Have you ever seen pictures of the protective deities embraced by Tibetan Buddhists? Some of them look like scary monsters. Pretty scary, indeed. And attempting to visualize these deities is part of the Dalai Lama's practice - part of what every Tibetan Buddhist practices.
Another part is dedication to a guru (teacher). And frankly, I don't get it. The Buddhism I know teaches this:
Beneath the sala trees at Kusinagara, in his last words to his disciples, the Buddha said:
"Make of yourself a light. Rely upon yourself: do not depend upon anyone else. Make my teachings your light. Rely upon them: do not depend upon any other teachings."
"After my death, the Dharma [Buddhist Law] shall be your teacher. Follow the Dharma and you will be true to me."
"During the last forty-five years of my life, I have withheld nothing from my teachings. There is no secret teaching, no hidden meaning; everything has been taught openly and clearly." [Sorry, guys, but this means there are no esoteric teachings - Steve.]
:UNQUOTE: The Teaching of Buddha, copyright 1966 by Bukkyo Dendo Kyokai.
But I know why Dalai thinks so
There is a reason for everything. So even though, as one commentator expressed it, the Buddha meant, "Don't follow persons, follow the Law [Dharma]," the worship of protective deities has legitimate roots. For instance, the Buddha's highest teaching, The Lotus Sutra, assures great benefit for those who are "holding fast to the name of Bodhisattva Perceiver of the World's Sounds."
But the Buddha encourages us to "hold fast" to a particular Bodhisattva for one very good reason: The purpose is to give (in this example) Perceiver of the World's Sounds a chance to fulfill his vow to protect practitioners of the Way and thereby more quickly attain Buddhahood himself.
In other words, our devotion to a particular bodhisattva is not only meant to help us, but it's meant to help that bodhisattva attain Buddhahood.
There are 52 stages of bodhisattva practice, and those at the very highest stages (such as Perceiver) have god-like supernatural power, which they have sworn to the Buddhas to use in order to protect common, ordinary Buddhists including laymen living and working in society. However, these profoundly accomplished bodhisattvas sometimes fail in their vow [I'll explain that a bit later].
Meanwhile, consider what Shakyamuni Buddha has to say about Bodhisattva Perceiver of the World's Sounds:
QUOTE [quotes from the Buddha in The Lotus Sutra, Burton Watson translation]:
"If someone, holding fast to the name of Bodhisattva Perceiver of the World's Sounds, should enter a great fire, the fire could not burn him. This would come about because of this bodhisattva's authority and supernatural power. If one were washed away by a great flood and called upon his name, one would immediately find himself in a shallow place." [Page 299]
"If a person who faces imminent threat of attack should call the name of Bodhisattva Perceiver of the World's Sounds, then the swords and staves wielded by his attackers would instantly shatter into so many pieces and he would be delivered." [Page 299]
[and on page 301]
"Suppose also that there is a person who accepts and upholds the name of Bodhisattva Perceiver of the World's Sounds and even just once offers him obeisance and alms. The good fortune gained by these two persons would be exactly equal and without difference."
NOTE: That second person the Buddha is referring to is referred to in an immediately preceding passage:
"...suppose there is a person who accepts and upholds the names of as many bodhisattvas as there are sands in sixty-two million Ganges, and ...he offers them alms...What is your opinion? Would this good man or good woman gain many benefits, or would he not?"
But - and this is a big BUT...
The Buddha encourages us to "hold fast to" and give alms to various Bodhisattvas. For instance, he says on page 323: "And I will employ my transcendental powers to guard and protect those who can accept and uphold the name of Bodhisattva Universal Worthy."
BUT... the Buddha puts things in perspective with this key passage:
"Even if a person were to fill the whole thousand-million fold world with the seven treasures as an offering to the Buddha and the great bodhisattvas..., the benefits gained by such a person cannot match those gained by accepting and upholding this Lotus Sutra, even just one four-line verse of it! The latter brings the most numerous blessings of all."
:UNQUOTE: [The Lotus Sutra, Burton Watson translation, page 285]
So even though The Lotus Sutra shows us the Buddha praising and encouraging devotion to the great Bodhisattvas, he is very keen to reinforce that it is the Lotus Sutra that is most praiseworthy and beneficial of all.
When vows aren't upheld
I had a particular incident in mind when I had written above: "However, these profoundly accomplished bodhisattvas sometimes fail in their vow."
It was over 8 years ago when my local Buddhist congregation learned that a long-time practicing laywoman member had not only been murdered, but her body had been hacked into pieces, placed into garbage bags, and ended up in a dumpster. During the memorial services, I kept waiting for the senior layperson to answer a question surely on the minds of many:
"If practicing SGI Buddhism is supposed to protect you from evil, why didn't it save this poor woman?"
While it's true that various entities have sworn to protect followers of the Way, it's also true that sometimes they f**k up. Bodhisattvas and Buddhas are not gods with omnipotent powers to protect; they themselves are limited by and subject to the law of karma - even though the Buddha claimed: "I am free to do what I will with the Law." [Still trying to figure out exactly what that means!]
Too many within the Western traditions think of them (erroneously) as being Christian God-like, though The Lotus Sutra does have this interesting statement from the Buddha:
"I am one who knows all things, sees all things, understands the way, opens up the way, preaches the way."
This is a bit subtle, but notice that he didn't say, "I am the one who..." For "the one" would describe a Western God. When Buddha says "I am one," in effect he's saying "I am one among many - including you who aspire to become Buddhas (once you reach that point) - who knows all things..."
Concerning this woman's violent death: There are other possibilities. The great Bodhisattvas - protectors of Buddhists worldwide - could have protected her but chose not to or perhaps that she herself had declined their protection! In the world of Buddhism, timing is important. Maybe she had to die when she did so that she could be reborn where - and when - she was most needed. And that wouldn't necessarily be here on planet earth.
As for the violence of her murder: That could well have been an exaggerated compression effect, which would serve to expiate huge chunks of her past negative karma. Wiping the slate clean in one stroke, as it were.
Why the Lotus Sutra?
I am on my (well over) 140th oral recitation (which is my daily practice) of the Burton Watson translation of The Lotus Sutra. When you consider that its 324-pages comprise a volume one inch thick, that would "translate" to a stack ten feet in height were 100 such volumes to be piled up. Or put another way - 32,400 pages. This is the largest part of my Buddhist practice; the other part being my attempts to share what I've learned along the way.
Each time I read this book, I pick up something I had missed in prior readings. You can easily see why I focus on this particular sutra when you consider:
Key Quotes from The Lotus Sutra
QUOTE [Page 98]:
"Those who have not yet crossed over I will cause to cross over, those not yet freed I will free, those not yet at rest I will put at rest, those not yet in nirvana I will cause to attain nirvana. Of this existence and future existence I understand the true circumstances. I am one who knows all things, sees all things, understands the way, opens up the way, preaches the way."
QUOTE [Page 164]:
"The sutras I have preached number immeasurable thousands, ten thousands, millions. Among the sutras I have preached, now preach, and will preach, this Lotus Sutra is the most difficult to believe and the most difficult to understand. Medicine King, this sutra is the storehouse of the secret crux of the Buddhas."
QUOTE [Page 165]:
"The way of the bodhisattva is the same as this. As long as a person has not yet heard, not yet understood, and not yet been able to practice this Lotus Sutra, then you should know that that person is still far away from anuttara-samyak-sambodhi [the supreme enlightenment of a Buddha]. But if the person is able to hear, understand, ponder and practice the sutra, then you should know that he can draw near to anuttara-samyak-sambodhi. Why? Because all bodhisattvas who attain anuttara-samyak-sambodhi in all cases do so through this sutra."
Steven Searle, just another member of the Virtual Samgha of the Lotus
"That last part is worth repeating: "Because all bodhisattvas who attain anuttara-samyak-sambodhi in all cases do so through this sutra." And yet, I don't hear the Dalai Lama spending oceans of time praising and teaching the Lotus Sutra. Instead, he speaks of Tibetan autonomy and plays with monsters. For these reasons I dub him heretic." - Steve.