Tibetan Buddhism in the West: Is it Working?
June 13, 2003 9:36 AM   Subscribe

...a number of lamas generally regard Westerners—with many fine exceptions—as 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 feeling—given the brevity and preciousness of human life—that devoting time to people with such fickleness and so little faith is time not very well spent.

Apropos of Wednesday’s discussion about Buddhism and science, the subject of the interview is also the author of Buddhism and Science: Breaking New Ground.
posted by mediareport at 9:46 AM on June 13, 2003

Er, make that editor, not author.
posted by mediareport at 9:54 AM on June 13, 2003

Oh, come on. I mean, everyone reads Tricycle. It's like CNN. Is this really worthy of an FPP?

just kidding. Good find, media report.

I was talking to a friend at the Zendo about the lack of people our age (20-somethings) involved in Buddhism. I wonder if it is a thing that, for whatever reason, tends to attract older people, or if the image of Buddhism became less appealing to the younger crowd somehow. From what I understand, many of the Westerners involved in the Buddhist boom from the 60's to the early 80's were fairly young and excited people. And now we have a small 'second generation,' but its memebers are very few and far between. I wonder to myself what's going on here: is this just a PR problem, or an expression of a deeper conflict of lifestyles.
posted by kaibutsu at 10:02 AM on June 13, 2003

what is the sound of no patriotic, flapping flag?
posted by troutfishing at 10:18 AM on June 13, 2003

Being a 20-something, I was actually suprised to find as many people practicing as I have. I practice Nichiren Buddhism and not only are there many people practicing, but there are a host of centers to practice, meet, etc. It's actually pretty amazing, to say nothing of being encouraging. I know the topic was Tibetan Buddhism, but I figured I would chime in anyway.
posted by whatevrnvrmind at 11:49 AM on June 13, 2003

I wonder what Terrence, American Buddhist would say.
posted by cell divide at 12:19 PM on June 13, 2003

I'm not a practicing Buddhist, but I trade Buddhist texts with two friends and know others also interested in Buddhism (all 20/30-somethings). Actually, none of us are practicing. For me, it's because I worship with the Quakers, but I wonder if there's too much of a do-it-yourself, pick-and-choose element to what we're all doing. I know there's something not quite right about trying to learn these things on my own from a book, but it's a method I'm used to. Does anyone recommend any centers to practice in the DC area?
posted by win_k at 1:14 PM on June 13, 2003

I think that fickleness goes along with the individuality that is (inconsistently) valued in the West. I'm sure that there's something important to be gained by picking one thing and going with it, but people worry that it's not the right one thing. I suspect that it's possible there is no right one thing, but there are definitely a lot of wrong ones.
posted by callmejay at 1:39 PM on June 13, 2003

Good link. It reminded me of this article on "Boomer Buddhism."
posted by homunculus at 2:39 PM on June 13, 2003

For a Theravadan perspective, here's an interview with Ajahn Amaro, a Western monk in California.

And for a Zen perspective, here's a Western Zen Master in Tokyo (not that there's any such thing as a Zen Master, of course.) (And he likes dinosaurs.)
posted by homunculus at 2:52 PM on June 13, 2003

I don't see valuing individuality as *necessarily* linked with fickleness, callmejay. I think Wallace is mainly addressing the problems of teaching Buddhism to folks with an impatient consumerist mindset - a mindset that's only recently become a dominant frame of reference in much of the West. He also goes after the willingness of some lamas to cater to that mindset during brief, contextless weekend workshops rather than "sustained, rigorous practice."

What I like most, though, is that even as Wallace discusses our "profoundly non-monastic and non-contemplative society," he's not afraid to raise the "delicate topic" of fundamentalism among both Tibetans and Westerners who ignore the possibility that some traditional practices may need to be changed:

The test is, do 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 cultaral context, this can wind up being rigid, fundamentalist, and dogmatic, without even noticing whether those teachings are producing the same type of wonderful effects and transformations in Western practitioners that they did in Tibetan practitioners...

If contemporary Western disciples, apparently engaging in the same practices as their Tibetan predecessors, are not gaining comparable realization, then one has to ask how 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 dialogue with Western worldviews? This is something relatively few Tibetan lamas are doing to any significant extent...

The ending frames the problem as an opportunity for exploration, which is also nice. Oh, and thanks, homunculus, for the Amaro interview.
posted by mediareport at 3:18 PM on June 13, 2003

Conversely: TV in Bhutan: is it working?
posted by homunculus at 11:57 PM on June 13, 2003

The beauty of Buddhism is that it teaches you to only accept what you feel to be true, to test things out, take what you want, and leave what you don't like.. and that you can even integrate beliefs with other faiths.

This makes a pseudo-Christobuddhist, and it works well for me. Like many, I tend to regard Buddhism as a philosophy rather than a religion per-se, and I adopt it as such.
posted by wackybrit at 4:26 AM on June 14, 2003

I practice the Vajrayana (Tibetan Buddhism) and work in a quasi-administrative capacity for my center, so I may be slightly biased.

I wonder if Wallace titled this article/interview. It seems to be presented as though Tibetan Buddhism is not working in the West, and that these problems must be rectified for it to survive here.

He mentions centers that have resident lamas but doesn't extrapolate that there are students at such centers, especially ones that were founded many years ago, that have attained accomplishment of the profound path. There must be such students. I doubt they are shouting from the rooftops that they are enlightened, but I doubt that it is not the case that such attainment exists in Western students.

Also, it is many times at such established centers with their communities of students at various levels of practice that such visiting lamas on tour teach and provide such high-level teachings. I wouldn't say that these teachings are entirely contextless. Many students have familiarized themselves with the rich symbolic and ritualistic aspects of Tibetan Buddhism. I doubt that any lama familiar with the difference between absolute and relative truth would expect our culture to be a blank slate to write the "pure teachings" onto.

Vajrayana is highly ritualistic and symbolic and this may be somewhat anathema to many in the West, but the enlightened nature of reality as elucidated by this complex system comes across despite a difference in cultural context. To completely sacrifice this richness for accessibility would be tragic. I doubt Wallace is suggesting that extreme though. Cultural context only goes so far too. Is death a relative cultural context? Lotuses? Perhaps, but lotuses can grow here, right?

Anyway, there's a lot that is right in this interview. The shopping mentality was spotted early on (Trungpa Rinpoche's talk that became Cutting through Spiritual Materialism was directed at this), blind faith is a problem with any religion and the lamas I have met would tell you so, shirking of fundamentals is serious and is definitely attributable to cultural context, laziness, and spiritual materialism. I think a more appropriate title for the interview might be "Tibetan Buddhism in the West -- Is it as accessible as it could be?"

I appreciate that he is pointing out some things that are truly problematic, but he neglects to say that there are some things that are going just right. I don't know if that emphasis was his intention or not. This interview is useful and also a little misleading, in my opinion. And finally, I think he himself is also being a bit impatient. America and the West are a lot bigger than Tibet. Maybe with the worldshrinking of late might even things out, but you know, this is a big deal this transition. Further complicating the matter of high-level teachings, there are the prophecies which say that the Great Perfection (Dzogchen) teachings are appropriate for this time. Of course, the preliminaries are still preliminaries. What's a lama to do? Use his accomplishment and skillful methods. I say this is at least happening.
posted by mblandi at 11:15 PM on June 14, 2003

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