You Do the Math: Understanding Atisha’s Fractal Dharma

Atisha said, “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.”

Accomplishing all the stages of the path through just one practice does not take away from the tradition as a whole, but is its very hope for us! Atisha recommended this way of practicing when he advised us to accomplish all Deities through the practice of just one. This same logic informs the instruction to practice “one Guru, Deity, and Protector” through one tradition.

You Do the Math: Understanding Atisha’s Fractal Dharma

We can understand where Atisha is coming from by looking at a fractal image. Zooming in on any one part of a fractal reveals that it is a microcosm of the whole. That is to say, the whole is reflected in every part. Atisha’s advice above is based on such fractal math: “1 Deity = 100 Deities” (i.e., that any one Buddha is equal to all the others, in the sense of sharing all the same enlightened good qualities). This is certainly not inviting a narrow-minded attitude, because Atisha is not saying that “1 Deity > 100 Deities” (i.e., that one Buddha is greater than, or superior to, the others), for that would be samsaric math. I also believe it is samsaric math to say that “1 Deity < 100 Deities” (i.e., that one Buddha is lesser than, or inferior to, the others).

Again, Atisha is not saying that there is just one particular Deity who is right for everybody, but each person should choose the Deity with whom they have the closest karmic connection and go from there. Likewise, people will not have the same karmic connection with every tradition. Whether it is Deities or traditions, this is not at all choosing one over another. Instead, you will be practicing “the many through the one.” This is seeing the Dharma as like a fractal—there are never any missing pieces.

Je Phabongkhapa said, “The four are the one entity,” meaning that although we see Vajradhara, Shakyamuni, Je Tsongkhapa and our root Guru as four separate beings, there is in reality only one. We can see, then, that Atisha’s advice applies to everything: “1 Guru = 4 Gurus,” “1 Deity = 4 Deities,” “1 Dharma Protector = 4 Dharma Protectors,” and “1 tradition = 4 traditions,” or a hundred! To Dorje Shugden practitioners who are following Atisha’s advice (i.e., one Buddha = all Buddhas), claiming that “Dorje Shugden is not important and can be summarily removed from the pantheon of Buddhist Deities” is tantamount to spurning the blessings of all the Buddhas! Maybe Hindus are better at expressing this pure view when they say, “One God, many faces…”

There is no unnecessary redundancy in Buddhadharma. Practicing “one Guru, Deity, and Protector” through one tradition is just letting the apparent redundancy dissolve back into emptiness. However, an eclectic is unable to practice this way, because instead of seeing the Dharma as a fractal, he sees something fractured: things are ‘missing’ from tradition X and therefore in his mind it is incomplete, and therefore not perfect for him already. (It is an axiom of eclecticism that “nobody has the whole truth…”) Seeing the Dharma as something that can be incomplete from its own side is only possible with samsaric math. But, a person practicing one tradition cannot ‘gain’ anything more by practicing additional traditions. Anyone who feels as though he is ‘missing out’ on the others by practicing only one is still using samsaric math: “If practicing one tradition is good, then practicing four must be better!” If someone’s Dharma practice is motivated by these worldly concerns of gain and loss, then he is not practicing purely.

Atisha is helping us find the middle way between two extremes:

Extreme #1: Four traditions are better than one (“I need all the help I can get”), which leads to eclecticism.

Extreme #2: One tradition is better than the other three (“one size fits all”), which leads to sectarianism.

The Middle Way: (a) One tradition can accomplish everything for you (“less is more”), which counters eclecticism. Yet, (b) one tradition cannot accomplish everything for everybody (“different strokes for different folks”), which counters sectarianism.

Some have explained that practicing multiple traditions is not in fact ‘mixing’ at all, as long as one keeps the practices of different traditions ‘separate.’ I guess, then, it would be like someone putting on his or her Gelug hat at 8 o’clock in the morning to do Gelug practices, then changing for his Sakya hat at noon, having his Kagyu hat on by 4 o’clock in the afternoon, and finally ending his evening at 8 o’clock with his Nyingma hat on. Sounds kind of schizophrenic to me, but maybe his Gelug hat is a little bigger than the others to remind him that he is principally a Gelugpa who just happens to be doing these other unrelated practices. Maybe he even keeps four separate meditation cushions as Atisha found was the case with Rinchen Sangpo! Granted, Rinchen Sangpo had a separate cushion for each of his 4 Yidam practices, but the samsaric math is still the same if one is doing separate practices from different traditions. That is to say, eclecticism in any form seems to completely miss the point of Atisha’s advice: integrate all your Dharma practices into one; but you cannot do this if you have to keep things compartmentalized.

The invalidity of eclecticism boils down to two points. First, unenlightened beings do not have the skillful means required to synthesize new presentations of the Buddhist path for others, much less for themselves. Besides, Buddha has given us everything we need already (“there’s something for everybody”), so we do not have to cook up our own self-created synthesis; there’s no need to reinvent the wheel! Second, what motivates someone to go outside of an established presentation of Dharma? Some may say it is because the person recognizes that all Dharma is the same, just as Atisha did. If so, then why does he not go ahead and practice this way? Surely, practicing one tradition would be the most practical and efficient way to demonstrate such an insight if one had it. So, what prompts eclecticism is actually based on ignorance, not wisdom, because eclectics do not in fact recognize the ‘one taste’ of Dharma, but have to go and get bits of it from here, there, and yonder. This is seeing Dharma as something fractured into pieces; but Dharma cannot work for you if you think it is broken.

P.S. There is a difference between studying different religious traditions and practicing them. For example, you can study different world religions but not necessarily practice any of them. Or, within a particular religion you can study its different traditions/denominations/schools, but still need only to practice one. Eclecticism refers specifically to the practice (not merely the study) of different traditions.


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