The New Age Movement was launched by Jane Robert’s channeling of the entity, Seth, who emphatically declared that “You create your own reality”. Upon hearing about the popularity of this channeled message, Ronald R. (my gentle mentor) began lamenting what he was certain would be the rapid disappearance of whatever little remained of esoteric spiritual schools. At that time I was conversely noticing what appeared to me to be the virtual explosion of such schools everywhere.
In New York City, Atlanta, Chicago, Denver and L.A., there were burgeoning groups variously devoted to: Krishna Consciousness, Zen, Medicine Circle, Tai Chi, Integral Yoga, Ramana Maharshi, Tibetan Buddhism, P.D. Ouspensky, Sun Myung Moon, Rajneesh(Osho), Scientology, Arica, Eckankar, Latihan, Rudolf Steiner, Krishnamurti, and many others that I have since forgotten. The same kind of thing was undoubtedly happening in Europe and South America as well. How was it that Ron was sensing the disappearance of esoteric schools when I was seeing them spreading like mushrooms?
The difference, of course, is that authentic schools of esoteric teachings are never in the public domain. They do not necessarily conceal themselves but often they must do so in order to avoid persecution. Sometimes an esoteric school is intentionally embedded within a public exoteric school. There have been very many instances of this kind of embedded, school-within-a-school, throughout history. In the case of Tibetan Buddhism this can also be seen. In Tibet, on one end of the spectrum was the complex ecclesiastical / governmental / commercial functioning of the Tibetan monastery, complete with all the expected and necessary aspects of controlling a populace. On the other end there were the small groups of practitioners who practiced the esoteric teachings either in secret or in seclusion, far removed from the hubbub of the monastery. In Tibet there were also many intentional communities that were typically devoted to a particular master who specialized in the practice of esoteric teachings. Some of these intentional communities still exist in Tibet and, because their practices are primarily internal and therefore not obvious, they are able to remain unperturbed by the authoritarian Chinese government since externally they don’t appear any different from anybody else. I have heard that this same type of situation occurred in Asia Minor many centuries ago when various Sufi communities were compelled to integrate into authoritarian Islamic rule. Therefore esoteric schools sometimes function inside an exoteric system, sometimes in remote isolation, and sometimes esoteric schools are compelled to go completely underground due to circumstances.
The actual criteria that qualify a spiritual teaching as esoteric are not its mere deviation from mainstream tenets of popular religious views. But rather, authentic esoteric teachings present explicitly a certain meaning that is present in conventional teachings but that requires a higher level of spiritual maturity for such meaning to be digestible. In other words, esoteric teaching is not intended to contradict conventional teachings but rather to explicate their deeper meaning. Why this deeper meaning is introduced separately from conventional teachings is because the integrity of the teaching depends on special conditions that can easily deteriorate if the situation isn’t maintained properly. For the esoteric teachings of Vajrayana, for example, the conditions are very strict. These can only be transmitted by the deliberate intention of a master to a qualified and receptive student who possesses a sufficient karmic connection. If any one of the factors is missing — the intention, the master, the qualification and receptivity of the student or the karmic connection — it is then not possible for that esoteric teaching to continue. Therefore, the dissemination of authentic esoteric teachings is generally not appropriate for large public gatherings.
The present situation with Dzogchen teachings is similar to that of Vajrayana, though not identical. Many people now seem to presume that they can study Dzogchen by simply acquiring a translation of a Dzogchen text. Of course, to some extent this is true because there are many aspects to the teachings of Dzogchen that can be easily expressed. However, the central principle upon which Dzogchen teachings actually function is called the transmission. In the context of Dzogchen, transmission means two things: first, it means the consciously deliberate transfer of knowledge from a master to a student, and second, it means a particular mode of consciousness that the student develops in order to remain in that transmitted knowledge through maintaining a particular kind of relationship with the master. Without a precise understanding of how this relationship needs to be, it is unlikely that a student would be able to maintain it. For this reason, the establishment of the correct master-student relationship was considered to be the most important initial phase of Dzogchen teachings in ancient times. These days the situation is very different but the importance of understanding and maintaining this relationship remains the same. Without this specific kind of relationship, Dzogchen teachings simply won’t work. On some spiritual website I recently read an interview with a rather well-known teacher of Dzogchen whose main connection with students is his Facebook group. In the interview this Dzogchen teacher made reference to a Dzogchen master (from whom he had received many transmissions) by saying, “He used to be my root Guru”. If this interview was transcribed accurately, this then illustrates a complete lack of understanding of the correct master-student relationship that is necessary for Dzogchen. By using the past tense, “used to be”, he indicates that he either no longer maintains the relationship at all, or that he no longer considers that master to have the importance of “root Guru”. Either way, this is a major error in Dzogchen because, if this teacher no longer maintains the correct relationship with his master, then none of the teachings that he received from that master can be successfully transmitted to his own students. This is called a break in the lineage. In Dzogchen, it doesn’t work to just get some teachings from a master and then pass those teachings on to others. This is because the viability of the Dzogchen teaching is a function of what is called samaya. Although this word is well known in Vajrayana, it has a unique and esoteric meaning in Dzogchen. Without correctly understanding and maintaining the esoteric meaning of samaya in Dzogchen, the teachings will not work.
Padmasambhava was a master of many esoteric teachings and his knowledge was not limited by cultural perspectives. He taught extensively in Tamil, Iran, Oddiyana, pre-Islamic Transoxania, Kashmir and north-western China, before being invited to establish Buddhism in Tibet. Padmasambhava not only established Buddhism in Tibet, he also introduced the essential Dzogchen teachings and explained how the Dzogchen praxis could be integrated with almost any cultural or religious tradition. As is characteristic of esoteric teachings in general, the crucial esoteric information was only given mouth to ear. These are called the ear-whispered teachings of Dzogchen and these were only transmitted to eight of Padmasambhava’s closest disciples. Therefore, even if you were to search through all the existing Dzogchen books, you would not find these ear-whispered teachings. They can only be received through oral transmission from of a master who received that lineage and has maintained the sacred samaya.
May the real meaning of devotion arise in those who seek the definitive truth of self-liberation.