Tests for the Authenticity of a Spiritual Path

Clear headedness is essential in the choice of a spiritual path. But how can we make an informed and solid decision? One that will enable us to establish a lifetime’s commitment in the sure knowledge that it is the right path for us.

If we are honest, it is unlikely we come (or came) to this with the clarity embodied in the advice given by the master Chogyal Phakpa when he was asked for counsel by a certain  14th century Mongol prince. From Lama Jampa’s account of that historic meeting, even today we can easily see how Phakpa’s counsel brings a fresh clarity to these basic questions. So well-founded is it that there is no need to reinterpret it for modern times. 

As part of his advice, Phakpa gives some reasons why one may be looking for spiritual guidance on how to face life’s vicissitudes. It can, he says, be as simple-sounding as how to deal with the pain of separation from dear ones; or the continual coming up against circumstances that cause pain – physical, mental or emotional. We feel very insecure, not yet having been able to overcome such things. Hence we seek a reliable “refuge” in which we will be able to face adverse circumstances with understanding, acceptance and ultimately freedom from suffering.  

There are, of course, many paths available to us in our modern world. And even at the time of the Mongol Emperors when Phakpa was delivering his advice, there was a wide array of spiritual paths, all claiming authenticity in their various ways. This is why Phakpa saw fit to spell out in straightforward terms, how one can bring clear-headedness to this decision. 

Phakpa sets out four criteria for judging a path to be an excellent one: one in which a person can have full confidence in their heart:

  • One cannot find fault in any of its words or meaning. 
  • It can be substantiated by what is termed “the two valid cognitions”: direct experience and inferential reasoning.
  • It is free of inconsistencies and contradictions 
  • It brings happiness and welfare when put into practice

The first of these is straightforward. It means that if we were to listen to the teachings with a critical ear, we would not be able to find fault. In short, we are able to recognise truthfulness in what it says.     

The second needs some further explanation. Valid cognition by direct experience concerns that which we can perceive through our senses. For example, separation from dear ones causes us suffering, as do sickness, old age and death.

Inferential reasoning, on the other hand, concerns aspects which are hidden from direct sense experience. An analogy is being able to infer the existence of fire from the sight of smoke. The Lama explained how inferential reasoning is used to deduce the fact of rebirth, which cannot be seen directly by ordinary people. This reasoning shows the necessary existence of prior lives through the existence of consciousness in this life. Every aspect of the teaching should be able to be tested through one’s own direct experience or inferential reasoning so that it can be fully understood and accepted by the practitioner..

The third point is that there should be no contradictions or inconsistencies within the body of the teachings. When the entire body of Lord Buddha’s teachings is examined, no real contradictions or inconsistencies are found to exist. Buddha, being an extraordinarily skilful teacher, presented his teachings in accord with the mentalities of the many people to whom he gave advice. Hence, any apparent inconsistency will have arisen from differences in the level of understanding between audiences to whom the Buddha was teaching. 

The fourth quality advocated by Phakpa is that, when put into practice, the teachings bring happiness and our welfare in place of suffering. 

In this section of setting out the Path to the prince, Phakpa was focusing on teachings from Buddha’s First Turning of the Wheel of Dharma. This section of teachings show us how to find freedom from suffering for ourselves. Even if one’s aspiration is towards cultivation of love and compassion for others, there are sound reasons for us to have gained proper understanding and direct experience of these four qualities before imagining we know what is best for others. What would we be meaning, for example, if we were to say we wished others to have happiness and the causes of happiness if we were doubtful about the causes of happiness?

In the third section of Phakpa’s setting out of the path for the prince, he explains how one builds on the understanding and experiences of these basic teachings in order to develop loving kindness and compassion into the altruistic motivation of Bodhichitta. Lama Jampa will teach that section of Phakpa’s text in Bristol on 4th October.

Please note that posts in this blog are not intended to represent full accounts of teachings given by the Lama. They focus on particular aspects of teachings that the authors think may be of interest to people coming new to the Dharma, and other fellow students. They represent the understanding of the authors who bear responsibility for the content. Please address any comments to blog@dechen.org.