Thursday, 29 May 2014

Secretism in Buddhism

In the midst of doing things one is supposed to be doing, thoughts/ideas may occur to one that seem to require writing down. Many of what seem beautiful/creative/unusual ideas/thoughts that occur to one never get recorded because one does not have the time to write them down. What a pity! I have tons of other things to do but I am nonetheless jotting down these few thoughts that occur to me now, namely, some thoughts related to “Secretism in Buddhism.” 

I follow the abstract of Paul C. Johnson, “Secretism and the apotheosis of Duvalier.” Journal of the American Academy of Religion 74(2), 2006, pp. 420–445, where the following is stated 
( “‘Secretism’ refers to the active invocation of secrecy as a source of a group’s identity, the promotion of the reputation of special access to restricted knowledge, and the successful performance or staging of such access.”

Some venues of exploration would be: What would be “secrets” according to Buddhist sources? Are there “secrets” in Buddhism? What kinds of secrecy can be traced in Buddhism? Why would one keep certain information secret?

“Secret” as an adjective is said to mean “not known or seen or not meant to be known or seen by others.” As a noun, it is “something that is kept or meant to be kept unknown or unseen by others: a state secret | at first I tried to keep it a secret from my wife.” It can also mean “something that is not properly understood; a mystery: I’m not trying to explain the secrets of the universe in this book.” 

In Tibetan Buddhist sources such as the exegetic works of the *Guhyagarbhatantra, two expressions are used to describe “secret/secrecy,” namely, sgab pa’i gsang ba and sbas pa’i gsang ba. But what exactly is the difference between sgab pa and sbas pa? The verb sgab pa seems to be “intransitive and yet autonomous” (and behaves like the verb ’gro ba, which is a verb of motion and thus intransitive and autonomous). Perhaps one can regard sgab pa as a reflexive verb and hence translate it as “to hide/conceal oneself, “to go into hiding,” or, perhaps contextually “to remain concealed/hidden.” The verb sbas pa is transitive and autonomous, and hence mean “to hide/conceal (something).” So it seems that sgab pa’i gsang ba means “secret/secrecy, which is characterized by [the information of someone/something] remaining hidden/concealed [for reasons such as profundity/transcendency/mystery].” Perhaps such a “secret/secrecy” can best be equated with “natural/innate secret/secrecy” (rang bzhin gyis gsang ba). Such a “secret/secrecy” may be made public or open to all but may still remain hidden/concealed. It is more like a puzzle or riddle. For one who has solved the puzzle/riddle, it would no longer be a secret. But it remains naturally hidden or concealed to anyone who has not solved or cannot solve it. The expression sbas pa’i gsang ba may be understood as a “secret/secrecy, which is characterized by [the information of someone/something] being deliberately hidden/concealed [for reasons such as untimeliness, inappropriateness, or, unsuitability of revealing it].” 

The issue of whether there is at all what one might call “secret teachings” in pre/non-Mahāyāna Buddhism may be debatable. According to some, Buddha has revealed everything and nothing remains hidden/concealed. According to others, what the Buddha revealed to his disciples constitutes only a fraction of what he knew. But we cannot deny that certain practices, even Vinaya practices, are not revealed to all and are “kept hidden” from certain persons mainly for some specific reasons.

Of course in Mantric Mahāyāna, the idea of secret/secrecy, becomes even more significant. The bottom-line seems to be that an information may “remain secret” because it is profound or complex, and an information is “kept secret” because revealing it to certain persons under certain circumstances would be detrimental to those persons.

The idea of secret or secrecy would work or would be applicable only to those persons who are not omniscient. For those who consider the Buddha to be omniscient, the Buddha would have no secrets. Nothing can be “kept secret” from the Buddha and nothing “remains secret” to the Buddha. The Buddha has nothing to hide and one cannot hide anything from the Buddha!

One ethical enigma comes to my mind. Suppose if Māra (or the Devil) were to entrust me with a secret, would I reveal it to anyone, say, for example, for a very noble purpose? I personally would not give my word to the Māra (or the Devil) to keep his secret but if I had given my word, I would try to keep my word. This would be not to please the Māra (or the Devil) but to keep my own ethical-moral integrity.

The chancellor of Germany (Mr. Helmut Kohl) had promised his donors to keep their donation anonymous. The donation turned out to be problematic and he was pressured to reveal the anonymity of his donors but he did not yield to the pressure and decided to keep his promise. Despite the scandalous nature of the donation affairs, I think that Mr. Kohl has been able to maintain, at least in one aspect, his ethical-moral integrity. He might have even wished that he had not given his word to keep the source of donation secret but because he had given his word, he decided to keep his word, that is, whatever may be the consequences. I know many people were horrified at Mr. Kohl’s decision and action, but personally, somehow, I find Mr. Kohl’s decision quite respectable and admirable because I find “betrayal,” even of Māra, to be innately ignoble. I also know that Mr. Snowden is a hero for so many people in the world and his actions of revealing secrecy has been celebrated as heroic deeds. His motives may indeed be noble but again he had the choice to give or not to give his trust to the Government for which he worked and he did give his trust. As much as I try to sympathize with him and his cause, I have a fundamental problem with his breach of trust (i.e. treachery) and act of betrayal. I find there is something innately ignoble in betraying someone. I may in praxis even betray someone but I would be ashamed of my ignoble deeds, let alone celebrate them as noble deeds. Had Mr. Snowden got those secret information as a spy employed by the enemies of his country, then perhaps there would be other issues but not the ethical-moral issues related with the breach of trust. Of course, my statements would be relevant here only under the condition that we regard trustworthiness as a kind of virtue or ethical-moral value.


  1. Dear Dorji,
    as before the message will be splitted…;
    only a short, tentative support in reflecting about such a delicate, inner appearing, conflictive situation.

    In trying to let aside conventional or wordly affairs and “speaking religiously”, in Buddhism (but I suggest in all other approved religious traditions) there will come (after devoted, assiduous training) the point where one has to decide by oneself about “how to handle imputed secret (religious) notions” (be they found and assimilated by oneself or received by someone other). As you say, in religious context, “religious secrets” are in fact no more secrets for someone having penetrated them and therefore the originally so-called, supposed or believed secrets now are no longer secrets at all for this person.
    Again speaking from the religious perspective, now what exactly is the problem with this perplexing “secrecy”? Of which kind of religious secrecy are we talking here?
    Is it an ontological enigma/mystery (natural/innate secrecy) which one has personally penetrated/resolved (bodhi) or is it a purely didactical information which one is deliberately hidding away?

    There must be (and always will be) a link between the “imputed unseen” and the “imputed seen” because otherwise no one could ever penetrate “the so-called secret” at all.

    Now, what is this indispensable link between secrecy and openess?

    Purely and simply information! (either gained/worked out by oneself or received by someone else - but most probably a gradually well dosed combination of both factors).

    From the Buddhist perspective (and surely from all other seriously recognized religious practices) this information would be the transmission of a religious message (in Buddhism, the Dharma); so the Dharma represents the mentioned link – the information. But we as sincerely inclined buddhist followers increasingly learn that the Dharma is very deep and vast and there are multiple approaches, teachings, etc.; hence an adjustable scale or enhancing degree of “understanding(s)”, more and more subtly interpreted and applied as possible “realization(s)”, seems to be unavoidable or better said turns out to be an existential necessity.
    sincerely, mikael.

  2. Continuation:
    What for one innocent person remains “secret” is for another one “no secret at all”. Why is this so?
    Because “not seen” here means that something (a fact or an idea) has not even been brought in one´s attentive focus of consciousness and therefore could impossibly be searched for (since not having even the idea of it) – let aside the possible motivation (“the quest”), clarification and perhaps resultative understanding of it (“the solution”).
    So it´s only naturel that “seeing”, in the first instance, becomes qualified as a “secret” for bringing (in form of a signalization) a fundamental (religious) idea to the awarenss of “nonseeing persons”. Paradoxically enough, precisely with “this pedagogically designated seeing” simultaneously thereby the cognitively pressurized felt process of didactical, progressive imputations concerning and around the notion of “secrecy” with all the implied soteriological strategical measures begins.
    So the “advanced seer” [I would say, in buddhist context, at minimum an arya (-bodhisattva)] must find appropriate ways/methods (upayakausalya) to orientate the “nonseer” or “worldling” (prthagjana) towards “seeing” in stimulating interrogations, clarifications and finally inducing matured readiness for realizations (in ancient times we are told that this happened through trustful Guru-disciple relationship over a long period of time but today, in our stressful, rapid world it appears to be more and more difficult to undertake such a healthy relation – could it still work?...).

    Again, what is the basic link between secrecy and openess?

    It is precisely the information, which “could” provide the necessary contextual knowledge (admitted that one sincerely is looking for it and testifies willingness for training…) for the potentially/already existing realizations!

    Painstakingly enough, it´s here where the “adequacy of pedagogical measures” (upayakausalya) becomes a (the) bodhisattvic challenge ( = initially the wish / finally the resoluteness that others also can “see” it, act in conformity and so becoming happy and free from suffering/delusion) [bodhicitta].
    sincerely, mikael.

  3. Continuation:
    Concerning the “ethical enigma”:

    I think, as regards religion (!), there is or would be no ethical enigma at all.
    Because if one (represented as Mara, the Devil) approaches us with the intention to reveal a secret (here especially in the sense of divulging the ultimate religious secret/mystery of existence) under the condition not to tell it to anyone other we simply should resist to become interested/curious in this “so-called secret”.
    Because, without the lightest doubt, this sharp witted Mara-attitude represents the archetypical lure to bind us (!) and once entered/caught in this subtle seductive “Mara-trap/game” ( = “Mara gearing mechanisms”), then, indeed we have a problem of “ethical enigma”.
    So we should not be tempted by such beguiling enmeshments, rather we trust reality as-it-is (tathata) and continually strive to learn as best as possible to enhance our already fantastic, instinctive attitude of courageous altruism (Vajrayana)!

    Finally, I would like to suggest that we should carefully differentiate “wordly secrets”, [impelled by political, economical and other “tactical measures” (seen in the positive/healthy sense) providing/assuring freedom, secureness and so on] from “religious secrets”:
    Whereas religious truthfulness/genuineness signifies (or should imply) openess and accessibility, wordly truthfulness/genuineness necessarily implies secrecy and contextuality!
    People intuitively understand: “That´s the way things are”.

    Admittedly, the capacity of keeping of one´s own ethical-moral integrity is very important.
    How do we, generally in the form of intuitive common standards, discern a character of nobleness from ignobleness?
    Externally seen (or judged by others) through ensuring/proving trustworthiness!

    But internally? Who decides about it (nobleness versus ignobleness)?
    Our intention!

    Authenticity will become evident when one will be at peace with oneself and thus with the world (the Buddha).
    sincerely, mikael.