If you accept that Buddhahood is possible, and that not everyone has attained it, you believe in hierarchy. If you believe in wisdom, and that different people are wise to different degrees, you believe in hierarchy.
Some people are dafter than others. Don’t take my word for it. Spend half an hour with the general public and see for yourself.
Some people are less daft. Some people are so not daft that they can actually teach you stuff.
Now just because I believe that not all people are equal in the wisdom department, that’s not to say that this means that some people are fundamentally better than others.
From a Buddhist perspective, right back to the earliest tradition, there is the idea that we all have the potential for enlightenment.
Not only that, but because we’ve had countless existences, we have all at one time or another been incredibly stupid, nasty and base. We’ve also all been these wonderful god-type beings that are so cool we didn’t even have physical bodies. We just kind of hung around being blissful and positive vibrations.
For a while we’re back to being humans again. Doing the best we can.
Although hierarchy as a concept feels a bit uncomfortable for many people – with connotations of elitism and class systems about it – fundamentally I don’t have a problem with it. I certainly believe that some people are wiser than others. Whether that makes them inherently better than others, I don’t know (it depends on what you use to judge such things).
The thing that winds me up, however, is when institutional hierarchy and genuine spiritual hierarchy get confused. When that happens, people usually get hurt.
Just because someone is a monk, nun, lineage holder, rimpoche, initiated into 150 tantric practices by a dude with a bone in his beard, or wears a blue hat on Tuesdays, it doesn’t have anything to do with spiritual hierarchy.
An institution is nothing more than a big gang and the person who has managed to do well within it has the skills and a psychological make up that does well in that particular gang. Don’t trust it. It’s got nothing to do with Buddhahood.
I’m amazed at how generally sane people, who don’t have any problem with denying the concept of papal infallability, get all weak at the knees when some dude in Buddhist gear walks in, sits on a higher chair than everyone else, and has a funky name.
Her Holiness the great lord Buddha Maitreya Sri Sri Sri Maha Guru Rimpoche Baghavan may indeed be a fully realised being, or a great teacher, or a terrible teacher but really wise. Or she may not be. You have to get to know them to find out.
In the meantime, be open to the possibility that they are wise, and open to the possibility that they are just good at wow-ing the big cheeses in the Order.
When I lived with my friend Devapriya, we used to do pujas (devotional rituals) together every night.
The first night we decided to do it, I rolled up with my mala (kind of like a Buddhist rosary, for counting off mantras). I’d been given it as a gift and I was very proud of it.
“This mala is from a monastery in Tibet that was built during the lifetime of Padmasambhava,” I said.
Without a moment’s hesitation, Devapriya held up his mala. “This mala is Padmasambhava,” he replied.