In response to someone’s theistic question about original causation, Buddha Shakyamuni related a parable about a man who had been shot in the chest with a poisoned arrow. Here’s the story. “Suppose a man has been shot in the chest with a poisoned arrow. Undoubtedly, this man would therefore be in quite a lot of pain from the arrow itself having pierced deeply into his flesh. But also, the arrow’s poisoned tip, in close proximity to the man’s heart, would soon be leaching sufficient toxicity as to become irreversibly fatal. Fortunately, a wise and skillful surgeon happened to be in the area. Having been urgently summoned by the man’s relatives and friends, the surgeon gathered his tools and medicine and arrived at the man’s side right away. However, just as the surgeon was about to begin his life-saving procedure, the injured man slowly and painfully raised up his hand, placed it upon the surgeon’s arm and said, ‘Venerable doctor, before you administer your medicines and perform the necessary extraction, there are a few things I feel I must first know and understand. Specifically, what is name of the person who shot me? To what caste does he belong? What were his motives? Did he act alone or was there a conspiracy? Surely the average man does not possess the knowledge of how to prepare poisons, so, who do we know in this area that might have such grim skills? And what type of poison might have been used? Also, it is my understanding that arrows have distinct characteristics that are unique to their particular maker. Therefore, I should like to know also the name of the arrow smith who is thus additionally responsible, although indirectly, for my present critical state. ‘ Concluding the story there, Buddha then questioned his questioner, “Would you consider a man such as the one in this story to be wise?” When the questioner admitted he would not, Buddha then equated the lack of wisdom of the man in the story with a lack of wisdom in being preoccupied with metaphysical and theological issues, when each of us is similarly suffering from the spiritually fatal poisoned arrows of ignorance, greed and aggression.
Historically, Buddha Shakyamuni was notorious for remaining literally silent whenever someone posed a philosophical question whose answer would not be of practical use to those seriously seeking spiritual liberation. But there is some evidence that Buddha occasionally did attempt to clarify certain theological questions. Because the Western world is overwhelmingly theistic by culture, and because sometimes Buddhism is incorrectly considered to be an atheistic religion, some discussion of theism in the context of Buddhism may be useful to those who, like me, sometimes feel compelled to think about such things.
The term, theology, is generally rejected as having any relevance in the context of Buddhist teachings because Buddhism is functionally and philosophically independent from theistic beliefs. It is technically mistaken, however, to think of Buddhism as atheistic – although such a mistake is certainly less of a mistake than to think of Buddhism as theistic. Being independent or non-dependent upon theistic concepts does not mean that Buddhism avoids the issue altogether. On the contrary, an integral feature of Mindfullness practice is self-vigilance of the deep, habitual under-stirrings that are actually responsible for the very notion of Theos. Buddha taught that the concept of Theos represents the erroneous retro-fitted rationalization for the vividness of our Clarity. Without question, everything appears to be so real! Due to this arresting vividness, beings who are ignorant of the true nature of phenomena remain adrift in a sea of confusion and fear. Some apparent objects seem beneficial so we desperately try to acquire and keep those. Other apparent objects seem detrimental so we frantically attempt to avoid or destroy those. A few of the apparent objects seem neutral, but only because we are not yet very familiar with those. The two dominant philosophical categories that emerge from all this confusion were already well established in Buddha’s time. Buddha referred to them as Eternalism and Nihilism and gave profound commentary on both views. In one fascinating teaching, Buddha even went so far as to say that if one were for some reason obligated to follow either one or the other, Eternalism would be the better option because there is at least some opportunity for earning merit within that view. Buddha, as we know, taught that is and isn’t aren’t the only alternatives views of reality. Moreover, a negation of something actually affirms its potentiality. Something that is not possible or not real can’t logically be negated. Only something possible can be negated, such as, “I am not in my office right now.” Or, “This sandwich is not what I ordered.” So, according to Buddhist teachings, not only are theism and atheism not the only alternative views, the concept of atheism actually affirms the potentiality of Theos. As stated above, Buddhism functions independently from these issues. There are, of course, broader interpretations of the God/god concept that encompass the notion of relative divinity. One might be inclined to use the term, higher power, as is done in 12-step programs. Without question, the notion of higher powers is not at all absent in Buddhism. But there is a very distinctive and subtle understanding regarding such higher powers that constitutes the dividing-line between the real meaning of the Buddhist teachings, and what would otherwise be common theism.
There are numerous higher powers. Some are abstract, such as collective karma or cosmic unfoldment, and some are understood to be actual living beings, like Jesus, Shugden, Our Lady of Medjugorje, and Tara. Although there are arguments among the corresponding devotees about the degree of divinity that one’s own or someone else’s favorite higher power may possess, we will leave that matter aside. Our subject here is the nature, function and practicality of seeking assistance from a higher power, and how that relates to Buddhist teachings in general, and Dzogchen in particular.
One of the considerations about asking for help is the matter of what might be the motivation of the intended helper. Realistically, unless the intended helper is a fully realized being (in the Buddhist sense) their motives will be mixed, at best. Sometimes this might not be problematic but sometimes it could be. Another consideration about asking for help in this spiritual context is admittedly somewhat dark. A call for help, even though it may be directed to a particular and trusted helper, can sometimes be heard (and answered) by beings whose motives are patently exploitative. Without sufficiently developed spiritual clarity, it is very easy to misinterpret what might seem at first like welcome help from eavesdropping entities with evil agenda. Many traditional fairy-tales illustrate this unfortunate risk. These are a few of the reasons that the practice of asking for help from higher powers is handled in a very specific and particular way in Buddhism. Great care is taken to assure that the lines of communication between the practitioner and deity are authentic, clear and secure. Although these practices are not at all considered to be fundamental to Buddhism, in fact, some groups do seem to treat them as such. This is because we are in the human condition and have needs. There is a great difference however between acquiring the needs for living a life conducive to spiritual practice, as opposed to merely continuing to feed the dragon.
In Dzogchen practice it is axiomatic that we learn to integrate our essential qualities with the concrete facts of life, be they positive or negative. As Namkhai Norbu always says, we need to work with our circumstances. Sometimes our circumstances involve hardships that challenge or seem to exceed our abilities. Sometimes we can also become subject to intentional hardship and provocations that have been perpetrated by beings that are antagonistic toward, or jealous of our spiritual practice. At these times there are specific and powerful practices that we can employ for protection and support that effectively invoke what would unmistakably be characterized as a higher power. However, in the Dzogchen tradition, the actual connection that we maintain with our spiritual master – on the essence-to-essence level – is viewed to be the ultimate protection and support, not in the sense of a higher power, but as a genuine realization that our own essence, nature and energy constitute the context, source and character of all our experiences.