Nontheism and the Nature of Deities and Demons
PLEASE LISTEN TO THE VIDEO HERE: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Kfl2QVIn_KE
“There is no evil. It’s relative. There aren’t any truly evil people. The ones that hurt need the most help, not punishment, they need our kindness.”
Tenzin Wangyal Rinpoche 9-15-23, Crestone, Colorado
Greetings everyone. This is Dawn Boiani-Sandberg, and I’m speaking tonight from Crestone, Colorado. I’m doing a meditation retreat with Tenzin Wangyal Rinpoche, and I had done a retreat a week ago with Tsoknyi Rinpoche, and there’s an interesting topic that’s been swirling around in my mind about deities and demons. I have a lot of information and reflection that I wanted to share with you and an audio journal about my religion, which is Tibetan Buddhism, Tibetan tantric Buddhism. And just examine with me- what is the nature of deity and a demon? What are our tantric vows? Do they help us to uncover a sense of inner confidence in healing or do at times some of the heavy handed punishment models and afterlife fears, wind up exacerbating and re-triggering very early childhood wounding from our culture? So these are the types of things I’d love to sort of dive into, if you will.
Thanks for sharing your time with me. So I wanted to start with contemplating what it is to be a Tibetan tantric Buddhist. How do you see the world and what is the nature of phenomenon? What is the nature of ourselves? And likewise, what’s the nature of all these deities that we see on our shrines and in the monasteries? We have a very elaborate practice that we do when we received an empowerment where we have very complex visualizations and mantras and we have a lot of deities. So what are these deities? Do they really exist in an ultimate way? Are they cultural based? Who and what are they? So this is a very interesting and juicy topic. I’d like to explore that first before we get into the demon part. So the deities, the way that it was explained to me was that they were anthropomorphized versions of wisdom and they’re culturally referenced.
So you might be praying to an image of Tara or Guru Rinpoche or a lot of different deities exist in Tibetan tantric pantheon. And if you look at the origin of them, most of them come from India or they were people that lived and died historically and attained enlightenment. And they all have different qualities, properties, they all look different. So do we believe in a whole pantheon of gods and ghouls and deities just like the Greco-Romans, or are they the same as the Hindu deities? Do we worship and pray to these beings as really existing? There was a conversation I was having recently on Reddit, and someone had asked, well, the Tibetans had done so many prayers to the protectors when the Maoists were invading and China was invading, and how come the protectors didn’t help the Tibetans? And I replied, well, because the power and efficacy of our practices are only relevant when we are cultivating that energy within us, and then we act in our lives to help the world.
We don’t just pray to a deity like God to make everything feel better. So as far as I was told, I went to the school at Naropa and studied Buddhist studies there. Tibetan Buddhists, even though we have a pantheon of deities, ultimately we are called non theists. And what is non theism? Non theism is explained to me as being we’re not exactly atheists. So we don’t just say there’s absolutely no gods and no mysticism in the world, and we’re just kind of like super evidence-based science. No magic, no nothing. When you die, it’s just lights out. It’s kind of the atheistic approach. But in Buddhism, we’re called non theists, which is a little bit different. It has explained to me as we don’t actually deny the existence of beings that people have related to throughout different cultures and different times, but we regard them as being fundamentally empty and a projection of awakened mind.
And that could be said for everything that ever exists, you me, a glass, all this stuff is simply a projection of mind. I recall in the Tibetan book of the Dead, when you die or when you begin the dying process, the mind will start to see all kinds of images and deities, and the instruction is always to look down at the ground and the root of that projection. And then anything that you’re seeing will subside in the ground because the origin, it’s like the allegory of the cave, Plato’s allegory of the cave where you look directly at the root projector, not the imagery. So the nature of the deities is a projection of mind and energy, but they’re fundamentally empty. They don’t have any substantial existence. They’re more like apparitions of light that are projected by our mind. So that’s what it means to me to be a non theist and to be relating with a sadana practice where you’re evoking a particular quality of energy. On my retreat, I’ve actually seen things, I’m not really supposed to speak of them, but I’ve sort of seen images of deities and different things kind of pop into space, but I never regarded them as being outside of me, like me versus deity, like this dualistic thing. It seemed more of like a non-dual projection of empty energy. So that’s my understanding of the nature of deities and basically all phenomenon.
What is “Good and Evil”
Did these things help us? Well, as long as our understanding is correct, where we’re still holding the second turning of understanding of emptiness and phenomenon, I do think a lot of these images and these deities are culturally referenced. I recall trunk ache saying once that the energy of a protector may appear to someone to be like a general, so they don’t have a concrete solid reality. It’s their projections of our culture and our time. So that’s to answer the question as to why on Reddit, the protectors didn’t help the Tibetans. Well, it’s kind of like the old adage. God helps those that help themselves. If we are supplicating the energy and quality of a deity, that’s to fortify that with us so that we can have the skillful activity. They call it the four karmas of you’re able to pacify, rich, magnetize and destroy. So when you do so practice, you are opening up dormant efficacy and compassionate activity within you.
In Our Times of Pain Or Stress, Stay with Evidence Based Science
So that’s been my understanding. Correct me if I’m wrong, please do. I think it’s always an open question, but do they help us? So I think that if your understanding is clear that you never forget about the nature of emptiness and the nature of phenomenon, then I think it’s healthy where it can get kind of difficult. I’ll give you a personal example is I had what I believe was a long covid complication and I was having terrible neuropathy. I was having pins and needles in the hands and the feet and kind of just this intermittent pain that was shooting. And I never knew when this electric shock would come and it was really destabilizing and I couldn’t sleep through the pain. And I remember laying there, I moved out of my husband in my bedroom into the shrine room, and I kept these candles lit all night long, these electric candles.
And I was laying there and I couldn’t sleep. And I was feeling extremely uncomfortable and frightened. And the only thing that I could think about after being a Tibetan Buddhist for 30 years was, oh, I’m being punished for breaking my tantric vows. So I’m actually being electrocuted as an existential punishment for some of the things that we’ve been discussing through the Me Too movement. And I wound up speaking to Sni Rinpoche about it, and he said, that’s ridiculous. You’re physical pain is not, you’re not being punished and prodded by a pitchfork. And I was kind of sad because after practicing Tibetan Buddhism for 30 years at the time of need where my practice should have provided an existential solace and comfort and sort of a connection to the vastness or compassion or patience or any quality whatsoever when I needed it most, it was actually a source of I was feeling, I was being punished and it was a source of poison in my mind rather than a source of benefit.
So at times where you might be having physical pain, another friend was just battling with anxiety, very acute anxiety, and he says, I’m having really bad karma, I’m being punished. And I said, you know what? When you’re having something to be kicked up like this, it’s not time for religious mental stuff. It’s time to stay in very grounded evidence-based science. Don’t look at everything like gods and demons and karmic purification. I mean, that’s just kind of madness and it can wind up creating harm and confusion if we start just imagining gul and goblins and deities and karmic punishments.
So I think it’s probably better to stay in very earthy evidence-based reality, especially in times of stress or sickness. I think that when I started to feel that I was somehow stained or bad, that wound up triggering some of the things that I had been through when I was young. As I’ve mentioned before in some of my previous audio recordings, I grew up in a very emotionally and physically abusive family and culture on the East coast, and I was the family scapegoat. I’ve been talking about that recently. So whenever I start to doubt myself, I start to feel like I’m bad or I’ve broken my vows. That’s not really helping me to heal and acknowledge that I’m fundamentally a good person with a good heart that speaks for ethics, maybe in an unconventional or forthright way. But I know that my heart and my practice are sound.
Early Childhood Judeo- Christian “Basic Badness”
And when I use my tantric vows to create self-doubt, that becomes a poison within my system. So it’s not helpful to think that we’re bad and whether or not we’re good or bad. It’s so funny because I’ve been somewhat of a public person. Whenever I produce something, I have at least 20 to 50 people reading it, so it’s not really, my work doesn’t really go viral, but I do, I’m quite public about what’s been going on after the Me Too movement with my Tibetan Buddhist community. And I’ve been speaking with the voice of trying to reform things because there’s been a lot that was exposed that could be improved because I value my practice, these sadana practices that we’re talking about, my teachers, some of my teachers, excuse me, I feel that things need to change or the tradition could continue to wane. And it’s been hard for me because if you put out an opinion in a tradition that we are supposed to stay silent and secret, it goes into the mass community and people will offer feedback, and the feedback hasn’t been great for me, and that’s hurt a lot.
A lot of people have left. A lot of people consider themselves survivors of sex assault or exploitative power dynamics. There’s lots been coming up about child abuse in the monasteries and child abuse in different Buddhist communities worldwide, and it’s extremely painful. I’ve deduced that there’s only four options to deal with this. The first one is to stay silent, see no evil, hear no evil. You could walk away. A lot of my friends have left the Tibetan Buddhist tradition and feel like the whole thing is fundamentally corrupt because of the power dynamics and the silencing and secrecy. Or you could try to fix it. That’s the one I’m taking. So I’m thinking like passion, aggression and ignorance. And I guess the fourth option would be to just have a very vast mind and allow it all to happen without trying to alter it. That’s generally the view.
Dakini or Demon?- It’s All Projection
However, the critique in that view to not do anything is silence, is consent, silence is complicity. Knowing that we have abuse in our tradition hurts me physically, emotionally, spiritually, and psychologically. And I really would wish and pray that we would have a consensual open conversation and accountability and willingness to change. That hasn’t happened yet, unfortunately. So it’s funny, with my particular role being somewhat public with my 50 followers, people have said to me various things like, oh my God, I am a Tibetan apologist. I’ve had a number of people say I was going to hell by talking about child abuse in the monasteries. People in the Tibetan tradition like Kempos and GEs, I’ve had a friend recently call me a demon. Within the same week, my teacher called me a dakini and said I was a teacher. So I get it’s licorice. Some people really feel that I am exposing things that they would really rather keep secret and silent, and I’m destroying the tradition.
And other people say that the work that I’ve done is heartfelt, authentic, and not unintelligent. One teacher, he said, I was a dakini and a teacher, so am I a demon or a dakini. He thinks that I’m probably neither a demon or a dakini. I think that probably a lot of these things are the projection of the beholder. And so I’m trying to not internalize such dichotomous strong blessings and curses from the peanut gallery. So we have to be ourselves. We have to be true to our own heart, speak and do the things that we feel adheres with our own ethics and our own talent in this world. And I do care about my Tibetan Buddhist tradition. I do care about all of my friends that are participating in it. I don’t want any of them to feel trapped. I don’t want children to be hurt, and I also don’t want the tradition to continue to wane.
A number of dharma centers are shutting down worldwide or they’re not being funded properly. So unless there is some fundamental change and ability to talk about stuff, I fear that within a generation or two it’s going to wane. I spoke to my ER brother, Eric Pema Kang, kind of a famous vaiana teacher from Denmark. And we agreed that the next generation of Tibetans really aren’t holding this tradition. It’s waning in the West. I talked to Tsoknyi. He says, a lot of the Tibetan families are not offering their children to the monasteries and the census is down. So I see the whole thing kind of petering out in a generation or two and some of the survivors and people who’ve left in a really hurt and angry way, they would be more than happy to see the tradition wiped off the face of the earth. I don’t personally feel that.
I feel great sadness for the plight of the Tibetan sin exile, and I think that the culture should be preserved. The language, the rituals, the color, the display, the magic, the power. It’s so fantastic and it’s such a big part of my life that I don’t want to ever let go of, but I have to let go of the toxic stuff like I’m a demon. People calling me for making videos like this. Some friends won’t speak to me anymore. They blocked me because I’ve spoken out against child abuse and said, Hey, maybe some of these teachers need to not be acting in such a really heavy handed, cruel, sometimes even psychopathic. Some of these guys are really out there and they wind up tainting the ones that actually are really super gentle. So it’s a mixed bag of so much color and display. So I think that it will take some time to resolve all the things that have arisen in our tradition, and it probably won’t be resolved within my lifetime.
So I think just in general, if a lot of us came into the Dharma as refugee refugees with a lot of pain and a lot of longing and a lot of trust and a lot of hope, and we hoped for something that would help us like a medicine, something that was magical and fantastic and transformational, we were told that we could attain enlightenment within one lifetime. It sounds really good, although myself included, and a lot of my friends were finding now 20, 30, 40 years later, that a lot of these practices didn’t quite result in the qualities of accomplishment that we were hoping to after all these years. And what I realized was I used my religion basically as a spiritual bypass, and that is you have a lot of dormant wounding. I came from child abuse and then I would meditate and take empowerments, and then I thought I was really spiritual and really accomplished, and I thought I was some hot dini that had studied with the great masters, and I thought I was kind of better than everybody else, sort of because I had this great noble birth and all this privilege.
Archaic Religion with vows and punishments don’t help to heal
So I used the dharma and my relationship with Tibetan or Vajrayana Buddhism as a credential in how I regarded myself. And it turned out that that whole thinking crashing down. And I realized that I had very, very deep childhood wounding that I had blocked out. That is all coming up now as I’m getting older. And I’ve been having to really just deal with whether or not I’m a lovable person, whether or not I have this basic goodness, whether or not I’m evil, stained, bad, unlovable. So just very, very early imprints like that that came from my family of origin. And some of this heavy handed stuff, as I said before, isn’t necessarily helping the stain in your tantric vows and demon, all this kind of stuff. It’s just not that helpful for me. So I’m basically going to the essence of my practice in a really simple way that just allows everything to settle down and open. And I believe that that’s the essence of my teacher and the essence compassion where those qualities of healing can really take place.
As far as demons and deities, I believe that they are projections of mind. When people are in one week, I get a mixed message from different people, they project onto you. But I think that from my practice that everything, when you do your practice, everything can kind of resolve into that ground of clarity, openness, and emptiness. And I think that that’s a good place to train in and to rest. And I think that by training in that way, free from a lot of the heavy handed cultural stuff that can be really hateful, shunning people, judging people, deifying people, demonizing people, this whole stuff is just a projection of a lot of mental calisthenics.
What is Enlightenment?
The things that bring qualities of tenderness, openness, authenticity, and ethics would be the path that I want to continue to take as a tantric Buddhist. And I do think the tree needs to be heavily pruned from a lot of stuff that has been adopted, that is culture that wounds up, that winds up re-triggering a lot of that basic badness from our Judeo-Christian culture. Or if you did grow up in a family where there was abuse, we don’t want to have a community that upholds unhealthy tenants. We want to have a community that’s healthy, transparent, loving, and truly ethical. And we haven’t quite gotten there yet, but I will pray that I’ll be able to see that within my lifetime. So thank you so much for listening~