For Reliance on the Dharma

by Wayne Ren-Cheng

Dipping your toes into the vast river of Buddhist teachings can be frustrating and confusing. The language, the concepts, and the practice can seem alien to curious Westerners.You might want to enter the stream but you’re unsure how to reach the other side. You’re told that the Buddha never wrote anything down, that the Pali Nikayas contain sutras said to be his words written down from as soon as a year after Siddhartha’s death to hundreds, and in some cases thousands of years later. Throughout those times and for the following couple of thousand years more texts were added. In every country that Buddhism touched there arose teachers and scholars, Chinese, Tibetan, Sri Lankan, Japanese and more. From the Theravada and Mahayana, Tibetan and Japanese, Nicheren and Pure Land, came non-canonical writings and commentaries meant to offer the dharma through the lens of each particular tradition. All of it claims to be the Dharma, and in some sense they are all the dharma if, capital D or lower case d they are experienced as the reality of the world we live in.

Authenticity is wanted, searched for, and has been argued over for thousands of years. The questions is, in this contemporary moment is authenticity the key to offering the dharma. In the Tibetan tradition rather than focusing on authenticity of who wrote it or said it or practiced it, the focus is on the efficacy of each teaching. This is determined through engaging the teaching in moment-to-moment living. Efficacy that is realized through action.

Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche, the head of the Shambhala lineage and Shambhala International, a network of urban Buddhist meditation centers, retreat centers, monasteries, a university, and other enterprises, founded by his father, the late Buddhist Master Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche. He promotes intent rather than rule, wisdom rather than knowledge as more important in Buddhist practice. In his book, ‘The Sword of Wisdom’ he says, “If you do not have such understanding, Then, like a blind man leaning on his staff, You can rely on fame, mere words or what is easy to understand, And go against the logic of the four reliances.” In a later interview Mipham Rinpoche make this point much clearer. “The question of authorship was an important one for early Buddhists concerned with authenticity. But over the centuries it has become less so. Nowadays Buddhists resolve this issue by considering the teaching contained in the text on its own merits. Accordingly, the principle of the Four Reliances (catuh-pratisarana) has developed to deal with this issue: We are urged to rely on the teaching and not the author, the meaning and not the letter, the truth and not the convention, the knowledge and not the information. Thus, if a teaching accords with the Dharma, then the teacher must have been a buddha or someone empowered by a buddha to speak on his or her behalf.”

The Four Reliances are from the Tibetan tradition and is dharma, dharma that can help bring about real understanding that arises from experiencing the actions connected with the words.

Four Reliances (to learning Buddhist Dharma)
The four standards of Appropriate Dharma which should be relied upon and abided by:

Before going further what does it mean to ‘abide’. It is an acceptance through experience that one thought or action is effective, then making those thoughts and actions integral to how one interacts with the causal world.
To abide by the Dharma, not the person – No perfect person has, or will ever teach the Dharma. Even Siddhartha was refining his human being-ness until the moment of Paranirvana; Trungpa Rinpoche had difficulties with alcohol and sex, and for a time set aside the robes of a Tulku; and Martin Luther King, Jr. was a known womanizer, yet the lessons they each offer hold great value for developing HOW we are. To experience the dharma one must look past personality and fame and abide by the lessons that work to promote liberation and human flourishing.

To abide by the sutras of ultimate truth, not the sutras of incomplete truth – The Buddha made it clear that the dharma was subject to impermanence and co-dependent arising, that “all dharmas are forms of emptiness”. This would preclude the idea of an “ultimate truth,” one that would remain true no matter the time, context or situation. Some Buddhist teachers say that suffering is an ultimate truth of human existence . . . in our present moment it would difficult to dis-agree. What about a hundred, two hundred or a thousand years from now? If, through the efforts of countless Buddhists and others whose goal is the alleviation of suffering succeed then is suffering an ultimate truth?


There is no overriding “ultimate” truth in a contemporary/traditionalist view of Buddhist philosophy and practice. That impermanence and causal conditioning are factors in all phenomena then an “ultimate” truth should be viewed as that truth that works in a particular situation. The lessons taught in some sutras will have relevance in that moment while in the next moment it would be “incomplete”. Each “truth” arises from the experience of applying the dharma . . . not from the dharma itself. Each “truth” is co-dependent on how one applies the dharma to each unique situation.


to abide by the meaning, not the word – Resist Dogmatism. The written word gives the illusion of permanence, an illusion that can result in the words gaining more importance than what the words were meant to convey. For example, in the Sigalovada Sutra the Buddha speaks with Sigala about the importance of the commitments in the relationship of husband and wife. He offered to Sigala that by acting on the commitments of honor, respect, fidelity, budgeting wisely, acting skillfully, organizing duties, showing hospitality to friends and family, sharing authority and showing each other appreciation that a husband and wife would have a relationship grounded in loving-kindness. Certainly there is “truth” in this traditional view. Today do we limit the value of the Sigalovada Sutra by continuing to apply the lessons of the sutra to a married couple, man and woman? Or, do we accept the realities of contemporary life and culture, extending these teachings to domestic partners no matter what combination they come in?


to abide by the wisdom, not the knowledge – For a contemporary Buddhist practitioner there are thousands of books on Buddhism, every flavor and tradition. Include the videos, blogs and Buddhist temples available and knowledge is not hard to find. I began the journey on the Noble Path as a “book Buddhist. I gathered knowledge of the how, when, why, who, and where of Buddhism and it made me feel good. When I filled out a form that asked for religious preference I checked the Buddhist box and that made me feel good. I was an example of recognition without realization . . . not so good. Until I actually learned to make the lessons of the Dharma/dharma part of HOW I responded to life on a moment-to-moment basis did wisdom begin to arise. Knowledge has value ONLY when it becomes an actionable component in HOW you are; then it is wisdom realized.


The Four Reliances are all about getting past the delusions that can come with person, place or thing. It isn’t who or what offers the lessons of the Dharma/dharma; it is how you apply, recognize and then realize those teachings as an integral part of HOW you are. It is up to you to turn knowledge into wisdom. No book, video or teacher IS the dharma, they are only a conduit of the knowledge that comes with putting the dharma into practice, and examples of the wisdom that can arise through effort and commitment. The core lesson of the Four Reliances is that it isn’t an external person like a guru or teacher, the words, and the knowledge that is meant to be relied on. The lesson ultimately is that a Buddhist practitioner must rely on themselves to turn words into actions and knowledge into wisdom.

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