Tibetan Buddhism In The West

By Geshe Jampel Senge

When I started teaching Buddhism here in Rikon, Tibet Institut in 2004, I started with just one person. Mr Jack Kuhn, who was the director then, must have been embarrassed to see such a situation when he came to have a look. He immediately called some of the monks who were present to join the teaching to make it look more respectable!!
This is in fact a general trend in the west. Even though we often hear that Buddhism is the fastest growing religion in the west, how fast or whether it is in fact the fastest growing religion is actually debatable. I have been teaching in Australia, New Zealand, Greece, Switzerland and have visited numerous Tibetan Buddhist Centres. In my own Centre Tashi Choeling in Perth and here in Switzerland, it seems, all the Tibetan Buddhist Centres are in fact struggling. All centres are trying to survive with their meager resources. Many of them cannot afford a teacher and often they rely upon recorded tapes which are sent by their teachers or the main centres to which they are affiliated. Owing to financial constraints, they are forced to depend upon visiting teachers who may come once in a year or so.

However, on the other hand it is equally true that Thai, Burmese or Chinese Buddhism seems an entirely different category. They seem to be much more prosperous and usually have temples or monasteries of their own with both resident monks or nuns and lay practitioners. The reason behind this is I believe the local Thai, Burmese or Chinese lay population plays an important role to support their monasteries. Besides, the population of these ethnic groups are far more in number than Tibetans across the world. So, naturally, they are better equipped to support and sustain their religious institutions in their adopted countries. This is of course not to say Tibetan Buddhists have no such temples or monasteries as we know Rikon Tibet – Institut is one of the premier monasteries in the West. There are others as well across the world but not many. However, what sets Tibet- Institut apart from the rest is, it is unique in the sense that it’s the only monastery, perhaps in the whole world where all the Four Great Traditions of Tibetan Buddhism are represented and live in harmony with monks from all four traditions are living, studying and practicing together. It has to be admitted that their have been frequent frictions from time to time among the four great traditions owing to various factors some created by the Tibetans themselves while others insinuated by foreign powers for their vested interests but today, in exile under the leadership of HH The Dalai Lama Tenzin Gyatso, who is the undisputed Spiritual and Temporal leader of the Tibetan people, the Four Traditions have come together in the spirit of fraternal love and has made persistent effort to encourage Buddhist Scholars and students of the Four Traditions to study each other’s doctrinal aspects so that it will enlighten them about each others tradition and learn to respect and appreciate each other more and thus come to better understanding of each other which is indispensable for a harmonious Tibetan Community especially at this time of our history when our nation is under foreign occupation. Therefore, the Rikon Tibet-Institut has been exemplary in it’s
tradition of inculcating religious tolerance which is a vital ingredient
for religious harmony.

As Tibetan Buddhism gradually gets a foothold in the western world, I have a feeling that there is a fair bit of sectarianism among western followers which may have been encouraged by their Tibetan teachers for their narrow self-interest in order to keep the flock together or it may well be also that westerners have their own religious roots which have strong sectarian tendencies and this perhaps may have been brought into their adopted faith as well. Whatever the reason, it seems to me, there is significant intolerance of each other and this is most unfortunate. Buddhism in general and especially Tibetan Buddhism is reputed for its tolerance and all followers of Buddha must remember that His message to the world is love, tolerance and compassion for all beings. The new adherents must not bring the intolerance in their original religion into Buddhism but by the same token Tibetan Buddhist Teachers whether westerners, Tibetan Lamas/ Geshes must not allow their petty jealousies and intolerance get the better of them and sully the good name of Buddhism as one of the most benign, tolerant and peaceful Philosophy to be stricken with petulance and arrogance. This will serve no purpose for Buddhism and will have disillusioned those who came to Buddhism for its tolerance and acceptance of others. In the birthplace of Buddhism, many low caste Hindus known as Harijans are embracing Buddhism in droves because of its tolerance, irrespective of caste, creed or sex or social background. Likewise even in the western world it would be fair to say, many who have either been alienated from their own religion or persecuted because of their religious or sexual orientation also seek solace in Buddhism. Buddhism has been a beacon of hope for the oppressed, the downtrodden and the outcastes of society. It is a philosophy based on compassion and this is the magnet which has pulled thousands into the Buddhist fold throughout history. It is hoped this spirit is not lost which I believe is the epitome of what the Buddha stood for.

The form of Buddhism that is taking root in the west has a tendency of relying on the knowledge of one single person excessively, which is not very healthy. The followers of Buddhism must first and for most base their understanding of the teachings on the Buddha himself and his designated masters like Nagarjuna and Asanga and their illustrious followers. The Buddhist philosophy is a vast subject divided into five categories called the five great treatises. If possible the followers of Buddhism must study these treatises in order to understand the way the Buddha taught and how it ought to be practiced. Even though the teachings come from the Buddha himself, there are divergent views which go to show the flexibility in the nature of Buddhist belief. The method of learning Buddhism is through debate so that the students learn to question the validity of the teaching through sound reason and logical understanding. Buddhism does neither indulge nor encourage the cult status of the Buddha but rather a deep respect born out of genuine gratitude for the precious teachings he has taught which is based on compassion for all sentient beings. Therefore, the notion of exalting individuals to cult status is not a very healthy practice and that is why HH The Dalai Lama is at pains to emphasize every time he gives a talk in different venues across the world to make it clear he has no hidden miracles or mystery around him and in fact he is just a simple Buddhist monk. It should set an example for all to be humble and unassuming as a Buddhist and not be arrogant and pretentious.

It is important to have respect for all traditions because after all, the teachings all come from the Buddha himself. Therefore it is vitally important for the harmony among the different Buddhist Traditions and in fact among all religions. The greatest example we all could follow is HH The Dalai Lama. He has shown to the world how important it is to respect all religions and traditions because all religions ultimately convey the same message of love, tolerance, forgiveness and harmony. All religions serve their followers in their quest for happiness.

Some have asked me which among the four traditions of Tibetan Buddhism is the best? In a way it saddens me because it shows the lack of understanding Buddhism and especially Tibetan Buddhism but on the other hand it is perhaps a commentary on human nature to ask such questions. There is no such thing as one is better than the other. Buddhists regard the holy Dharma as medicine. Just as medicine is judged by how effective it is in order to cure the specific illness of an individual so is the Buddha Dharma. Whatever tradition is most beneficial for one’s own happiness is the best. I usually explain it this way with the example of my mother, since we all have a mother to relate it seems to me a more relevant example which everybody can understand. To me personally, my mother is the best mother in the world but that does not mean she is the best mother among all mothers. Even though she is the best mother to me that shouldn’t imply she is the best mother for everybody else. Likewise, one’s own religion or tradition is best for oneself but that does not mean it is the best in the whole world or best for everybody. If we can accept this logic it will go a long way for religious harmony and understanding of each other.

Buddhism has never had a missionary zeal. It is a philosophy of life which seeks to reform oneself first. The Buddha himself made a rule that one should teach only when the disciple asks and not otherwise. This clearly shows, Buddhists main priority is to better oneself first and if one has achieved a certain stage in transforming one’s own mind, it is then beneficial to help others. It can truly have a positive effect if one helps with an unstinted motivation. The motivation I am talking about is having a true sense of caring for the other individual and with a strong wish to help. It should be primarily to help the other beings without expecting anything in return. This is as it should be. The Buddha gave up his life of luxury and opulence in order to benefit others. He gave up his princely life and became an ascetic in order to help sentient beings by searching for the truth. Therefore it is only right that the goal of a Buddhist practitioner is to alleviate the suffering of others and nothing else. However, there is a worrying trend that we may not be exactly living up to it. Some have backgrounds of missionary based religion and there is concern that some may adopt these aspects into Buddhism which is not good for Buddhism or its image. The Buddha’s teachings must remain faithful to the original teacher’s wish and his way of imparting the teachings. Otherwise, it would undermine the greatness of Buddhism and the impeccable image Buddhism has had throughout history. It may well become a tool to dominate and control peoples lives in it’s attempt to consolidate and stamp it’s superiority which have plagued many other faiths creating conflicts, bloodshed and upheaval in its aftermath This would be unthinkable for Buddhism which lays emphasis on self-conquest through individual development rather than conquering others into
one’s own fold. .

Coming back to Rikon, as the months passed, it was comforting to note that the numbers gradually picked up. It would be an exaggeration to say it came in an easy manner, rather it was very gradual. I must confess I try not to attach too much importance to numbers while no doubt it is a good thing if that happens. To recount my earlier observation, it is difficult to have big numbers in any centre across the world. While there have been individual Buddhists in the western world, Buddhism as a philosophy for the general public is very new. It is a new concept which many are more open than they were twenty years ago but many are still skeptical while a larger are inquisitive about it. Thanks to the very positive image of Buddhism created mainly by HH The Dalai Lama through his impeccable image of a man who is dedicated to bring peace and harmony to all mankind through bringing religious harmony and understanding and calling for dialogue rather than violence. His own campaign for a Free Tibet is a shining example for the Liberation Movements across the world to eschew violence and embrace non-violent methods. It is fair to say that because of the Dalai Lama’s steadfast adherence to non-violence as a means of solving intractable problems like the Tibet issue, he was awarded the 1989 Nobel Peace Prize which clearly demonstrated the depth of the Dalai Lama’s Buddhist belief and enhanced the profile of the Buddhist faith hitherto unknown to the world. No Buddhist Leader of any denomination has ever achieved such endorsement of his belief system than the Dalai Lama. This had a profound effect on the world stage for Buddhism as a peaceful, non-violent philosophy and as a result, thousands flocked to listen to the message of the Dalai Lama irrespective of their religious affiliation. Through this interaction with the Dalai Lama, many gradually discovered Buddhism and especially Tibetan Buddhism. Buddhism in the west is still in a nascent stage and it will take many years for it to develop. Suffice it to say that the interest is clearly there and as in my own personal experience here in Tibet-Institut when I started with one person initially and gained a respectable number over the years, Buddhism will gradually take root in time but will be long, long time before it becomes a significant force to take it’s hallowed place as one of the mainstream faiths of the western world.