What do westerners think of Buddhism?
The Western followers of Tibetan Buddhism will certainly agree with their Tibetan teachers that the gradual spread of Dharma in the countries of the West is a welcome thing. Together we try as hard as we can to open up the teaching for ourselves and to make it accessible to others, albeit non-missionary but in a spirit of tolerance, in accordance with Buddhist tradition. In view of the crises and problems that threaten even the very survival of people on earth, Buddhist analyzes, approaches and methods are seen as very valuable. The desire for meaning and quality, the search for a life in harmony with others leads many "Westerners" on the Buddhist path. Buddhism obviously makes a useful contribution to the gradual development of a changed thinking that people long for and indeed does is urgently needed. So our efforts seem to be justified not only from the teaching, but also from the situation. Is there any reason for criticism and self-criticism at all?
If you take a closer look at the matter, everything does not look as clear, smooth and simple as the surface would suggest. One of the main problems seems to me to be that most teachers and students think they mean the same thing when they speak of Tibetan Buddhism. This is probably a mistake that can only survive so stubbornly because there is little real, honest communication between Tibetan teachers and Western students, but lots of illusions and projections - on both sides.
How this discrepancy is presented in detail and how it works, I would like to illustrate using the example of our dealings with the four schools within Tibetan Buddhism that still exist today. It is one of the most delicate subjects with which we have to deal in the continuation of the Tibetan tradition, and at the same time it is a particularly sad chapter.
Western thinking separates
Those interested in the matter know the four main schools that had developed in Tibet over the centuries, namely Nyingma, Sakya, Kagyu and Gelug. They were created because great teachers saw the need to present the same teaching to different students in different ways in order to achieve the best possible result. These efforts are summarized in the official presentation under the technical term "skillful methods". In this way an image is conveyed as if followers of all four schools were striving hand in hand to enlightenment in the most beautiful Buddhist harmony. Anyone who has studied the history of Tibet a little knows how difficult it actually was for the followers of the various schools to interact with one another and what, apart from the mere effort to explain the theory and practice of Buddhism clearly, played a role : social standing, academic pride, economic influence, political power and so on. In Tibet that was difficult enough and in some cases led to regrettable conflicts, but at least there were corrective thoughts. So every person affected had almost sucked in the information with their mother's milk that such attitudes are nothing other than “ego in action”. There was basically no way to hide behind pretended justifications. The Buddhist ideas have been sitting pretty deep after all these centuries.
In the West, on the other hand, there is no such foundation. If Tibetan Buddhism now spreads here, it will of course first be accepted by the people in a way that corresponds to their usual thought patterns. In comparison to the eastern way of thinking, western thinking is more dissecting, neatly dividing and dividing into categories. No wonder, then, that many people here rush to the phenomenon of schooling with real enthusiasm and - before they have fully understood what the common denominator of all Buddhist traditions is - devotedly analyzing the differences, working out what separates them and giving qualitative evaluations.
And that's not all: accepting a foreign religion of one's own free will is always a very sensitive matter. For many, the new teaching is the epitome of their longing expectations and hopes. Everything that they previously had to criticize about their ancestral religion must not appear here under any circumstances. A real ocean of fear and loneliness should finally be dissolved forever. Such urgent personal needs explain why a not at all small number of Westerners almost compulsively insist that everything must be supernatural perfect: Buddhism is the only correct teaching, flawlessly handed down and completely free of human influences, Vajrayana the only one anyway. what is worth practicing, all lamas (especially of course your own "root guru") enlightened, omniscient Buddhas and of course your own school within this excellent religion the best, cleanest, most effective, holiest.
Such fantasies of absoluteness point more to desperate fear of life than to advanced spirituality, and many a “yogi” might initially be better off with a psychotherapist than in teachings, initiations or retreats. In order to maintain these unreal ideal images of a religious tradition and practice, an enormous effort is needed in terms of repression. Own experiences and perceptions that do not correspond to the ideal have to be constantly reinterpreted with great expenditure of energy. Of course, that can't work in the long run - but that's another topic.
Tibetan teachers who are confronted with such attitudes from their Western students usually develop one of the following two assessments:
a) If you belong to the large group of those who are granted a lot of "guru devotion" but little communication with their students, you may not even notice the inner tension that lies behind all the assurances of gratitude, devotion, and devotion Belief is to be heard. You will simply be pleased that the Dharma falls on such fertile ground in the West. Problems, crises and disasters are then viewed by them as regrettable breakdowns, but not as inevitable, predictable break-ins.
b) If you work more closely with your students and have accumulated a rich store of experience over the years, such phenomena will alarm you immediately and you will try to gradually bring the students in question into contact with reality. At the same time, however, they will reflect on how it is possible that the same Westerners, who often so mercilessly and incorruptibly judge the mistakes of Christian dignitaries and institutions, seem to leave their critical attention in a drawer in the face of the Tibetan system.
Of course, we Tibetans are also amazed when we see with what fanatical doggedness such disputes about schools, lower schools and splinter group disputes are sometimes carried out in the middle of Europe. Then we ask ourselves why on earth do Westerners believe that they have to accept the mistakes of the Tibetans and even make them worse. It's not that easy to understand.
In any case, the Western students are largely relieved of this whole problem by the fact that they are student are. Nobody expects them not to fall into the usual beginner's traps. On the contrary, it is touching again to see how they turn to the Dharma in search of a better quality of life and overcoming their obstacles, even if it is with the childlike attitude of "My football club is better than your football club". In this phase in particular, the teachers are called upon to provide them with support and, above all, corrective action.
Reincarnated monastery cooks
But what is the role of the Tibetan teachers? I often and gladly talk to Western Buddhists of all traditions and schools. Most of these people are open, critical, and communicative, and so I get a lot of information about how Tibetan teachers from different traditions respond to the questions that keep coming up. What I get to hear is for the most part correct in terms of content, sometimes even great, but sometimes also hair-raising.
Perhaps a few examples: There are Tibetan lamas who declare refuge with teachers of other (even other Tibetan Buddhist!) Traditions to be insufficient and induce their students to take refuge again, now in their school. There are also Tibetan lamas, and unfortunately quite a few, who participate in spreading prejudice about other schools. Some are denied intellectual knowledge, others meditation practice and ritual knowledge - although every Tibetan teacher and scholar knows for sure that the actual differences are just fine shifts in emphasis and that all four schools are very well suited to the complete Tibetan one To convey Buddhism in a valid and correct way.
Furthermore, there are teachers who, contrary to their own training and experience, crowd around students with the promise that one does not need to dwell on them with the annoying accumulation of basic Buddhist knowledge, but can go straight to the highest essential practices. None of the examples given here are based on individual pieces of information that I snapped up casually, but rather have been consistently reported to me by many practitioners over long periods of time.
It is not easy for me to say, but when the problem of sectarianism and narrow-minded fanaticism arises among the followers of Tibetan Buddhism in the West, it is by no means solely due to the inevitable wrongdoing of Dharma beginners. There are also irresponsible Tibetan teachers who stir up these conflicts - not in public, that would not do well with a Buddhist clergyman, but all the more effectively in the closer circle of their students.
The key question now is: why are they doing this? What do Tibetan teachers get out of doing this? Some may themselves be so fanatical about their own school that they believe they are doing the best service to living beings by gathering them all into the lap of their own tradition. Others are perhaps cynical enough to want to secure the largest possible “market share” in the West. We have to confront the fact: It's not just about love and compassion, it's also about very tangible financial and power-political interests.
In this context, one example should be mentioned of a phenomenon that has aroused great astonishment among us Tibetans for several decades: the so-called tulku flood. It is about the really inflationary reincarnations of deceased lamas, especially in exile. The reincarnation system has existed in Tibet for many centuries, and its benefits should be undisputed among almost all Tibetans and many Westerners. However, it has now quickly become clear to some people in exile that the title of Rinpoche is a capital that has considerable market value in the West. And so there has recently been the ironic saying among Tibetans: "Every monastery cook has to reincarnate."
In principle, according to the theory of reincarnation, there is nothing wrong with that. But the conscious control of voluntary reincarnation is about extremely subtle processes. Whether it "works" does not only depend on the wish the student but also from the ability of the teacher. In Tibet it was considered halfway certain that at least three quarters of all rinpoches were real tulkus. If, however, the proportion of "successors" declared by force to be tulku increases too much, the result is a decline in the quality of the teachers and a decline in the value of the teaching.
Just as a reminder: There are no reincarnations of the very great Masters Marpa and Milarepa as well as of the Five Great Sakya Masters and Je Tsongkhapa - not to mention the Buddha himself - which, however, does not detract from worship and guru practice. So where does this tulku hysteria come from, one wonders?
The fact that the motifs are mixed up in a strange way can be seen, among other things, from the unspeakable accumulations of titles, which were only invented for the West and which simply leave a Tibetan speechless. I've already read things like: "Lama XY Tulku Khenpo Rinpoche". Not to mention that it is teeming with eminences and holiness. With some so-called lamas you can see year after year how the biography published by their students is becoming more and more baroque. After “His Holiness”, is “His Divinity” next? Sure, the Tibetans laugh at it. But there are also Tibetans who encourage such tendencies. Why and for what purpose?
Critical mind needed
I could now make a big lament and say that such behavior calls into question the pure Buddhist tradition and, in the long term, destroys Tibetan Buddhism. This is undoubtedly true, but unfortunately such moralizing considerations do not do much.
But there is also a very practical aspect that I would like to recommend to the administrators of the Tibetan tradition: Westerners are anything but stupid. On the contrary, as far as one can generalize, they are extremely critical and thoughtful people. Their general basic knowledge of psychological relationships is much greater than one can even imagine in the East. And: They have already proven that they are able to shake off the yoke of a religious system that seems to be permeated with contradictions, mendacity and arrogance and whose dignitaries they consider untrustworthy.
Out of a deep longing for quality and inner realization, perhaps as new Buddhists you will overlook all possible bumps for a while. But no Tibetan lama should feel too secure on his throne when putting on the great show of his own infallibility or the uniqueness of his own schooling. The day comes when people see through the theater and keep their distance - just like the numerous young Tibetans in exile in the West who simply know too much to allow themselves to be tied to the old system without further ado.
We Tibetan lamas must therefore realize that where the spread of the Dharma in the West is pursued with unsuitable ends and unsuitable means, it already carries the seeds of failure.
But it should be said to Westerners: The same clear and critical attitude, which they usually strive for in all areas of their life, is also necessary in the Dharma. Common sense is not only a prerequisite for spiritual practice, but also a good protection against all too blatant undesirable developments.
© Dagyab Rinpoche and Tibet House Germany
Published in TIBET Forum No. 2/92, pp. 20–23, edited by Prof. Dr. Jan Andersson
Courtesy of Tibet Forum and Dagyab Rinpoche.
German formulation in collaboration with Regine Leisner.
Loden Sherab Dagyab Rinpoche
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