Tibetan Buddhism in the West: Is It Working?

The following article is from the Autumn, 2000 issue of the Snow Lion Newsletter and is for historical reference only. You can see this in context of the original newsletter here.

AN INTERVIEW WITH ALAN WALLACE

by Brian Hodel

Part I: A Critical Evaluation

BRIAN HODEL: What adaptations have Tibetan teachers of Buddhism made to accommodate a growing Western Buddhist community made up primarily of laypersonspeople with jobs, families, Western routines?

ALAN WALLACE: In Asia, India, Nepal, Sikkim, and Bhutan, for exampleI don't see much alteration of the content provided for Westerners, though sometimes in format. For example, in the Library of Tibetan Works and Archives in Dharamsala, since 1971, excellent quality classes in Tibetan Buddhism have been taught by highly qualified Tibetan scholars, and though the format of these teachings is sometimes altered for Western students, they are completely true to the tradition.

Likewise, since the late 1960s or early 70s, when lamas have given public teachings in Asia, although these have been primarily directed to the Tibetan community, Westerners have always been welcome to attend, unless the teachings were of a very, high level of, let's say, tantric teachings. Even then, if Westerners qualified, had the appropriate initiations, or were encouraged to attend it by their own lamas, then they were welcome to attend those as well. There are quite a number of Tibetan monasteries in the south of India, of all the four orders, and I think the kind of training that is offered there is quite open to Westerners. That's the situation in Asia

Now regarding the rest of the world. In these cases, when Tibetan lamas come to offer teachings of Dharma, obviously the primary audience is Westerners. And then the format is altered because these lamas are usually on tour. It's common for them to give weekend workshops, or one-night lectures. Or they may stay in a place for a longer time and give a one-week or a two-week retreat. But, for the most part, that's as long as it ever gets. Then some are resident lamas with their own centers where more sustained training is given.

BH: Judging from the announcements one sees, there appears to be an enormous variety of Tibetan Buddhist teachings being offered to the public. In the monastic setting, at least, teachings follow a coherent order. Is there any attempt by touring lamas to give context to their teachings? Or is it more like the preacher picking a subject he just feels like talking about on a particular Sunday?

AW: In the West, it is very common that a lama will pass through a city and give some weekend teachings on some Vajrayana practice Dzogchen, Mahamudra or some kind of deity practice such as Kalachakra, or guru yoga. What's missing here in the vast majority of cases is the profound context: the theoretical context, the context of faith, and the context of a mature spiritual community. The teachings themselves, though perfectly traditional, are being introduced into a radically non-traditional context. And this, I think, has on numerous occasions led to terrible misunderstandings and a great deal of unnecessary conflict, unrest, confusion and suffering.

I remember a case back in the late 1970s in which some very fine lamas came to this country and gave a number of advanced teachings. A lot of the Westerners in attendance, young men and young women, got very enthused by these lamas who were teaching in concert, and a number of them, right off the bat, decided to take monastic ordination. And they were ordained right then and there. Quite a few of them took the ordination with no context whatsoever, with no monastery, no abbot, and no proctor to teach them the vows and help them to assimilate and apply the vows in daily life. I think the vast majority, if not every single one of that group, eventually returned their vows, because there was no context for them and they entered into it with a paucity of understanding of the step that they were taking.

We live in a profoundly non- monastic and non-contemplative society. And so to adopt these profound and esoteric contemplative practices and the monastic way of life without sufficient context is highly problematic. And I am not sure that this has been sufficiently addressed by many lamas who are basically living in Asia and occasionally touring the West for weeks at a time. They feel that since what they are giving is traditional, what is being received is being received in a traditional fashion. But in many cases that just isn't so.

BH: Are you saying this group of lamas that gave the ordination vows was unaware that these people had no context at all?

AW: It's hard to imagine they were unaware, because it was pretty obvious. So what was their rationale for giving ordination and advanced teachings in meditation? I have heard some lamas say, I'm sowing seeds, and it's better for people to be exposed to Buddhism imperfectly than not be exposed at all. And, to take a New Testament parable, some of the grain will land on rocks or be eaten by birds and some grains will actually fall into the soil and be fertilized and they will sprout. That may be a very small proportion of the people attending the teachings, but for some the teachings will sow the seeds for a sustained and nourishing spiritual practice that will come to great maturity and benefit oneself and others. And as for the others, the lamas' rationale, as I've heard at least some of them express it, is that at least these people have been exposed to the Dharma.

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Within the vast range of practices taught by the Buddha and later Indian and Tibetan adepts, which ones and which sequence of practices might be especially emphasized for Western students so that they are of optimal benefit?

Why do it this way? Why give these high teachings when you could just be giving basic teachings on the Ten Nonvirtues, the qualities of the Three Gems, karma, and so on. I think the simple answer is: if lamas confined themselves to teaching such topics, few people would come. Before going on tour, lamas often ask what kind of teachings Westerners would like, and the response is often a request for advanced teachings, say on Dzogchen or Mahamudra. Out of compassion and the wish to fulfill others' wishes, many lamas comply. Perhaps their rationale is that people will probably get more benefit hearing something they are really interested in than in hearing valuable teachings in which they have no interest in which case they probably wouldn't show up at all anyway.

So we have a commercial situation of supply and demand, very unlike the Dharma scene in Asia. In the West teachings are advertised and profit is made. So whether we like it or not, there is a commercial aspect to the teachings in the vast majority of cases. And even if lamas have wealthy benefactors who are taking care of them, still someone has to pay for their travel expenses and the teaching site. That's the long and the short of it.

BH: Isn't there a problem here of appealing to the ego? I may request the highest teachings because I want to attain realization as quickly as possible. But of what value are the higher teachings if I haven't absorbed the basics? This is a criticism I have heard from several lamas in regard to giving Dzogchen teachings right off the bat to Westerners. Isn't that like throwing seed on stones?

AW: In my experience, lamas who are willing to give these very advanced teachings will strongly emphasize the importance of the foundational teachings and practices. For example, the Dalai Lama has often given the Kalachakra empowerment in the West, but he prefaces that with days and days of the foundational teachings prior to this esoteric ritual.

Another of my teachers, Gyatrul Rinpoche, has often taught on Mahamudra and Dzogchen, but he hammers home time and time again: Yes, these are profound teachings. Yes, it can be very helpful for you to do the practice. At the same time, do not overlook the foundational teachings, because these are the ones that, in the foreseeable future, are much more likely to really bring about evident transformation for the better in your own minds and in your own lives. Gyatrul Rinpoche has taught for more than two decades in this country. He still emphasizes the foundational teachings, but at times students complain that they have already heard these teachings and don't want to hear them anymore. In many cases, even though these students have not realized the foundational teachings through practice, they've heard them and more or less understood them intellectually. But out of familiarity they have lost interest in these teachings, no longer wishing to practice them, and yearn instead for something new, something profound, something that promises to bring about the kind of spiritual transformation they haven't gained so far.

As Gyatrul Rinpoche has often commented, it's not that the lamas don't want us to hear or practice these higher teachings. They just don't want us to do them instead of the foundational teachings, because then we'll wind up following the more advanced practices without benefiting from them, while shunning the more basic practices and therefore getting no practical benefit at all. The advice I've heard and embrace is that we need to keep our feet planted in the ground of the foundational teachings and reach to the sky with the more advanced teachings. And then we have something of a win-win situation. Lamas of all four orders emphasize this same point.

BH: So one major difference that seems to emerge from what you are saying is that in the Eastin Tibet, India, Nepal and so forth Tibetans as well as some Westerners are getting the foundations first and then moving on progressively to the higher teachings. But here many Western students are getting the higher teachings towards the beginning but then find they have to go back to the foundational teachings.

Is this situation finally counterproductive?

AW: It certainly can be!

BH: So you spend a lot of time on higher teachings and then find you have to go back and do what you were asked to do in the first place. That doesn't sound very efficient. AW: Overall, I don't think there is much efficiency in the way that teachings are taught or practiced in the West, even though we, being a consumer society, a business-oriented society, prioritize efficiency. And there is another major difference between the teachings and practice of Tibetan Buddhism in Asia as opposed to the West, and that is, if you are living in any major city in the West, you are likely to have various lamas of all the different orders passing through town for their weekend events. If you attend teachings and initiations from any lama who comes through town, your exposure to Buddhism becomes random. It's like going to a buffet. You pick up whatever is coming through, but there's no order to it, no continuity to it, no progressive development, and so again: it's very inefficient.

And, of course, that's just Tibetan Buddhism. That's not even counting other teachers who come through town from, let's say Theravada Buddhism, or Zen Buddhism, or from other traditions altogether like Sufism, Hinduismand a whole array of new age teachers. And all of these are presenting their spiritual waresmaybe with very good motivation, sometimes maybe not. We are living in a consumer society where we have more access to the world's spiritual traditions than any society has had in recorded history.

Of course the outcome of this is a lack of continuity, due in part to a lack of patience. As a consumer society we want snappy results. That's part of what we consider to be efficient. If we go to a teaching we want to see results in a weekend, or at least in a week! And some teachers are willing to cater to that type of mentality. I've even seen advertisements for Tibetan Buddhist events that sound like Madison Avenue hype.

And the upshot of this is that a number of lamas with whom I have spoken generally regard Westernerswith many fine exceptionsas being impatient, superficial, and fickle. And in Tibetan society, fickleness is considered to be one of the worst of vices, while reliability, integrity, trustworthiness, and perseverance are held in high regard. So a few of the finest lamas are now refusing even to come to the West, because they figure they could be spending their time either teaching

Tibetans in Asia, or they could simply go into retreat and meditate. Some are feelinggiven the brevity and preciousness of human lifethat devoting time to people with such fickleness and so little faith is time not very well spent.

Part II Possible Solutions

BH: You spoke earlier about some of the problems that stem from the buffet-like manner in which Tibetan Buddhist teachings have come to the West, particularly its inefficiency. Given our individualistic society and the fact that enter- preneurship is so ascendant now, isn't there also a danger that some of those interested in Tibetan Buddhism, or the spiritual path in general, will assume they can choose whatever practices they like and synthesize their own unique and personal stairway to heaven? AW: There's a danger, but I believe there is also a balance that needs to be struck. Let's speak first of all of the two extremes. One extreme is what you have just suggested here, individualism: I know what's best for me! I will choose what I like. This is like a kid going into a restaurant and saying, I'll just take what tastes good.

The underlying problem of that extreme is that, after all, we're coming to Dharma because we're not enlightened, not because we're already enlightened. If we're not enlightened, this means we're deluded. That's the core issue in Buddhism. And so a person who is ignorant and deluded says, I'm going to set myself above the tradition with its own worked-out strategy and sequence of practices that have been offered down over generations by enlightened beings. There's one extreme. Some may get a little benefit by going that way, but others may really do themselves a lot of harm or at least simply waste their time.

But there's another extreme here, and that is dogmatism that is radically disengaged from people's actual experiences through the practice of Dharma. Tibetans over generations have worked out strategies, teachings, rituals, and sequences of practice that were designed for Tibetans. They did not simply replicate Indian Buddhism. I have a lot of confidence that they did retain the core, the essence of Indian Buddhism. But theirs is also a tradition that modified itself over the centuries to best suit the Tibetan mentality, the Tibetan environment, Tibetan customs. Now, the proof is in the pudding, because what turned out was generation after generation of great Tibetan adepts. Going back to the time of Pad- masambhava, Milarepa, Tsongkhapa, right on into the twentieth century it's worked!

And so, with that success, it is possible to conclude that since it worked for the Tibetans, we Americans must take their tradition, the pure teachings, exactly as they were taught in Tibet, and introduce it in Los Angeles or New York City. But the reason those teachings are considered to be pure is that they worked in Tibet. The test isdo they still work? If those same teachings, in the same format, with no adaptations for the West, are transplanted in Europe or America, ignoring the difference of cultural context, this can wind-up being rigid, fundamentalist, dogmatic, and non-observant of whether those teachings are producing the same type of wonderful effects and transformations in Western practitioners as they did in Tibetan practitioners.

If they do not yield the same benefitsif after thirty or forty years of Tibetan Buddhism in the West we do not have people here ascending along the path to enlightenment, such as the achievement of sha- matha, vipashyana, genuine bodhi- chitta, the four yogas of Mahamudra, and the two stages of Dzogchen then we have to ask the question: Are those same teachings that have worked for the Tibetans equally effective for Westerners? Do we now have Western adepts comparable to the twenty-five principal disciples of Padmasambhava?

Insofar as Tibetan lamas find that their Western disciples, apparently engaging in the same practices as their Tibetan disciples, are not gaining comparable realization, then one has to ask a number of questions, namely: How do these teachings and practices need to be modified in their format, in their sequence, in their context? To what extent do the theories need to come into dialog with Western worldviews? This is something relatively few Tibetan lamas are doing to any significant extent drawing the presentation of Buddhist views, meditation, and way of life into dialog with Western scientific, religious, and philosophical views, values, ways of life.

We do have a civilization here after all. And to come over here as if we had no civilization at all, as if one were simply dropping the teachings into a cultural tabula rasa, is not reasonable. That is the other extreme, whose proponents declare, We have the pure teachings! and don't even notice whether those so-called pure teachings are really producing good results, or whether they're just producing a lot of fundamentalists who are rigid, arrogant, and elitist, declaring, We have the only way! To the extent that that's what's happening in the West, this seems to me like a very quick way to turn Buddhism into a museum piece or worse.

Those are the two extremes. What's in between, then? I think there's a solution, and that is in close and respectful dialog with Tibetan adeptsTibetan lamas, scholars, contemplatives, and so forth. If they don't already know the West, try to inform them of where they're coming to, and what kind of world views and values and way of life are considered the norm here. And where there's resistance to receiving traditional Tibetan teachings, try to understand why there's resistance, whether those teachings can be modified, or whether Westerners need some preliminary teachings prior to engaging in the more traditional teachings. Really bring in a lot of creativity.

Prior to the radical transformation caused by the Chinese invasion in 1949, changes in Tibetan society took place at a far slower pace than that of the modern West. They had a spiritual tradition that was turning out a significant number of accomplished contemplatives and scholars, so there was no need to be terribly innovative. In that situation you would emphasize preservation of the tradition rather than ingenuity. But now, when the social context is changing so dramatically and rapidly for Tibetans living in Asia, let alone for Buddhism in the West, there needs to be far more of a balance between preservation and intelligent adaptation. This is a time for close and respectful dialog between Tibetans and Westerners.

BH: Are Tibetan lamas in the West talking about this, asking questions about how effective their teachings have been?

AW: I'm sure there must be individual teachers, both Tibetan lamas as well as Western Buddhist teachers, who are paying attention to this. But I haven't heard it very widely discussed. And in a way it's a little bit of a delicate topic. If students are not deriving deep benefits from their Buddhist practice as taught to them according to Tibetan tradition, they are often told simply that the defect is in them and not in the teachings, which are pure and infallible. The alternative is not to conclude that the Buddhadharma is defective, but to ask: Within the vast range of practices taught by the Buddha and later Indian and Tibetan adepts, which ones and which sequence of practices might be especially emphasized for Western students so that they are of optimal benefit?

To pursue this question we need to reintroduce a strong element of empiricism and pragmatism, which is perfectly consonant with the Buddha's own teachings. And that is: What really helps to purify your mind so that your mental afflictions are attenuated, you find greater contentment, greater serenity, greater wisdom, and greater compassion? What really works?

BH: Regarding an East-West dialog that might bridge these gaps and extremes you mention, aren't the Mind and Life Conferences, in which H.H. Dalai Lama and a few other lamas have engaged with eminent Western scientists and philosophers, a good avenue for Tibetans to learn about the Western mind and cultural context? [Note: these conferences have been on-going, semiannually since 1987.] AW: Yes, they are! In these conferences, in which I've had the privilege of serving as interpreter, we engage with some of the finest scientists and scholars the West has to offer. Reading the proceedings of these meetings is one way for Tibetans to learn some of the finer, intellectually challenging, interesting, and informative aspects not only of the Western mind but Western mind discoveries. Out of these conferences came an initiative to start science education in Buddhist monasteries in the south of India, which is now going on. Reading about these conferences is also an excellent opportunity not only for Westerners to learn about some of the more subtle, profound aspects of Tibetan Buddhism, but also for Tibetan lamas and other Tibetans to learn about what's going on in the West.

I think this is extremely important for younger Asian Buddhists not only in Tibet, but Tibetans in diaspora and Mongolians and other Buddhists everywhere. Buddhism is right now in a great danger of being viewed by the younger generation as something antiquated, unrealistic, and impractical. Buddhism is too rich to be discarded like that in one generation.

BH: You once said that it is essential for the health of a religion, Buddhism especially, to continually produce professional contemplatives those totally dedicated to the contemplative life. Why is this important?

AW: The Dalai Lama commented on one occasion that in Buddhism, extraordinary claims are made about the potentials of human consciousness, about accomplishments that have been made by contemplatives in the pastincluding the achievement of shamatha, vipashyana, bodhichitta, deep insights into Mahamudra and Dzogchen, and wide range of mundane siddhis, and ultimately enlightenment itselfthe great siddhi. The Dalai Lama likened such accounts to paper currency, which is worth something if people are confident there's a gold standard behind it. The gold standard of the paper currency of such Buddhist claims is people in the present generation achieving similar states of realization.

Even if there is only one-tenth of one percent of the Buddhist population who gains such profound realization, this means you have at least a few individuals in each generation who have achieved the gold standard for the teachings. Well, if you've got a half-dozen people in a Buddhist community at any one time who can walk through walls, fly, levitate, and then when they die they go out with a rainbow body, that's pretty compelling! So if we are going to arouse our inspiration to accomplish this, we need people who are living examples. We don't have many examples of Westernersand one can ask if there are any at allwho have achieved some of these very high states of realization. And as the older lamas are passing away, one can ask whether there are now Asian contemplatives who have achieved those states of realization. If not, our paper currency is going to look more and more like Confederate currency.

To maintain the integrity of the Buddhist teachings we need both professional scholars and contemplativesthose who are devoting themselves full-time, with pure motivation, to sustained study and meditative practice. Not just for months at a time, but for life. And the Buddhist lay public needs to dedicate itself to supporting monks, nuns, and serious lay practitioners who are willing to make such a commitment. This has been a key element to Buddhism flourishing in Asia, and it's a mistake to think that it will flourish in the West without similar commitment on the part of teachers, students, and the Buddhist community at large. ä_æ

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