The Sutra Foundation

In 1997 I met HH Taklung Tsetrul Rinpoche at Namdroling Monastery in Bylakuppe. He had been invited to give the complete empowerments and transmission of the Northern Treasures by HH Penor Rinpoche, whose disciple I had been since since the early ‘80s. I was happy to be back at Namdroling because I had helped Penor Rinpoche raise a lot of money to build the monastery. Also, at various times Penor Rinpoche had told me to do a particular practice and each time it turned out to be from the Northern Treasures. After a couple of meetings, Taklung Tsetrul Rinpoche asked me if I could start a group in America. I tried several times to no avail. Circumstances changed unexpectedly and opportunities presented themselves, Westerners and even Tibetans called me to say: Start now. Coincidentally, that was he day that Rinpoche’s body was cremated in Simla.

I had always thought that left to my own devises, I would start a group called “The Bodhisattva Society” or something like that and teach main sutra. I became a Buddhist reading the sutras. That started years before I met Penor Rinpoche. I started out reading the sutras of Sukavati, especially the vows made by the Bodhisattva Dharmakara who later became the Buddha Amitabha. I spent a year in graduate school thinking I would study Christian heresies and patristics but ended up reading sutras and scholarly journals for any hint that being born in the Pure Land was the same as realizing the state of “Amitabhaness.”  I had to make up a word because I had no idea it was already clearly taught in the vehicles of Vajrayana.

Along the way, there are been a few times when I have been so disgusted and even outraged at the action of Buddhists, both practitioners and teachers, that I thought: if this is Buddhism, I’m no Buddhist. Whatever these people are, I’m not that. Each time I turned to the sutras and read the words of the Buddha himself. Each time I realized that the Dharma itself is stainless and immaculate. This is for no other reason that the power of the Teacher and the Teachings.

When a girl friend of mine told me on my fortieth birthday that an effigy of me had been urinated on, stabbed with weapons, run over with cars, and (my favorite part) a banana representing my manhood was smashed with a brick or something, my first response was sadness for people so deluded. My second response was sadness that I had ever thought people capable of such things were somehow capable of understanding Dharma. And finally: how could Tibetan masters – including mine and theirs – let this go unanswered. (More on that in another post).

Regardless of those questions, I had read the sutras and understood that for me taking refuge in the Buddha, the Dharma, and the noble sangha was not in doubt. Even those who engage in such ridiculous and obviously stupid actions are shocking, even traumatic events that the Bodhicaryavatara and prayers by masters such as Thangthong Gyalpo show us how to use on the bodhisattva path.

My point here is this: There are great teachers who have told me that I should teach the prelimnary, foundation practices (ngundro). I have no interest in big hats, big thrones, big titles. I see myself more as a social worker who helps people negotiate their way onto the path, survive any initial shocks, and sift  the cultural aspects of Vajrayana from the actual dharma.

I’m no expert in any of this but I have learned a few things so to fulfill TTR’s request, and to help make these teachings available in this country to anyone who might have a connection, I will do what I can. Then when the time is right and students are ready, we will invite teachers who are qualified to give the transmissions and empowerments.

Until then, by using the sutra teachings, I hope people will have a foundation that will help them weather any dharma scene or personal storm that they might encounter. Besides, before one says, “I take refuge in the Buddha” one should know what he taught. And to know what he himself taught, we should read his words. Scholarly debates over who wrote the Mahayana Sutras are for scholars to debate. We will assume they are what they are. 

Michael Burroughs