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Karl Brunnholzl is the prolific author and translator of several volumes on Indian and Tibetan Buddhism. A physician extensively trained in Buddhist study and practice, he teaches frequently in North America and Europe.

If you’ve read even a little about the life of the Buddha—or seen the movie—you know he wasn’t just a navel-gazing holy man detached from the cares of a suffering world. He was passionate about discovering the truth about life and his existence as a human being. That passion led him to break away from the established religious doctrines of his time and, after his awakening, to found a community based on egalitarian principles.

The nonconformist, revolutionary spirit is found in many great historical teachers in all the Buddhist traditions.

In the Buddha’s community, for example, the caste system was thrown out—untouchables and brahmins were equal aspirants on the path to enlightenment.  That may not sound shocking to you now, but ask yourself: would you dare to seat the Pope or the Dalai Lama next to a homeless person at your dinner party?

The nonconformist, revolutionary spirit is found in many great historical teachers in all the Buddhist traditions.  You may not recognize the foreign sounding names or the issues that provoked them, but you can appreciate their courage and commitment to honesty and truth, in the face of recrimination, rejection, and even retribution. These “heretics” included brilliant scholars and meditators, like Nagarjuna. Although he eventually came to be regarded as a “second buddha,” his teachings on emptiness challenged the status quo in certain circles. To discredit him and paint him as a demon, some other Buddhists even invented negative prophesies about him and put them in the scriptures.

Then there was Gampopa, a revered figure in the Kagyu lineage of Tibetan Buddhism. Because he said that the Buddha taught “mahamudra” (one of the most advanced meditations) in his public discourses and even beginners could practice it and attain realization, he got a lot of flak from everyone at the time. The list goes on and includes figures like the 8th Karmapa and the 5th Dalai Lama. Whether they dared to question the authority of their tradition, departed from the established views of the day, or refused to play partisan spiritual politics, they were seen for a time as heretics, not as game players.

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  1. avatar Rui Umezawa says:

    I very much like what you are saying, but nonetheless wonder: were the sages you mention rebelling or somply going with a flow (energy. qi, yuanfen, whatever) greater than society’s rules?

    This may just be semantics, but “rebel” to me can have egocentric connotations. James Dean in Rebel Without a Cause was egocentric. Rebels like Buddha and Robespierre only became rebels because they were answering a great calling.

    I really like your message, but unless one can honestly hear the calling or feel the energy, aren’t you just getting lost in another illusion?

    Respectfully yours,
    Rui

  2. avatar Waywuwei says:

    I don’t know of any historical documentation that Buddha taught Mahamudra. It was a classical trick of the Mahayanists to re-write history to claim that the teachings written long after the death of Buddha were actually taught by the Buddha himself. The schemes that were dreamt up to explain why there was no historical record were quite elaborate and would not pass muster with the standards of modern scholarship.

    • avatar Robert Bullock says:

      Waywuwei, who cares if the Buddha did or didn’t teach Mahamudra? I don’t know the Buddha, I never met him. I take it on faith that the guy even existed. You think historical documentation proves anything?

      There’s a lot of documentation that Jesus Christ existed yet many contend that he did not and with good reason. Suppose that Buddha also did not exist, was pure myth. What then? Do all the teachings suddenly become invalid if they weren’t uttered by a specific person thousands of years ago?

      At the very least, we know that the Buddha’s words were not written down for hundreds of years after his death, so how can we say with conviction what he did or did not teach?

      It’s irrelevant as far as I’m concerned.

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