by Ngakpa Rig'dzin Dorje

Lineage is a net of chains. What makes a chain functional is the hole by which every link is serially connected. Ah, the tool of form and emptiness: 'ye canna whack it!' All the links in the chain are conscious that what makes transmission possible, whether received or given, is the realisation of their empty nature. In particular the shiny newer little links like me are constantly murmuring to themselves, reminding themselves in all humility, "I know I sometimes have to manifest as being terrifically strong, but it can be a little hard to convince myself when I find that at heart I'm non-existent". At the same time, paradoxically, we are supposed to hearken to the sober chorus from higher up the chain, which goes "No, no! If you are not every bit as reliable as us, we all become as powerless as you! If even one of you fails, we all go down: the end of the chain will only dangle and rust in the waters of ignorance and forgetfulness, neglect and abuse."
I'll take it for granted that I don't have to gloss 'vajra pride'. Vajra pride gives rise to the vajra laugh of confidence. It starts almost as a secret giggle, on noticing that the unremitting burden of phenomena is not nearly as real as it insistently purports to be. It rises to a belly-laugh, the 'loose-hanging belly' of Dorje Tröllö, where one finds oneself to be beyond the discomfort of illusion, and the sensual irritation of rationality. The demanding reality of vajra pride is something that I started cultivating delicately, under glass as it were, protected from the bitter winds of intellectual dubiety, in the hothouse of private practice. Then one day I had to call upon it as a resource very unexpectedly. It was the first time that I gave the dbang of Padmasambhava, on a weekend course at a fairly prestigious institution in Germany. I was originally meant to be there only in the role of accompanying Ngak'chang Rinpoche, which is something I used to be able to do fairly frequently as a completely irreplaceable aspect of my teacher-training. But Rinpoche fell ill, and not only did he insist that I should go and hold the course on my own, but that I should also give the dbang myself.
Now, on receiving in the mail Ngak'chang Rinpoche's instruction to this effect, I replied in what I assumed was a correct and acceptable tone, coming from a disciple. I made modest, humble, doubtful noises, self-abasing gestures. Ngak'chang Rinpoche, somewhat by contrast, sent me a further communique which was entirely in capital letters. In e-mail terminology this is called shouting. He shouted at me, perhaps for the first time (though who could say the last?). He was all but outraged at the idea that I should doubt my ability to do this thing, and do it to a degree which would be actually beneficial to the participants. I felt much like a racehorse with Lester Piggott up, entering the final furlong and not being spared the whip. But as a result I did get past the post. And that very first experience of giving transmission was both unexpected and unsurprising at the same time. When I wrote to Ngak'chang Rinpoche about it afterwards, I described it as feeling identical with the experience of receiving transmission myself. It was the same Padmasambhava that I had met countless times in connection with Rinpoche. I powerfully renewed my confidence that it was impossible to separate this emanation of the Lama from the Lama in person. Rinpoche sent me an entirely different kind of communication after this, expressing how very glad he was that this apprentice had been able to 'pull his head out of the toilet'; in other words, to have risen above the self-fulfilling prophesy of a shitty self-image.
Lamas never validate themselves: only their own teachers and some of their own students, the links on either side of them, and those with even rarer karma who are connected with them in sambhogakaya vision, are ever able to appreciate their true value. All practising Buddhists, in the different styles of their own traditions, work away honourably with the basic material provided by what could be called their sense of their own self-importance. Their predominant and unarguably excellent motivation is that the more they can erode that vanity, the more they will feel empowered to go out into the world at large and relate unselfishly to beings other than themselves, whomever they may have the karmic fortune to encounter. But over and above that, tantrikas take the very dangerous path of power. Out of their empty nature they arise as wonder-working awareness-beings perfectly endowed with every ability to fulfil the needs of others. I call vajra pride taking psychosis as the path: Ngak'chang Rinpoche has written about it exquisitely in Wearing the Body of Visions.
It is almost banal to mention that to be called a Lama, to function as a Lama, means that one is expected to be unremittingly available for the benefit of others. Even to entertain that idea, one needs self-originating confidence, dissipation of self-doubt, valid certainty. In immaculate paradox, confidence derives from non-existence: one's self can be indestructible only if its identity is infinite, which means empty. Holding to such an 'experientially uncommon base', doesn't one also need protection from loneliness, like the sane king of legend among his insane subjects? I think it would be safer if one never became immune to the piercing exquisiteness of one's unavoidable isolation. All one may come to depend on is some small ability to be continually liberating its poignancy. In samsara one tries to encounter and explain the world in its own terms, at the level of its complexity, and if that is the dominant ideology then tantric View is never even going to be generally comprehensible, let alone popular.
The longer I go on in this tradition, the more I realise how difficult it is to find people in the modern world who are really prepared to embrace such an uncompromising commitment. One needs a healthy instinctual understanding that compassion is a power-tool, and without the appropriate attachments one is merely spinning one's spindle. Ever fond of arts-and-crafts metaphors, Ngak'chang Rinpoche is fond of quoting Darryl van Horn's line in The Witches of Eastwick: 'Passion and precision.' There is always a liability to overreach or underachieve in either direction; except in the enlightened state. I would say that I spend a good deal of my waking consciousness being on the qui vive for inauthentic extremes of such kinds, either on my own part of course, or in the Buddhist environments in which I swim, and wider abroad, in the bigger tank that encloses our fishbowl.
I acknowledge that I share with many people of religion a rather high and mighty estimation of the value of my cause. All too often it is some quality of over-excitement which is a prime reason why religious zealots manage to alienate the very people who are the object of their mission; and plenty of their own kind into the bargain. Sometimes I wonder if it would not be rather healthy if the whole mahasangha, the overarching community of Buddhists, and I'm not thinking exclusively of Western Buddhists, took itself down a peg or two; took a much more whimsical, humourous, less solemn attitude towards its own existence. On the one hand, we are the present-day heirs and representatives of one of the world's more infectious ideologies; or perhaps one should say several of them, since Buddhism is so irreducibly plural. Here is one respect at least in which the Western acculturation of Buddhism is proceeding smoothly. Most sanghas, with interesting exceptions, the internet discussion groups, the committees and conferences, boards and panels and delegations, tend to take commonplace corporate structure as their model, and liberal democracy as their tone. But these do have their weaknesses and undermining side-effects. Committees can be hijacked by those with the loudest voices or the most knowledgeable-sounding scholastic appeals to precedent, or by sheer self-interested guile. Liberalism so often conceals the desire to see one's personal private brand of liberalism branded on everybody else's hindquarters. Majority voting masquerading as the Middle Way is one extreme which the model derived from the Vajra Master seeks to avoid.
At the other extreme, in the course of history, Buddhism, somewhat by contrast with the messianic religions of the Book, has also proved startlingly vulnerable to different flavours of the broad-spectrum antibiotic called totalitarianism (some of which was itself conducted by the Book). That is another ever-present context in which a modern Lama has to operate. In the Confederate Sanghas of Aro some of us are spending this lifetime facilitating the ultimate benevolent dictatorship, of the tantric master. In that highly specific context, absolute power liberates absolutely; whereas we live in a society which is partly convinced, partly forgetful, that 'absolute power corrupts absolutely'. I only have to open my front door to find myself face-to-pockmarked-face with abuses of power. My own house used to be the local headquarters of a political party that strongly objected to sharing living-space with people who had the wrong kind of grandparents; many of whom were supporters of the wrong local football club into the bargain. I live in the TV reception footprint of one such forty thousand seater football stadium; the kosher one, or rather the non-kosher one since it's the other one which has a large number of Jewish supporters. On match days, men with renunciate haircuts used to emerge from this house and congregate on the tiny patch of concreted private ground in front, behind a hip-high parapet. From this legally immune vantage-point they would loudly lobby any passing football supporters of patently alien ancestry, to persuade them of the wisdom of returning to the lands of their forebears.
From here I sometimes travel to south Wales, to touch base with my Lamas and vajra family. There I can drive past miles and miles, valley after valley, town by town, of utter industrial dereliction, a freshly-minted Third World, entire communities abandoned to rot by successive governments who considered this 'a price worth paying'; for what, no one seems quite sure any more. Then again, on the way to a Buddhist centre in Munich, I regularly pass the turning to a certain grey gravelled place, where I once spent many hours saying inadequate numbers of mantras for yet more people with the wrong kind of grandparents, whose bloodline all but terminated there. A few of their very few descendants, having learned to run a lot faster, qualified to return from the prescribed land of their forebears as guests of the Olympic stadium close by, where they were assassinated by people whose grandparents were quite remarkably similar to their own. Sometimes I can find myself sitting in a cafe in the smartest part of Vienna, sipping an exquisite mocha, looking up at a balcony from which Hitler spoke, and from which one of his present-day political offspring also seeks the right to speak. I sat there once with Ngak'chang Rinpoche, among the ancient dead-pale dakinis in their cemetery ornaments, white fat smearing their crimson-stained mouths, dead vermin for collars, tridentine forks chopping ruthlessly on bone-china. "So, Rig'dzin," he said, looking around with deceptive mildness, "this is the dharma!"
And that was Rinpoche's transmission too, in the informal style of dzogchen, to whatever extent I had the wit to perceive it. Just that casual remark, rather generously drawing attention to itself with its overt reference to practice, triggered the dimensionless transit of an injector seat: 'being there', enstasy, finding myself slotted into place right where I already was. All around, apparent phenomena fragmented and regathered, in and on account of their own vibrant space: the dance of the dakinis, not merely superannuated but beyond the predations of time, cause for vajra laughter once again. "Where go when die?", Kyabjéé Rinpoche used to be fond of asking. Where go when live, for that matter? Some years ago I attended a series of empowerments into all the major cycles of dzogchen teachings, give in London by the current head of the Nyingma school, Penor Rinpoche. Each empowerment was given in a progression of styles, from outer tantra through to dzogchen itself. In the final phase, all the participants were invited to stand up, and then we had to face in turn towards each of the four directions. At each turn the Vajra Master asked us to consider the questions "Is there anywhere to go? Is there anyone who is going?" Thus, Geshe Khyongla Rato, in his autobiography My Life and Lives, describes the death of his closest teacher, the abbot of his home gompa of Rato. 'I was told that before his death he had asked those present to help him face in each of the four directions. No one had known his reason for this request, but immediately after they had helped him, he turned to the Dalai Lama's [his Vajra Master's] picture and expired.' In the ever-presence of vajra relationship, what destination could be imagined to be somewhere else; or what itinerary should there be, when there is no separation?
Tantra is sometimes refered to as the Path of the Result, because it makes use in the present of its own fruit. We transform ourselves just as we are by arising as Padmasambhava or Yeshé Tsogyel in person. We allow the intensity of experience to blow us away, so that no shell of identity separates inner and outer, daka or dakini. In apprenticeship, we tend to talk about these experiences as leading in the direction of greater and greater confidence in the Lama's transmission, so that it may even become feasible to make the leap into explicit vajra relationship. But by definition, every feature of such a process is already dependent on our approximation towards that result right now. We talk unendingly about this inner tantric practice of integration; unendingly, because form challenges us in infinite variety. But it is not something that I can commend even-handedly, as though it were one psychological technique among many. I have to face the fact that, in trying to hold tantric samaya with the Vajra Master, I may find myself perversely beached by the undertow of western Buddhism. The uneasy liberal tendency would be so much more comfortable if tantrikas could only hold their franchises free of dues to the holding company, the Lama.
Why should I fret, though, when my loneliness and spaciousness embrace? That makes it possible for me not to think too caustically about my home turf. On match days all my local streets are decked out in the tantric colours of red and white. Forty thousand afficionados of passion and precision can't be wrong. And just next door, though at the other cultural pole, lives one of the most celebrated opera composers in the country. I hear him tinkling experimentally at his keyboard while I tinker less productively with mine. On the other side there is a consummate folk-guitarist, who jams in the garden on summer evenings with a virtuoso mandolin-player. On occasions when I catch both the neighbours at it at the same time, I drop everything and pick up a drum and bell myself, just for the sake of arising boisterously in integration with the general cacophony. I don't know what they all make of it; but then, they don't know what I make of it either.