Is Dharma Working in the West?
Q; In one article on Tibetan Buddhism in the west it says: "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." The lamas believe that "devoting time to people with such fickleness and so little faith is time not very well spent." Why do you think they feel this way?
t.k.: When Guru Rinpoche was invited to Tibet he found it to be a barbarian land of arrogant people with little inclination towards Buddhism. He said their minds were “hard and tough like the dried hides of yaks”. He said they were “lazy, cherished wrong view, desired magical powers but did not want to do practice, wanted the teachings for personal profit and treated them like merchandise” I would say a fairly accurate assessment of human beings then and now, here and there.
We tend to get the Lama we deserve and Lamas tend to get the disciples they deserve. It is called karma and so it is a bit unseemly for either side to complain to much! So many Lamas come to America, the land of opportunity! Some come in the style of a great yogi unifying compassion and skill and some come in the style of a gold miner during the first flush of the gold rush. Tibetan Lamas who I am friends with tell many jokes about all this. “Question: What does it take to be a great Lama in America? Answer: A visa and red robe.” Not every Lama has become a Guru Rinpoche! And not all of us have become worthy disciples!
If some Lamas realize that their wisdom realization is shallow and their skillful means lacking and, that by prolonged retreat they might in some life, be able to truly manifest impartial compassion then we should be thankful for their willingness to honestly access their own faults and desire to amend them. If some so called Lamas have racist minds, due to being secret nihilist dressed in Buddha’s impartial wisdom realization clothing, then we should feel great sorrow and compassion for them.
We can all afford some forbearance since we are no shining examples ourselves! There are fickle disciples and fickle Lamas. The affections of most are changeable and erratic. When faith has not gone beyond shallow emotionality then one finds fickle disciples. When compassion and realization have not planted deep roots one finds fickle Lamas. The two tend to attract one another.
Of course there are those like Thinley Norbu Rinpoche, Tharchin Rinpoche and Gyatrul Rinpoche who settle down in one place and work hard to benefit all beings. They do not work the “circuit” they just work hard to benefit beings.
Q; What about the accusation that we in the west are materialistic, that we just want to buy the teachings, and this prevents us form serious practice?
t.k.: Materialist western people buying Dharma sex slaves (teachings) meet materialist eastern Lamas selling their wives (dharma) as whores. It is very sad! Joined by the ripening of poor karma they set in motion their mutual hells of disappointment and anger. Like hungry ghosts they endlessly see each other as fine food for their bloated bellies but can never receive any true nourishment through their tiny mouths. We should cultivate great compassion for this nightmare.
Human beings are, by the tendencies of our karmic patterning, greedy. West, east, north, south it is all the same. It is true that we tend to want to make the sublime intangible dharma into a commodity that can be bought and added to our collection of spiritual trinkets. It is true that this degrades our own dignity and ruins the efficacy of the teachings. Just like the Tibetans of whom Guru Rinpoche said, “They barter the oral instructions like merchandise”. This is not a western problem or an eastern problem this is a human problem. And it is a problem addressed with skill in the Buddha’s wisdom teachings. The teachings work if you work them. They become useless trinkets if you buy them and they become cash cows if you sell them. Only one of these choices brings an end to suffering.
The simple rule of a market economy is supply and demand. Demand is incited by supply. Supply reinforces demand. Marketing constantly entices with new supply to insure further demand. Dharma marketing is always touting the latest “secret teaching never given in the west before”. Like lovers in balanced reciprocity and mutuality corporate heads sell their souls making cheap clothing in Asian sweat shops and young kids trade their dignity for false self esteem buying $200 sneakers. Both sides end in suffering. Like lovers in balanced reciprocity and mutuality some Lamas break samaya and tradition to sell precious secret teachings to lazy westerners who wish to buy false enlightenment without effort. Both sides end in suffering.
The whole process is a sorry case of the emperor’s new cloths. Everyone for their own self-serving reasons is lost in a labyrinth of pretense and falsehood. In the west people who have received many teachings but not deeply practiced them.
This week I received a brochure in the mail advertising transmission of Lama Yeshe, a very secret and profound terma text by Jigme Lingpa. The prerequisite? You need to pay the cash up front. Well, reading this brochure tears streamed form my eyes. To offer this text to those with whom you do not share pure deep profound samaya and who have not mastered the stages leading to it is like raping a small helpless girl.
Supply and demand. Greedy western people wishing to be in on the latest, highest, most secret spiritual fad meet their karmic counter point in the eastern lama who is ready to sell his wife as a whore for a few dollars, status and fame. It must always go further and further as well. One Lama I know visiting Europe was told by his sponsor “You can not teach Ngondro. No one wants that anymore. You need to teach something new.” Once Nyingtig Yabshi has been offered for sale then what is left except Yeshe Lama. These people must feel such shame deep down inside, beneath the rationalizations. We should have compassion for them.
Padmasambhava said, “My Dharma is not for sale.” Soon it will all be out there floating around the market place like the exposed breasts and vaginas of strippers in a club. Maybe that is for the best. When there is nothing-new left to expose or sell, when the shallow dharma of the market place proves its failure in terms of transformation then
Those who only wanted a newer and better cheap thrill will go elsewhere. And those who only wanted to collect cash and prestige will be out of a job.
Q; What about the idea that the methods themselves don’t work here in the west?
t.k.: I am reminded of a slogan from Alcoholics Anonymous that says, “The program works if you work it.” The point is you must do the work. You must put in the effort, follow the instruction and engage the methods. Buddhism does not “work” you - it is you who must work Buddhism! Buddhism is a set of methods practiced within a certain external and internal context. I have never met a person who was truly working the A.A. program that did not stay sober. I have never met someone who truly worked the teachings of Buddha who did not benefit.
Now there are differing styles of Buddhism and when we are talking about Vajrayana I am reminded of a saying of Salvador Dali in his Ten Rules for He Who Wishes to Be a Painter, it is number ten. “If painting doesn’t love you, all your love for her will be unavailing.” Vajrayana is an esoteric path for spiritualy mature people and if one is not mature then the program will not work. In A.A. there is a saying that goes “The only person this program will not work for is the one who is incapable of being honest with themselves.” So, for the esoteric inner doctrines, there may be some preconditions but these are personal not cultural. Luckily there is also the outer exoteric path of Buddhism that can work for anyone at all.
In A.A. it is very clear to old timers who amongst the new people will make it, stay sober, and who will relapse. They can tell because they know the feeling of someone who is “working the program”. Sadly new comers often are mistaken in evaluating themselves and combine this with little interest in listening to others. It is much the same in Vajrayana.
Again the notion of “in the west’” is a simply a silly one. It is meaningless and tends to arise in interdependence with infantile fantasies about the nature of dharma and human beings. To become mature enough to practice the sublime subtle methods of Vajrayana, and this has always been said in the traditional teachings, is quite rare.
Without realizing, making real in the continuum of mind and body, the foundational teachings of Ngondro one simply cannot practice Vajrayana. For those who are to immature to lay the foundation, who want snappy results with little effort to understand the view, meditation and action then the methods will never work no matter how many decades they are poorly practiced. It is like that Atkins’ diet and me. The diet failed because I did not follow the diet.
Q; What about the differences in cultural context? Do the methods work in any cultural context?
t.k.: I think that before answering it is worth remembering that Buddha’s teaching is a radical argument with the constructs of deluded mind, including the forms of most cultures. Buddha did not think that his teachings should be adapted to every whim of ancient Indian culture. He expected individuals to listen, consider and conform to the teachings. This is true in every transformational system and religion. Religion transforms individuals and cultures because it represents a deeper truth than the passing fancies of culture. Now it is also true that religion adapts to culture but we need to be a bit careful in understanding the dynamic tension between these two.
When we as Lamas give the teachings then we are teaching human beings and it would behoove us to understand the human beings we are teaching! I am reminded of a story I heard of Trungpa Rinpoche and how, when he first came to America, he spent months reading newspapers, magazines and watching TV. He was learning about his new culture so as to best be able to work within it. Personally every Lama I have met, though I am careful about what Lamas I meet, has been very willing to discuss and explore the differences in culture. The system itself produces, in authentic practitioners, a deep level of openness and creative intelligence combined with a compassionate desire to make the methods work for each disciple. Sadly this often means Lamas modify the system by excessively taking into account the laziness and ego inflation of their students in this country.
It is not uncommon for Vajrayana disciples to not even complete the full Ngondro before beginning advanced practices. This is simply a waste of everyone’s time. Letting people do partial Ngondro, 10,000 accumulations instead of 100,000 or making endlessly weaker retreat boundaries. All of this simply destroys the transmissions purity and so no one attains much of anything except a bloated ego. It is not really any harder to do retreat here in the west than in Tibet. Retreat is hard! It requires great sacrifice. It is insecure. But it can be done. People are doing it. There are people doing pure retreat according to tradition and attaining wondrous results at all levels of the path.
In our sangha people do not skip ahead. People go step by step and most of the sangha has completed Ngondro in the three-year time limit. Those who have not understand and explore the inner obscurations and hindrances that prevent them. Others complete the long retreat in pure fashion, described in Dudjom Rinpoche’s Mountain retreat text, never seeing another human being. Those who practice tsa lung have accomplished the necessary practices ad learn the Trulkor exercises. Retreat people are supported by the sangha because we all understand karma and the benefit of this generosity in terms of our own realization. Our practice and realization is interdependent. We know this form the teachings and also form understanding our own minds in meditation.
There have always been traditions of retreat in this country amongst various Christian groups. There are not a lot of such people and there are not a lot in Tibet either. It is hard, wherever you come from!
So maybe we should develop a culture of practice. Maybe we should, as practitioners allow our deep practice to spread in our lives and relations and develop a new culture or way of being in the midst of this culture. This is something that will happen over a few hundred years.
I am reminded of a story from my university days. A professor from China came to visit the political science department and taught a seminar I attended. Towards the end of the evening someone asked, “In retrospect what would you say the final result of Mao’s revolution was?” Quite surprisingly, given cultural differences, the Chinese professor burst out laughing. He replied, “You westerners have single season fashion mentality. We can not even begin to ask this question for 500 more years.” I think perhaps the question “Is Tibetan Buddhism working in the west?” can begin to be looked at in a meaningful way in about 500 years.