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Celtic Buddhism is a lineage of Western Vajrayana Buddhism and Celtic (especially Gaelic) spirituality created by John Riley Perks, who for seven years served as a manservant and acolyte to the well-known Tibetan lama Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche. The movement originated in the United States during the 20th century. The creation of such a movement was reportedly suggested to Perks by Rinpoche "in casual conversation," as Perks has written.
There are communities in the US, Canada, Ireland, Wales, and Scotland. The Anadaire Center in Saxtons River, VT serves as the communities' headquarters and residence of John Riley Perks and wife and Lineage Holder, Julia Perks. Perks is also the author of The Mahasiddha and His Idiot Servant.
One scholar expressed skepticism regarding Perks' claims:
The legitimacy of Perks' claim, Tibetologist Burkhard Scherer (2010) avers, may be in doubt. "There is no indication that Trungpa or any Tibetan master with traditional claim to realisation has recognised Perks as liberated or enlightened; Perks' claim of spiritual authority stems solely from himself. In the Indo-Tibetan tradition, realisation and lineage holdership are always (and most of the time in multifold form) endorsed by other senior Tibetan masters." Scherer discerns how Perks' "transmission story is vague," lacking evidence of Trungpa's formal "empowerment." Given the narrative Perks provides, Scherer reasons that Trungpa did not teach "such New Age creolisation" as a formal teaching upon which a lineage could be claimed as a "realisation."
The primary issue with the above quote is that John Riley Perks has never suggested that the transmission is a direct connection to Tibetan forms of practice or would even need an endorsement from a Tibetan teacher. In fact, many community members are Zen practitioners, and there are members who are not formally engaged in a traditional Buddhist tradition. The suggestion from Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche to Perks was to create something new but grounded in a cultural and spiritual tradition that would inform its development (i.e. Buddhism and Celtic spirituality). This could be akin to the early developments of his Shambhala practices, not a strict lineage of Buddhism (which it has now become post-Trungpa), but not divorced from the fundamental essence of Buddhist study and teaching either. John Riley Perks neither advertises himself as a "liberated being" or as "enlightened." His students and fellow Lineage Holders have gravitated toward his teachings and presence with no promise of reward or "enlightenment" but with the understanding that the teachings point to a spiritual journey that is self-motivated and dependent upon one's ability to commit to discipline, self-discovery, service, hospitality and compassion. In fact, some students of the Lineage struggle with the lack of a central authoritarian structure to the community and through time learn that their own liberation is in their own hands (as is traditional in Buddhist teachings and Celtic spirituality). The Celtic Buddhist website states this about its relationship to formal religion:
--The purpose of religion is to perpetuate itself, a system that over time solidifies and centralizes. For survival its main occupation is self-preservation above and beyond its stated mission. That is inevitable and my stating it does not mean I think religion is necessarily “bad” or should be done away with completely. Although in recent times it can be easy to pick on religion itself, with issues like the Catholic Church sex scandals, death threats because of depictions in cartoons, and constant wars between adherents of different religions. To be fair there also needs to be a list of favorable things that have been done in this world because of religion. Charitable organizations, providing refuge for dispossessed peoples, and providing codes of conduct to multitudes of unruly humans are just a few. Like any tool, religion has its purpose and the Buddha taught that it should simply be a raft to the other shore. When you take a raft to the other shore it should seem quite ridiculous to then pick up the raft and carry it along with you. It makes much more sense to leave the means of transport behind. That is how the Buddha taught his disciples to relate to his teachings. Our desire as practitioners in the lineage of Celtic Buddhism is to follow this fundamental instruction and focus not on defending, overly cherishing and/or attaching to any one version of the “path.” Don’t be mistaken, what is taught in Celtic Buddhism is a complete path, but not one that works for everyone. As a commodity and/or sellable system to the masses, it’s not going to work. So we won’t try. In our Refuge prayer we take refuge in “the scoundrels, misfits and noble ones who manifest Buddha-wisdom by any means necessary.” This means that we try to seek instruction from any source, or I should say all sources, the birds, the trees, the streams, the sky and so on. It is elemental and instruction is focused on increasing our capacity to realize (not necessarily have glorious insights about) truth and love. We don’t just simply accept all instruction blindly, but consider it seriously and test it against experience and with each other. The point is we don’t claim to own or have the exclusive rights to enlightenment. We also don’t think we are better or more profound than others who practice or follow a religion. We just reserve the right to play and work with form and formlessness when it fits and, more importantly, when one seems to work better than the other. Our tools and teachings can be most aptly described as “upaya” or “skillful means,” and that fits in more with the essence of Buddhist lineages and Celtic culture. Religion can easily become an exclusionary practice, especially in Buddhism, where the personality of the teachers and the comforts of the form and ritual can easily become the preoccupation. The true teaching should scare you and sustain you simultaneously. Because we are not a religion, and won’t become one anytime soon, we invite all who gather with us to scrutinize, question, inquire and never take what we teach and/or practice on faith alone. Save your devotion and direct it toward whatever enhances and develops truth and love in your own life. Our task is to contribute in whatever way possible to an enlightened society. Our lineage is an open mandala for the manifestation of pointed instruction for our dark age. The forms we use and establish serve only as a means for communication. Our embracing of formlessness is our acknowledging that what we are working with is essentially a state of being beyond mere words and any instruction.---written by Venerable Thom Kilts
Another indication of the Lineage's non-traditional approach can be seen from their Refuge Prayer:
We take refuge in the lineage; Of scoundrels, misfits, and noble ones; Of those whose only purpose; Is to manifest Buddha-wisdom; By any means necessary.
We arise today; Through the strength of Dharma; Light of sun, radiance of moon,; Splendor of fire, speed of lightening,; Swiftness of wind; Depth of sea, stability of earth,; And firmness of rock.
We commit ourselves to An Sith (ahn-shee); We commit ourselves to the dispelling of An nela dubh (ahn’nella’dov); We commit ourselves to the development of An da shealladh (ahn’daa’haa-loo); As we become Anam Caras (ahn’nam kar’rahs); To those in need,; May we daily reclaim the chiefdoms Of us, the children of mist; And as One, rise up and greet; The Great Eastern Sun.
Refuge Prayer written by Venerable Thom Kilts
The Cetlic Buddhist Lineage utilizes art iconography created by William Burns that incorporates both traditional Buddhist and Celtic symbols and meanings. The community is establishing a monastic path, has members involved in ecology, linguistics, music, farming, householding and spiritual care to name a few activities.
The Celtic Buddhist website at: www.celticbuddhism.org, has program and center information, a guide to Lineage Holders, Gaelic Chants, artwork, articles and links to some of the activities of the community.
Discovering and uncovering what they call the "Celtic Buddhist mandala," members of the group meditate daily. They also practice shamatha, Tibetan-style ngöndro and chöd, and tonglen, among other approaches. The group reflects a longer history within Irish culture of reflections on the relationship between Buddhism and Celtic culture.
- Perks, John R. The Mahasiddha and His Idiot Servant. Crazy Heart Publishers, 2006.
- Murphy, John L, "Inventing the concept of Celtic Buddhism". pg 90 in Olivia Cosgrove et al. (eds), Ireland's new religious movements. Cambridge Scholars, 2011
- Murphy, John L, "Inventing the concept of Celtic Buddhism". 74 - 96 in Olivia Cosgrove et al. (eds), Ireland's new religious movements. Cambridge Scholars, 2011