Notes from a Dharma Gypsy

On the historical and experiential development of Wisdom teachings in Buddhism


As I’ve traveled the last three decades between different Buddhist traditions, I’ve noticed a few things that may be of use to my fellow students, whether they practice in the framework of one tradition and lineage only, or whether they take up teachings that are appropriate to them from different schools of thought.

Criticism from the outside

I learned very early on that many teachers offer something of value for our lives and practice, and at the same time, there was often criticism of other approaches, methods and schools of thought. This can be good, if it is constructive, and informed. I found though that too often there was prejudice, and uniformed criticism that was limiting.

While some will identify with the path I’ve chosen, of learning from different teachings, I know there are others who will resist and say a person should stick to one tradition. A lot of people also feel that their approach alone is the “one true path to realization”.  Unfortunately, this limiting dogmatism has always been associated with religion and spiritual study.

To this group I have nothing to say, really, and while I admire the devotion of people who learn from just one teacher, if often becomes narrow, fanatical, and closed minded. They may attain good results for themselves, but as far as I’m concerned, more often than not, they miss when they criticize other paths and ways of practicing. Please see if what I am saying is true, or not.

For those who would learn from different traditions and lineages however, I would here like to offer a few of the thoughts that have helped me the most over the years.

I started visiting centers and going on retreat only after about a decade of study, and even then I would move between different methods of teaching and practice, and I noticed some interesting things. The first, as I mentioned, was that quite often teachers criticized other ways of understanding, and to my mind it was often uninformed criticism.

I also saw that people were at different stages of understanding the teachings I had been hearing and reading about, and practicing. This led me to the my first working idea that I’ve used as guidance when receiving different teachings, and that is that

Any teaching can be misunderstood

I point this one back at myself, first of all, asking if I’m understanding correctly. Am I practicing as they are setting it out for me? I add this on account of the scholar’s tendency to try to understand things with the intellect alone, without practicing the teachings. This is all too common. Of course this often leads to mistakes, so I try to see when I have put the teachings into practice before having what I would call an informed opinion as to whether the teaching is a good one, or if it has been sold short, or is not complete in some way.

The Buddha taught that we should test out his teachings, to see if they really did lessen and uproot the causes of suffering in our lives, and in this world. This to me is the gold standard, the characteristic of a non-dogmatic Buddhist approach to study and realization.

This leads quite naturally to a second working principle I have when receiving different teachings, and that is, that

there are valid criticisms

This applies especially to the Wisdom teachings in Buddhism. If we know what these are, here in particular, we will be much less likely to fall into errors in our practice and realization.

Every approach to realization has its strengths and characteristic pitfalls, if they are not recognized and adjusted for, implicitly, through continued practice, or explicitly, in clear language.

To briefly describe the history of Buddhist Wisdom teachings, we can refer simply to a few key words.


Two thousand five hundred years ago, the historical Buddha taught anatta, or non-self, and he did so in the context of the traditional Hindu teachings of his time. The idea in Hinduism is that there is the false ego, and there is the Atma, the Self that is in all beings. This can be misunderstood, however, and we can imagine and grasp a self where no self exists.

The Buddha is reported to have said,

“I have uncovered an ancient path”,

which to me means that didn’t invent the level of realization he attained, and taught others to know for themselves. It also affirms for me something that I’ve felt all along, that there are Sages, wise and holy people in all traditions. The question is always whether the teachings are being understood, and practiced properly.

The teachings on ego and Atma are meant to bring a person beyond the ego and suffering, but they often aren’t understood that way, and so the Buddha taught an-atma, no self, to correct the attachment to the illusory self, and to anything less than who and what we are.

If we want to know the valid criticisms of any one historical era’s wisdom teachings, we can either look at the subsequent traditions that developed, or we can see these adjustments coming from practice within the tradition itself.

That these lineages have in many cases continued to the present day means that they have often incorporated the justified criticism into their approach.  It’s also possible that, to some people’s minds at least, they leave something out.


In the first centuries after the historical Buddha, the non-self teachings were further elaborated on in the Prajna Paramita, or Perfection of Wisdom Sutras. These are sometimes referred to as the Second Turning of the Wheel of Dharma.  The most famous of Prajna Paramita teachings today are known as the Heart Sutra, and the Diamond Sutra (the world’s oldest printed book). In these teachings, the key term is shunyata, or emptiness.

This refers not only to the absence in reality of the personal self we manufacture and cling to, but also to the ideas we have of places, events, and objects we take as unitary, separate, and permanent. Ideally, the experience of the emptiness of these lead us to a dynamic realization of this fluid world, guided by compassion. These teachings, however, can be misunderstood as nihilistic. A person may think that emptiness means that nothing exists. As Thich Nhat Hanh said, we should ask, “empty of what?”

The same word can have very meanings.  For example, the word ‘burn’ means something very different to a chef, and a personal trainer (feel the burn, which is a good thing), and again to a photographer in the darkroom, where ‘to burn’ means to darken an area of a photograph.

The great saint of the 2nd and 3rd centuries, Nagarjuna, said that it is better to grasp a self where none exists than to misunderstand the teachings on emptiness, and then to deny cause and effect.


Things appear differently from from the way they exist. It’s like how a mosaic that appears one way when seen from a distance, and is understood differently when we  look more closely.

The Middle Way philosophy developed in the first centuries of the common era aims to counter misunderstanding by teaching emptiness as dependent arising. This means that things exist relatively, and so we have cause and effect, but we can be free from the grasping at a self that is the cause of samsara – endless wandering.

The Middle Way teachings also skillfully identify the root cause of samsara as the gak-cha, or the refuting object.  It’s clearly taught that the antidote the the very subtle mind that grasps the existence of a self is a very subtle mind that recognizes the emptiness, or actual non-existence of this.  This is what we need to cultivate.

In the Middle Way teachings, the two ways we can misunderstand reality is to either reify, and grasp at a self where none exists, or to err in the other direction, and assert that nothing exists, which is the extreme of nihilism. We need the wisdom that sees accurately the way that things exist. Then we are free from samsara, and from a cold, mere detachment from the world, what they call ‘the ghost cave’ in Zen.

In each approach mentioned so far, there are ways of possibly misunderstanding the teachings. When it comes to the Middle Way, the method of analysis and resting the mind with what is found can be rendered ineffective. If people don’t have a good deal of quiet meditation, taming and concentrating their mind, there would be not enough strength of mind to cut through the concrete concepts we have.  People study, and think, and debate, write books, and can speak eloquently about emptiness, but without realization based on combining calm abiding and special insight, such words are dry as bones. What’s worse, their interpretations are prone to mistakes.

This should not just be a subject for scholars, which it often becomes. It’s far too important for that.

Another potential mistake within the Middle Way approach is that it can stop at mere negation.  There is a positive side to what is revealed through Wisdom practice, decreasing and removing the false ego.

As Arya Nagarjuna wrote, in In Praise of the Dharmadhatu:

When a metal garment which has become stained with contaminations
and is to be cleansed by fire, is put in fire,
its stains are burned but it is not;

So, with regard to the mind of clear light,
which has the stains of desire and so forth,
its stains are burned by the fire of wisdom,
but its nature, clear light, is not.

Our original nature is bright and clear, and filled with positive qualities, such as joy and ease. There we find kindness, gentleness, patience, generosity and compassion, existing in abundance, naturally.

Though we are practicing a path here that is aimed at removing illusion, we find there is more to us than we imagined.

I every case, we should check to see if teachings have the mistakes that are characteristic to them, or if our own understanding of them is complete.


Two other approaches to liberation from the Tibetan Tradition use non conceptual wisdom. The first of these, known as the Great Perfection Teachings, or Dzogchen developed and was brought to Tibet by Padmasambhava in the late 8th, and early 9th century.

Bodhidharma brought what is today known as Chan to China in the 6th century, and these teachings have similar characteristics. One well known Zen teaching is this:

A special transmission outside the scriptures;
No dependence on words and letters;
Direct pointing to the mind of man;
Seeing into one’s nature and attaining Buddhahood

In later centuries also in Tibet, the Mahamudra tradition developed, based on both the Middle way and Great Perfection teachings, and in practice also making use of non conceptual wisdom.

What these teachings have in common is the experience of the nature of mind.

The Great Perfection, Mahamudra and the intuitive Chan or Japanese Zen traditions use the method of resting in the nature of mind as it is, without complexity or analysis, knowing our nature directly, and freeing our mind from confusion and suffering.

Valid criticism:

There are characteristic sidetracks to this approach as well.

One is that a person may not have enough discriminating awareness functioning in his or her mindstream to cut the root of samsara, as taught by the Buddha, with this approach alone. I heard one teacher recommend to a student that she study the philosophical side of the teachings, to develop her sharp analytical awareness.  Then she would be able access Right View, and benefit from the methods that use the wisdom beyond concepts.

When learning philosophy and wisdom teachings, a person can also neglect the qualitative aspects of the mind and perception.

One teaching I’ve found very useful here is on what they call ‘the two obscurations’ – the obscuration of conceptual thought, and the qualitative obscurations, which are those that veil the mind due to negative emotions.

Quieting the mind, and deconstructing the false ego can be effective in removing the conceptual obscurations, but we still have to account for the quality of the mind we have when we practice meditation with the aim of developing wisdom.

The heart practices of loving kindness and compassion, gentleness, forgiveness, patience, generosity, humility, and joy, all brighten the mind.  Then when we let go of concepts, our experience is rich, beautiful, free and clear.

One other possible sidetrack emerges here. We can have the experience of a clear mind, but it is possible that the cause of suffering is still there as a seed, or latent tendency, waiting for conditions to come together for it to manifest again. We should check up to see if this is so.


If people want to know
all Buddhas of all times,
they should contemplate the nature of the cosmos:
all is but mental construction.

– From Eulogies in the Palace of Suyama Heaven, from chapter 20 of the Avatamsaka Sutra

What I call the Mind Only Schools, broadly speaking, introduce an essential concept here, and that is that

there are different levels to the mind

and that we all need to understand our mind well, to attain liberation from suffering, and enjoy freedom and peace. These teachings, also from the early centuries of the common era, include the Avatamsaka Sutra, as well as those on Buddhist psychology.

This one idea can counter the misunderstanding that can arise, of thinking that merely resting in a state of clarity is itself liberation, or as they term it in the Theravada ‘the remainderless cessation’ of ego-grasping suffering and its cause.

As with other traditions of teaching, here sometimes criticisms have made their way back to the instruction, or the ways of erring were realized from within the practice itself. For example, in the Mahamudra teachings offered by Lama Kong Ka (the fifteenth Karmapa’s tutor), we have this, in the section called The Errors in Mahamudra Practice:

If one only cultivates ‘Blissfulness,’ ‘Illumination,’and Non-distinction’ without practicing ‘penetrating-observation-into-the-mind,’ it still cannot be considered as the correct Mahamudra practice.

Knowing that there are levels of mind, if we are wise, we will look to see if we have uprooted the source of suffering within, and not accept anything less than this.

A koan – practice question

A koan is the term in Zen for a question we use in meditation to reflect on, that can open up an experience.

When it comes to liberation, here is the question I would have us consider, referring to the wisdom that can cut the root of samsara:

If wisdom is not found in concepts,
or in the mere absence of concepts,
then where is wisdom found?

The teachings in the Mind Only School, and in Buddhist psychology say that there are different levels of mind that need to be worked with, and transformed. They say that we need transformation at the base, and not just on the surface.


I recognize now that each of the main Buddhist wisdom traditions developed within a period of a thousand or twelve hundred years, from 500 bc and the historical Buddha, to the later expressions of practice and realization, in 600 to 700 AD. There was overlap, and communication between the different schools of thought and practice, but what we have received down to today was essentially set forth in this time period.


The Buddha Nature teachings are part of what are called the Third Turning of the Wheel of Dharma.

The Uttara Tantra, also titled The Peerless Continuum was written down by Asanga around 300 AD, and the ideas there are present in Zen, the Lotus and Avatamsaka schools, and they serve as the foundation for Tantra in Tibet.

The main idea is that

all beings have buddha nature, the potential for enlightenment

This is exactly the opposite of what we usually think of, when we hold an ordinary view of ourselves and others! This is a positive counter to wrong view. Having pure perception, we can’t put ourselves or others down. Instead we have to become awake and clear about this, and help others have this realization.

Valid criticism:

If these teachings are misunderstood, or taken wrongly, we could fixate on a self out of this original nature, which is, in the language of the Diamond Sutra, ‘ungraspable and non-deceptive’.

In the Vajrayana, we train then in seeing ourselves, and others, and this world as both divine in nature, and made of light, transparent, luminous, unobstructed, and able to receive and communicate with others. We call this a training, but it is actually familiarizing ourselves with the way things are already, in themselves. Eventually we learn to see this, and it directly counters wrong view.

I recall the Avatamsaka Sutra being described as how an enlightened person sees and experiences the world. It’s method is quite different than that of analysis, or learning to experience the mind itself. Thich Nhat Hanh said, if you like poetry, you will enjoy the Avatamsaka Sutra. I think he was referring to all the sutras that use imagery, and story to communicate. They are born of, and transmit people’s devotion, and insight.

He says, in the beginning of The Heart of the Buddha’s Teaching:

“When we hear a Dharma talk or study a sutra, our only job is to remain open.  Usually when we hear or read something new, we just compare it to our own ideas.  If it is the same, we accept it and say that it is correct.  If it is not, we say it is incorrect. In either case, we learn nothing. If we read or listen with an open mind and an open heart, the rain of the Dharma will penetrate the soil of our consciousness.

The gentle spring rain permeates the soil of my soul.
A seed has lain deeply in the earth for many years just smiles.

“When reading or listening, don’t work too hard. Be like the earth.  When the rain comes, the earth only has to open herself up to the rain.  Allow the rain of the Dharma to come in and penetrate the seeds that are buried deep in your consciousness.

“A teacher cannot give you the truth.  The truth is already in you.  You only need to open yourself – body, mind, and heart – so that his or her teachings will penetrate your own seeds of understanding and enlightenment.  If you let the words enter you, the soil and the seeds will do the rest of the work.”

This is a far different method of working with the mind towards liberation, maturing those elements within ourselves.

Valid points to consider:

The teachings on Buddhist psychology, the Nature of Mind teachings, sutras such as the Avatamsaka, presenting interdependence, and interbeing and the whole world as sacred can seem at times abstract, or like they are talking about another world. But look deeply. It should become clear that they are talking about this world, this very body and mind, these sentient beings, and this earth.

The ten dharma realms are not outside of a single thought, said the Venerable Hsuan Hua.

The Mahayana sutras can also be voluminous. What can we do?  Do we need to read them all, and from cover to cover? If we try to do this, we will soon be lost.  Instead we should enjoy the teachings, and receive their message.

I remember once offering to get the latest book of Rumi translations for a friend of mine. He told me it wasn’t necessary, that… Rumi was Rumi…. I understood what he meant.  As that poet and seer said, What is found there is found here… It’s just like the ocean then, that everywhere has the same taste.  How much do we need to know it, or to know the message of the Buddha’s wisdom teachings?

Ultimately, it’s up to each of us to decide what tradition or approach works for us. Spiritual teachings including Buddhism in general, and the Wisdom teachings in particular are meant to free the mind from confusion and suffering, and to help us to more effectively help others. If they do this for us, they are fulfilling their purpose.

People have such different characteristics and needs that there is no one religion, or school of thought or method that fits everyone, at every time. This should lead us to honor our differences, and respect other faiths, and practices. They could be doing for others what our own chosen path does for us. There is a saying in Buddhism that:

Practicing correctly is your own responsibility.

We may feel pressure to conform when in a group, or to please friends, or even a teacher. But we have to be honest with ourselves, and each other, and take responsibility for our own development.

They refer in Zen to what they call ‘a Way-seeking mind’.  This is nothing other than our sincere desire for the truth, and freedom, and to be of service.

I thought of two other principles that can be helpful to us as we make our way.  They are:

Be humble and respectful when receiving teachings


Maintain your critical faculties

I mention this first one because I have seen over the years, in spiritual traditions especially, how common the attitude of pride and superiority can be. When even subtle pride can block receiving any fresh insight, what to say about it when it is more obvious?

As the precepts for Thich Nhat Hanh’s Order of Interbeing say,

Do not think the knowledge you presently possess is changeless, absolute truth

Be ready to learn your whole life

The idea that we should keep our critical faculties always also comes from watching how we can be when engaging with teachers and traditions. It can be beautiful to see the devotion of students, when their teacher is good, and all the receptivity it fosters in them. When there is a deep connection to a teacher, it goes beyond words, and we are able to receive blessings and inspiration from them. It’s only natural then that we would trust them, even when there’s something we don’t understand. When we disagree with them, we will give them the benefit of the doubt, and say to ourselves, well, I don’t see it that way now, but they may be right… they’ve been right about so many other things… I should investigate…

This is well and good. A mistake is made however if we think devotion is all that is required of us on the path. If one person could gain wisdom for another, then our work would have been finished long ago, but it’s not like that! When it comes to receiving teachings, even if they come from someone we respect, we should test it before deciding whether to accepting it as true, and useful to us. This is the way we learn for ourselves.

No teacher worth his or her salt would want a student to give up their discriminating wisdom. Some people may just want others to agree with them, to satisfy their ego, but those are not the kinds of teachers we need. The really fine teachers I have known all want their students to stand on their own two feet, and to flourish in their own understanding. This is what gives them the most joy. As Thay said, ‘a good teacher is someone who helps give birth to the student’s inner teacher’.

Respect for the teachings involves deep listening. We should know the context the ideas and practices come from, and in that way we can learn to use them in our own lives, right where we are now.

In closing I will refer here to what we translate as ‘preliminary practices’, but that are really much more accurately described as  – all the practices and ways of living that are the foundation for learning.

I remember one friend telling me how Zen came from a monastic setting, and that it was with that as its background that the teachings made sense, and were effective. Even if we are not monks or nuns living in a monastery, our day by day practice can emulate the way of life of a contemplative. We can strive for simplicity and order, to live an ethical live, with discipline, and joy in the teachings we have received, and practice. Then we can understand from within what the teachings are about.

May these few words,
spoken from my heart,
help us all to open to the truth