Owning the Rules – “Classical” and “authentic” as applied to ancient wisdom traditions

China Camp 1
June 27, 2020

Last year, I combed through our website and deleted all instances of the phrases “classical Tantra,” “authentic Tantra,” and “classical Ayurveda.”

My purpose here is to open the question of the self-validation and violent erasures often being enacted when we use words such as “classics,” “classical,” and “authentic” to describe a text, a tradition, teachings, or our own practices as students and teachers.

My hope is that many of us will consider more deeply the history of these words, what work they are doing for us, and whose work and earned wisdom they erase.

SOme definitions

From Wikipedia:
The word Classics is derived from the Latin adjective classicus, meaning “belonging to the highest class of citizens”. The word was originally used to describe the members of the highest class in ancient Rome.

From the Oxford Living Dictionary, we have “classical”:
1. Relating to ancient Greek or Latin literature, art, or culture.
2. Representing an exemplary standard within a traditional and long-established form or style.
3. Relating to the first significant period of an area of study.

From my travels through various etymological sources, it’s a little unclear to me if the Latin word “classicus” initially referred to highest class or just class in general and later came to mean highest class.

But it is clear that today, “classic” and “classical” derive their clout and claim from their association with the Greco-Roman empire and the humanist obsession with being the highest and the best at the expense of the knowledge and skill of others. These words carry with them a long and strong history of violence.

disrobing the emperor

If I look to my own experience, certainly when I used the words “classical” and “authentic” in relation to Tantra or Ayurveda, this was not just the ignorant deployment of a presumed neutral taxonomy.

I inherited “classical” and “authentic” from a teacher who was clearly on a mission to elevate and authorize himself.

Years later, when I was teaching on my own, I uneasily kept using these words in order to signal to people who don’t know me or our community that if they showed up at a teaching, we would not be focusing on their quest for a better orgasm.

Ultimately, I ditched “classical” and “authentic” in favor of “traditional.” This seems to me to be a less loaded word that gives some hint as to what people are in for. (Lots of sadhana, emphasis on self-realization, and still no orgasm workshops.)

Traditional implies something of older provenance, but it doesn’t claim to be an origin point or the exclusive club of privileged classes.

Traditional includes the pre-textual and the people of the vernacular, as in “traditional medicine.” It includes respect for direct, experiential knowledge.


Here are some basics I always want to remember as a student and a teacher in several ancient wisdom traditions that do not, at least in this lifetime, derive from my culture of birth.

  • The branding of a text or a tradition with the word “classical” always obscures a much much longer pre-textual history and possibly a history of teachings written in the vernacular by those who did not have the cultural power to gain acknowledgment.
  • The branding of a tradition as “classical” often comes at a juncture when privileged classes of people are appropriating a tradition from the less privileged who were the true originators. This process obscures the history of a tradition and generally introduces trends toward cultural and religious conservatisms that protect the new “owners.”
  • The branding of a text or a tradition with the word “classical” also always obscures the fact that many, and sometimes most source texts have been lost. This issue becomes more pressing when we are studying and teaching in traditions whose source languages we cannot read in the original. Now we are even further limited to utilizing teachings written or given in translation. But some of us conveniently mark the texts we do have access to with the brand of “classical.”
  • Recalling one of the definitions of classical—“Relating to the first significant period of an area of study,”— this is never true. Again, the first significant period in any ancient wisdom tradition is oral and pre-textual.
  • The word “classical” refers to empire, classism, and the violence of colonization and subjugation, and some of us are still using it to gain authority and power.

Orality, textuality, and authenticity

Today, as always, wisdom traditions give primacy to oral transmission from an accomplished person and experientially gained knowledge over textual learning.

The texts of our traditions are generally useful, even necessary, and often wonderful. But when we discount or devalue experientially-gained authority and over-emphasize text-based authority, we are always out of sync with the View of traditions such as Ayurveda, Trika Shaivism, Jyotish, Dzogchen, and divination. (These are the traditions which which I am familiar, but the same applies to other wisdom traditions.)

My Dzogchen teacher, Namkhai Norbu Rinpoche, loved to tell the story about how he met his root teacher, Changchub Dorje. (See video below.) It was an encounter between a proud, monastery-trained young man and a traditional Tibetan doctor who lived simply in a remote area and had given up all teachers other than direct experience.

For some days, Rinpoche was asking Changchub Dorje for a formal initiation. The young student had traveled a great distance only to discover that the doctor didn’t display any conventional signs of learnedness. It was even difficult for him to read the ritual texts. Eventually Rinpoche encountered and understood the real meaning of Dzogchen via powerful direct transmissions of wisdom from the man who became his root teacher.

Rinpoche kept teaching from texts and writing books. But he also became a great Terton, or conduit for bringing teachings into the human realm via esoteric means, in his case, dreams. Thanks to his teacher, he was uncompromising in his understanding and embodiment of Dzogchen.

Abhinavagupta, the Trika teacher, scholar, and siddha, also gave pride of place not to texts or even to transmission through conventional lineage initiation, but to spontaneous experiences of grace and to direct initiation in the context of sadhana and via visions and dreams. (Tantraloka IV. 53)

What is authentic, then?

On an ordinary level, authenticity is sincerity and honesty in our sadhana and self-presentation.

  • If we are to have any hope of practicing or teaching authentically, we must never lie about ourselves, our history, the teachings, our lineages, or our accomplishments.
  • We must deeply understand and faithfully represent the teachings, and we must sincerely strive to embody the teachings through practice recognizing that none of us is fully there.
  • We must fearlessly examine our limitations and not be afraid to reveal them.

I’m not taking up a moral or ethical position. These are the extremely practical foundations of authentic spiritual life as I understand them.

From a more absolute perspective, authenticity derives from the transmission and embodiment of natural wisdom whether it comes from accomplished teachers, sadhana, dreams, visions, or even books.

From this perspective, the only qualification for authenticity is our direct, unmediated familiarity with natural wisdom. And here I do use the word “authentic” to apply to practice and spiritual accomplishment as this has only to do with the intimacy of a person’s relationship to wisdom.

This may seem like an end run, but it is the actual view of wisdom traditions and the actual experience of accomplished people in our traditions. We can’t just discount this because it may be inconvenient.

Inconvenient because it is hard to find truly accomplished teachers who can directly introduce us to natural wisdom.

Inconvenient because most of us have to practice a lot over many years in order to experience immersion in wisdom.

Inconvenient because some of us, even some of us who practice a lot, will not in this lifetime become naturally qualified teachers even if we have assumed or are thrust into that role.

Inconvenient because ultimately, wisdom demands that we dismantle our attachments, including attachments to the formalities of spiritual organizations and lineage, in order to enter into mystical experience and true lineage.

As Thinley Norbu Rinpoche so eloquently puts it:

Ultimately, for the purpose of enlightenment, we must acknowledge traditionless wisdom clear space, which is the source of all countless traditions. But temporarily, while our faculties are obscured, we cannot reject tradition. ~ Norbu, Thinley. Magic Dance (p. 89). Shambhala. Kindle Edition.

coming and going

Teachings, texts, and preceptors are not necessarily good conveyors of the traditions they claim to represent. Conventional histories and titles do not guarantee authenticity. Authentic transmission occurs when teachings, texts, and preceptors embody the current of what Thinley Norbu Rinpoche calls “pure lineage,” the lineage of traditionless, ubiquitous, living wisdom.

The wonderful thing is that by following the diverse paths of attachment, we can eventually encounter pure lineage.

We have limited concepts of knowledge, and we mistake limited knowing for natural wisdom.

But our attachments to texts and teachers and lineage and limited modes of encountering spiritual life can, if followed to their resolution, drop us off into the vast ocean of natural wisdom.

In the meantime, we can try to keep the more absolute View in mind as we pursue our limited, relative means.

We can be more honest and do less harm.

We can understand and come to perceive accomplished teachers and their authentic practices and texts as appearings of a magical, creative, alive, aware reality. These appearings do not belong to us, or they belong to all of us. And their conventional history is not worth promoting or defending.

With much love, Shambhavi