The paragraphs below come from the foreword of Mipham Rinpoche's White Lotus: An Explanation of the Seven-Line Prayer to Guru Padmasambhava. These words were penned by Wulstan Fletcher of the Padmakara Translation Group and we suspect many will resonate with his articulate and constructive advice on how to deal with our own tendencies to be cynical, reinterpret, or even doubt some of what we hear in the Tibetan Buddhist tradition.
For more on Wulstan Fletcher whose introductions to his translations form some of the most insightful writing from the West on Buddhism, hear or watch him in our series of talks with him about Shantideva's classic, The Way of the Bodhisattva.
"An encounter with a living tradition of this kind can be perplexing for Westerners. It is disturbing to interact with people who take as literal, historical truth descriptions of events that seem to us to be plainly mythological. The implicit faith that Tibetan Buddhists have in Guru Rinpoche is a challenge to our way of thinking, and there are various strategies we may adopt in the attempt to accommodate such a potentially uncomfortable state of affairs. We might tell ourselves, for example, that the details of his life—his lotus-birth, his immortality and supernormal powers—are not religious dogmas. They are not articles of faith requiring a blind and unquestioning assent. They can consequently be left aside while we concentrate on the more important aspects of the Dharma. We could take the view that the accounts of the Guru’s life are symbolic, that his lotus-birth is really just a poetic way of expressing the doctrine of the nirmanakaya, that his riding on beams of light is actually a reference to the visions of the thögal practice, and so on. It is by using such reductive arguments that we explain away events and actions deemed a priori to be fantastic and factually impossible, and reformulate them in terms that are intellectually more palatable.
Up to a point, this procedure is understandable. There is, however, a risk involved in reducing religious ideas to a level at which we interpret them only in terms of our present understanding of the world. For people who take an interest in the Dharma as a means of spiritual evolution, to dilute and bowdlerize the teachings in this way is not a wise course. All that happens is that we find ourselves untouched and unchanged, confirmed in the materialistic ideas that it is precisely the role of the Dharma to transform. One makes oneself immune to the power that such images clearly exert on those who accept them in a spirit of openness and faith. For it cannot be denied that all the great yogis of the past and all the great masters of today have achieved their levels of realization by practicing within a view of the world in which they never found it necessary to question the life and exploits of Guru Rinpoche as we have just described them. This fact should give us pause and perhaps make us less ready to dismiss the stories of Guru Rinpoche’s life as mere folklore. The problem with the reductionist approach is that, in attempting to arrive at a more sophisticated interpretation of the traditional accounts, it tends to result not in a deeper insight into the meaning of the Dharma, but in an attitude that is no more than materialism in practice.
This, however, is not the only approach available to us. We may need to tread a narrow line between naive credulity on the one hand and a proud and arid skepticism on the other, both of which effectively close the door to a deeper understanding. It may be difficult to believe, for example, that Guru Rinpoche was a thousand years old when he arrived in Tibet, or that he is still alive on an island somewhere to the southwest of Mount Meru. But one thing seems certain: we will never succeed in understanding anything if we begin with the decision that it is impossible. When confronted by the mysterious, it may be more profitable (it is certainly more interesting) to maintain an attitude of open inquiry, rather than foreclosing on the issue in the name of a so-called modern way of looking at things.
A direct experience of the Tibetan tradition is no doubt helpful in overcoming our reluctance to countenance the possibility of events inexplicable in terms of a narrowly mechanistic view of the universe. In the world of Tibetan Buddhism, moments do occur when the boundaries of ordinary existence seem to be breached and the miraculous comes flooding in. Even now, there are well-documented cases of lamas who have withdrawn treasure teachings from rocks or lakes, or who have visited “hidden lands.” Even in recent years, there have been cases of yogis who at their deaths have manifested the rainbow body before many witnesses, dissolving their bodies into light and leaving behind only their hair and nails. And many Westerners, even if they have not been party to such prodigies, have felt for themselves the extraordinary effect upon their perceptions that is said to be exerted by the presence of a great master. To spend time in the vicinity of Kangyur Rinpoche, for example, was to enter a dimension in which literally any wonder seemed possible."