Five major rivers, vital to the existence of millions of beings in Tibet India China Myanmar Burma Laos and Thailand, all have their origin high on the Tibetan plateau. The water there is as fresh as water can be but by the time these rivers reach the sea their colour has changed from blue to brown and levels of pollution are disturbing. The energy of the rivers is increasingly being used to generate electricity so the flow of water and migration of fish is disrupted by dams. The silt release, in which sediment is periodically released from behind the dams to prevent them from silting up, is a phenomenal event which has a devastating impact on the life in the river downstream. So human interference with the flow of these waters – as with other rivers in Africa – and around the world, is having an impact which sadly resonates through time.
The streams of dharma are like this. Most of you will know this so please excuse me but there are some dharma teachings and books which are, one way or another, very close to the source – fresh and with minimal pollution – and others which are so heavily impacted by human interpretations and ignorance that, like the water from the yellow river, they should carry a dharma health warning.
I started my studies with ‘Teach yourself Buddhism’ and without a teacher they would have ended there, it was not dharma …..apart from which its too easy to read a lot and think you ‘know’ as the story of Naropa shows… and little bit of this and little bit of that, like mixing colours in a paint box, ends up with a muddy brown.
How to pick your way through the minefield… unless you are already an expert how will you know whose advice to trust?
The internet is helpful here as you can check and cross-check very carefully. Keep looking and finding out all you can about the validity of the source of dharma which you are using for your own life transfusion…Look outside and inside the tradition and listen to other teachers. Gradually you’ll get a sense of where your connections lie and the difference in qualities. You matter too much to just cross you fingers and spit, trusting to luck or happenstance. Who taught the teacher? Who gave them authorisation to teach? How qualified are they? What have others said about them? Is there some kind of ‘group think’ going on?
If they write, can you see how much of what they write is dharma and how much is personal opinion. If you are reading a translation what are the translators skills in both languages… maybe you can check for bias and differing interpretations by reading other versions. Two english translators of the I-ching had a judeo-christian bias and used a little respected Chinese version as their source; one of the versions of the Tao te Ching i have i find completely unreadable while another seems very clear and beautiful.
Are they open to questioning….some are straight down the line…take it or leave it…and if they are straight down the line that will do no harm. They may have other ‘fish to fry’ but can you work with that? – there’s a song Leonard Cohen wrote about how he and others tried to persuade his zen teacher to say ‘just a little bit more’…unsuccessfully!
Observe their behaviour for many years, do they embody what they teach, what can you learn from them? Do they want you to wake up, or to use your energy, or are they confused. Is there an agenda involving the worldly dharmas– is the dharma running the show or the ego?
Whichever the stream you drink from… may the water be clear.