pollen from many flowers. The world is full of amazing people saying the most profound things—why accept some and reject others just because they happen to belong to a different tradition? When something chimes with our heart we should listen, and then move on.

Traditionists: I have no intention of denying the value of other traditions. There are many valid traditions in the world, but just as you can only follow one path up a mountain, each person can only follow one tradition. Spiritual traditions are not so much descriptions of “the truth”—which as you point out is ultimately beyond conceptual formulation—but vehicles for transforming our minds so that we become capable of seeing the truth. Each tradition forms an organic whole, and taking bits and pieces from many traditions and cobbling them together is a bit like trying to cure ourselves of a serious disease by taking a remedy from a book on acupuncture, another from homeopathy, and yet another from a western doctor, and putting them all together without expert advice.

Because each tradition has a different theoretical structure and employs different methods, there will inevitably be at least apparent contradictions between them. Since you don’t want to rely on anyone’s guidance, what do we do about these contradictions?

Freethinkers: We have to use our intuition. We have to listen to our heart and decide what is right for us. The truth transcends all doctrines; we discover the truth by following the dictates of our heart, our own unique path.

Traditionists: Unfortunately, our intuition is not always reliable. For example, our intuition tells us that phenomena are inherently existent, or that some people are from their own side pleasant and others unpleasant.

Freethinkers: That’s not our intuition; it’s our conditioning. Most people are not in touch with their intuition. We need to learn to get in touch with our intuition, our true nature.

Traditionists: That’s what a tradition helps us to do! We have to accept that at the moment our ignorance is very great and our wisdom is very small. We need the help of those who have progressed further along the spiritual path than we have.

Freethinkers: But everyone’s path is different. My path is the unfolding of my own true nature; it goes its own way and does not fit any general mould. It is like a stream finding its own way to the sea. A stream doesn’t need to be told where to go; it just follows its nature and reaches its goal.

Traditionists: The spiritual path is a little more difficult than a stream flowing downhill. There are many sidetracks and obstacles. We should not underestimate the power and deceptiveness of the ego-mind. We may think we are following our intuition, the dictates of our true nature, when in fact all we are doing is following the ego’s preferences. Unless we accept the discipline of a tradition, what will inevitably happen is that we will do the practices we like and which give us a pleasant feeling, and skip the rest. As soon as things get difficult, we will give up and move on to something else. And things will get difficult as soon as our ego-mind is challenged. If we always follow the path of least resistance, our ego-mind will remain unchallenged.

Freethinkers: My main point is that each person’s path is unique. To follow a tradition would be to deny my uniqueness.

Traditionists: Is the goal of your path similar to the goal of other paths?

Freethinkers: Of course. The goal is attaining whatever is greatest and best in human nature.

Traditionists: What’s that?

Freethinkers: I don’t know. I haven’t gotten there yet.

Traditionists: Do you think anyone has gotten there?

Freethinkers: Of course.

Traditionists: So what is wrong with accepting the guidance of someone who has already achieved the goal?

Freethinkers: You don’t know whether someone has attained the goal. The world is full of false Gurus. We are responsible for our own spiritual development. It is incredibly dangerous to hand over that responsibility to someone else.

Traditionists: There are many untrustworthy people in this world, but it doesn’t follow that no one can be trusted. You say we should follow our heart. What if your heart told you to devote yourself to a particular Teacher or tradition?

Freethinkers: That would be very dangerous.

Traditionists: But you can follow your heart for everything else?

Freethinkers: I think that when it comes down to actually giving up your freedom and right to choose, you have to be very careful.

Traditionists: Of course. Before accepting someone as a Spiritual Guide we should check carefully. There are very precise instructions on the qualities a Spiritual Guide should have. We should listen to what the teacher says, observe his or her lifestyle, and use our common sense. But there comes a time when we must stop checking. It is only then that we forsake our self-cherishing, the mind that thinks we know best and that we have the wisdom to determine our spiritual path for ourselves. The spiritual path really begins when we acknowledge that we are confused and lost, and we put our trust in someone with more wisdom than us. Without this element of self-surrender our spirituality will remain superficial, dilettantish.

Freethinkers: But can’t you see the danger? You say we have no wisdom, so how do we know whom to trust?

Traditionists: I didn’t say we had no wisdom. We have some wisdom, but not enough to disentangle ourself from the snares of our ego. As I said, we have to use our wisdom to decide which spiritual path to follow. But once we have chosen, we should commit ourselves wholeheartedly. We should stop using our intelligence to question the validity of the instructions and instead use it to understand the instructions more deeply. If we are lost in a city, we are not obliged to follow the directions of the first person we ask; but when we meet someone whom we feel knows what they are talking about, we follow his or her directions precisely. It would be stupid to follow the directions we liked, that ’chimed with our heart’ and ignore the rest.

Freethinkers: But if you picked the wrong person?

Traditionists: I think that if you use your common sense, check the teachings, observe the behaviour of the Teacher and his or her disciples, and learn about the lineage of the instruction, you will probably not go far wrong. But let’s say you did everything you could and still your Teacher gave you some mistaken instructions which you followed. It doesn’t matter! As long as your faith remains intact, everything will work out. Your faith will protect you. Your faith gives the enlightened beings an opening to work through, and they will sort things out. Your path may be a little odd, but it will work out in the end. The real danger comes if you lose your faith.

Freethinkers: So it’s your faith that is the real issue, not the specific Teacher or tradition you follow.

Traditionists: That’s true. Faith is the foundation of all spiritual realizations.

Freethinkers: So, the tradition doesn’t matter then?

Traditionists: The question that is being asked is not whether you need to follow this particular tradition, but whether you need to rely on a tradition at all. All the great spiritual Teachers in this world have established or preserved a tradition. Why is this? It is because we need a structure, a set of guidelines and boundaries. We need to rely on traditions even to accomplish mundane tasks. For example, if the tradition of making stained glass windows were to die out and you wanted to make a stained glass window, you would have to re-invent everything yourself, and you might die before you succeeded. Becoming a Buddha is rather more difficult than making stained glass. We could spend our whole lives exploring our mind and not even begin to subdue our delusions. We just don’t have the time to re-invent the path to Buddhahood. Even if we had unlimited time, we couldn’t do it because the thought that “I know—I can find my own way” is based on ego, and ego is the very thing that is keeping us locked in suffering.