This interview with the scholar-practitioner Anne Carolyn Klein was originally published in the July–December issue of Mandala, a magazine run by the nonprofit organization Foundation for the Preservation of the Mahayana Tradition. We are republishing it here because of its excellent discussion of transmission, the secularization of Tibetan Buddhism as it has come West, and other ideas that speak practically and directly to the experiences of Western dharma practitioners.


Respected as both a scholar and practitioner, Anne Carolyn Klein (Lama Rigzin Drolma) has a Ph.D. in Religious Studies from the University of Virginia and is a professor of religion at Rice University in Houston, Texas. She has studied and practiced dharma since 1970, mainly in the Gelug and Nyingma traditions, and has published six books, including Unbounded Wholeness: Dzogchen, Bon and the Logic of the Nonconceptual, Meeting the Great Bliss Queen, and Knowledge and Liberation. Her most recent work is Heart Essence of the Vast Expanse: A Story of Transmission. Anne teaches and leads retreats internationally, and she and her husband, Harvey Aronson (Lama Namgyal Dorje), are the founding spiritual directors of Dawn Mountain Tibetan Buddhist Center.

In May 2015, Donna Lynn Brown talked to Anne Klein about the meaning of transmission and the state of the transmission of Tibetan Buddhism to the West.

What is transmission? Transmission takes place in every communication. What is transmitted? Words, of course, but also modulations of sound, as well as body language, energy and feeling-tone. Transmission is everything that passes between people. There’s no need to fetishize this: it is not something strange, it is the richness of communication that happens all the time. “I always feel good after talking to her,” we say. It’s not just words—it’s everything that is received in relating with that person.

In Tibetan Buddhism, transmission connects us to a lineage of spiritual succession, as well as blessings, meditative ritual, artistic forms, and ways of teaching. How? By listening to a text read aloud by someone who earlier received it, in a line back to the text’s originator. What is transmitted includes, but goes beyond, intellect, and is conducive to a profound integration of the text and its practices. There is information coming through, as well as traditional patterns of knowing. There is meaning, sound, and “waves of splendor,” or blessings (‘jin-lab). Equally significant is connection. There is no chasm between the devoted student and the caring teacher, between beginner’s mind and mature wisdom. Their meeting requires that the teacher have something to offer and the student a capacity to receive. This ability to receive—emotionally, somatically, cognitively, and contemplatively—is not a small thing. That’s why many classic texts, such as Words of My Perfect Teacher and Great Treatise on the Stages of the Path to Enlightenment, begin with how to listen and how to relate to a teacher. Relationship is crucial to transmission.

Transmission is best when there is trust and commitment as part of a compassionate holding. Buddha asked the grieving Kisa Gotami, whose child had just died, to request salt from a household that hadn’t known death. She trusted him and followed his counsel. Buddha did not say, “This will help.” It was implicit. Transmission, being profoundly relational, is not just words or technique. It is a student attuning to the pitch of a master singer, not a radio blasting into space. One central Tibetan practice is guru yoga, which cultivates a heightened receptivity, fostered by love and trust, which makes the relationship a portal to an experience beyond the student’s current capacity. The teacher, for a moment, de-occludes you. It may take years or even lifetimes before you can access this experience on your own. It radically alters your relationship to your own potential. You see it and believe in it. That is the power of transmission. When His Holiness the Dalai Lama gives an Avalokiteshvara [bodhisattva of compassion] initiation, maybe your heart softens. That is the core of transmission.

As Tibetan Buddhism gets transmitted to the West, is it being secularized? There is both conscious and unconscious secularization. There are serious exchanges between Buddhism and science, a conversation fraught with challenges but also tremendously promising. And Geshe Thupten Jinpa’s new book, A Fearless Heart, is a conscious secularization of compassion. Buddhism is having significant cultural impact via mindfulness and compassion training in schools, workplaces, and among the public. The aim is not enlightenment or advancing Buddhism, but relieving stress, fostering positive relationships, and bringing values or skills to a broad cohort of people so they lead better lives. I think that’s what His Holiness, as a bodhisattva, is hoping for. Bodhisattvas, Shantideva writes, though intent on nirvana for all, are pleased to offer whatever happiness they can to others in the meantime.

Unconscious secularization occurs when we use Buddhism to support, rather than challenge, our neuroses!

What about Tibetan Buddhism in its more traditional forms? The transmission of traditional practices, using the ancient forms of recitation, sadhana [ritual practice], study and retreat, is also occurring in many centers in the West. Does this mean that we are doing the same practices as Tibetans of old? Hardly. We can’t help but practice as Westerners. And our own understandings of body, mind, and the social order impact what we need from practice and how we do it. We will have to use our own cultural intelligence to make traditional practices meaningful and transformative, not mere replicas of how they were done in Tibet.

David Germano [professor of Tibetan and Buddhist studies at the University of Virginia] said to me recently that Buddhism didn’t really land in Tibet from India until the Tibetans made it their own. Buddhism is not a box you ship from one place to another without the contents shifting. As Indian Buddhism became Tibetan Buddhism, so the Tibetan Buddhism that comes West will become Western Tibetan Buddhism. It is significant that the tragedy of Tibet dovetailed with the digital age. There has never in history been a cultural transfer as rapid as this one: enormous bodies of literature coming into our languages at unprecedented speed. It took the Tibetans 400 years to digest the Indian material. Today, [the translation project] 84,000 is on track to translate the entire Tibetan canon into a handful of languages in one hundred years. So there’s a rapid cultural transfer, at least of texts. Training people—that takes longer.

What would you say about the quality of practice in the West? Quality is hard to assess. It’s challenging anywhere to really develop as a practitioner. And when you’ve got something that’s culturally different, maybe you just disappear into another cultural form without really dealing with your inner challenges. I think this happens in the West. At the same time, I do know many practitioners who are genuinely developing. You know, we have two faces: our intrinsic nature and our reactive patterns—the bad habits of the psyche. Effective practice mirrors both, gradually revealing our nature, while at the same time, clarifying what obstructs it. 

For Westerners, working with emotions is important. Tibetans don’t seem to build an identity around emotions, or even identify them as a category, as we do. So the transmission of a transformative path to the West has this added challenge. We can memorize the texts, translate them, even do practice every day, but is it really impacting how we feel and live? How can it, unless we are in touch with our emotions? They have to be dealt with, whether on the cushion or in therapy. Sometimes people come to Buddhism for things that therapy could do better.

Are the lineages rooted here yet? If “rooted” means that Western teachers educated by their Western teachers are giving the classic threesome of initiation, transmission, and instruction in deeply affective processes, we are not there yet. My generation studied with teachers who grew up in Tibet. Now there’s a generation who are studying with Western teachers or more westernized Tibetans. Nevertheless, even younger Western teachers continue to be trained by Tibetans. Collaboration between Western and Tibetan teachers will be important in rooting Tibetan practice in the West, so the level and ongoing availability of traditional Tibetan education in Asia matters. As well, there are still countless texts to be translated and oral commentary related to them to be digested. Language skills thus remain important. The more the people who run Western dharma centers think about how this will work in coming decades, the better. It takes a lot to train somebody even to be able to invite Tibetan teachers, create a meaningful sequence of teachings, and sustain the necessary variety of practices in community. Still, many things are going well. Good Western teachers and Western-Tibetan partnerships are appearing. Maybe partnership is what Western Tibetan Buddhism will look like for a while. And at some point, there hopefully will be full lineage transmissions getting passed on by Western teachers to Western students.

We assume Tibetan teachers will be with us for generations, don’t we? Perhaps. But the level of study now is not the same as it was in Tibet or India. Can’t be. Fortunately the institutions are still producing powerful teachers, some of whom now visit or live in the West. And there are a few places in Tibet where people still devote their lives to practice in something like the old way. It is important that we support the growth of places of study in Asia for nuns, monks, and tantrikas [tantra practitioner]. But we can’t assume this resource will always be there.

The West’s Judeo-Christian outlook has given way to what some call a “broken worldview”: secular, materialistic, and lacking in meaning. Can Tibetan Buddhism reenchant the West? We can’t adopt Tibetan worldviews wholesale. But yes, Tibetan Buddhism can play a role. Most of us long for a holistic or sacred outlook: it was part of our culture in medieval times, and it speaks to a genuine human need. The danger is that because we have such longing, we might over-idealize all things Tibetan. Let’s find a middle way by discovering contemporary ways of acknowledging our profound connection to the elements of earth and space and to each other. That’s a very human and humane way to live. Whether or not there are protector beings or protective laws, aren’t the plants in the Amazon and the coral reefs off Australia worthy of protection? Isn’t everything? Materialism is so limited. We humans thrive on feeling part of a sacred whole. And though Tibet may be the inspiration, we need to express the sacred in ways meaningful to us, here and now.

Is it harmful to mix our inherited traditions with Buddhism to create rituals and celebrations? I’m thinking of weddings, Christmas, Passover . . . Rituals, celebrations, even some practices: people are mixing. We can’t stop them. Whether it’s harmful or “creative integration” may be in the eye of the beholder. If I am Buddhist and I like a Christmas tree because that’s how I grew up, does that make me less Buddhist? No. Does practicing mindfulness or tonglen [the meditative practice of “sending and receiving”] make me less Christian? No. In Asia, it’s quite common to belong to multiple traditions. Famously, in Japan, you’re born with Shinto rituals, you marry with Christian ones, and you die with Buddhist ones. In Tibet, Bön formed the bedrock of Buddhist expression and shaped it in important ways. In China, people didn’t give up Confucianism, they honored their ancestors, but they were Buddhist and most of them were Taoist too. In Nepal, I’ve seen people muttering mantras while tossing flower petals at Hindu and Buddhist statues. Here at home, friends at our center have designed beautiful weddings that draw on both Christian and Buddhist expression. Some types of mixing could be a problem but some is useful, even necessary.

Are ethics being transmitted? I’ve heard Buddhists brush off wrong behavior as empty, for example, which seems like a misunderstanding of both ethics and emptiness. That’s just crazy. And crazy-making. It’s bad philosophy too. Yes, everything is empty, but everything also has to be dealt with. If someone is suffering due to abusive or predatory behavior, and someone else says, “well, it’s empty,” that’s ethically irresponsible and emotionally harmful. It’s not particularly Buddhist either. It’s just being blind. My own teachers have been generous and supportive, so I have personally not had negative experiences, but I certainly hear about them. Some Tibetans, like many Western men in authority, may not understand what it means for a woman to be oppressed in one way or another. Since Tibetan monastics are typically raised with a completely male point of view, gender can be a flashpoint for cultural misunderstanding.      In Buddhism, everything rides on “the legs of ethics.” Guru Rinpoche [the founder of the first order of Tibetan Buddhism] famously said, “My view is as vast as space, but my conduct is as careful and precise as grains of barley.” So view is never an excuse for bad behavior. But dharma centers have to survive, so we give teachings that attract people. That’s a secularizing force in itself! Westerners like using their minds, so wisdom is a popular topic. So is compassion because we’re messed up about relationships. Nobody will come to a lecture on ethics. But ethics include behavior supportive of community in every sense. So if we teach kindness or compassion, we are teaching ethics.

For my own teachers, who were not marketing to Westerners, ethics were tremendously important, the ground of everything.

Let’s talk about the role of the body in transmission, which is sometimes hard to understand. Transmission depends on receptivity. Once, from my seat at a Kalachakra initiation, I could see His Holiness the Dalai Lama in profile. Before beginning the ceremony, he sat with his back to the audience and prayed. His face and his entire bearing showed how totally, selflessly, he was absorbed in his prayer. I was so moved: it gave me something to aspire to. Or I see the humility of a teacher bowing before a Buddha statue, and I realize I don’t bow like that . . . and maybe, in that moment, I see the dropping of ordinary mind and know that it’s possible. Opening that kind of portal is the whole point. Think of His Holiness giving an Avalokiteshvara empowerment. That transmission occurs in part at a level below consciousness, because of subtle energies held by the body. Who he is, and the attunement, receptivity, and connectedness of the recipients—that’s what makes it happen.

Is there something about the body in practice that we’re not getting? Yes, and this can be an obstacle to transmission in the West. For Tibetans, mind is not as different from body as it is for us; they are fully integrated. Longchenpa [a major figure in the Nyingma school of Tibetan Buddhism] said that wisdom pervades the entire body! This is a big gap between cultures. Years ago, I was not in my body at all; I thought being smart was all that mattered [laughs]. It took me until I went to Tibet for the first time to understand this. But there it was clear, even to me: you have to be in your body. You can’t just space out on a mountain. Tibetans—and traditional peoples everywhere—are more experientially in contact with their bodies than us. When Tibetans teach practices like Vajrasattva, they never tell us that this is an embodied experience. Nobody ever told me that. But you can’t feel impacted unless you are in your body. For them, it’s too obvious to be stated. Tibetans, at least the generation I studied with, don’t take into account how “disembodiedly” intellectual we can be. But mind rides on energy, and energy is in the body. When practice is deep, you feel differently in your body. Even so, if nobody tells you that somatic sensing is important, you can just stay in your head forever. When people practice visualizations for years without much impact, I think it’s often due to their lack of relationship to the body and the emotions we hold there. Being unconnected to the body and emotions—that’s where most hiccups in transmission occur, I think.

You studied with Gelug, Nyingma, and Bön Lamas. How did you negotiate those allegiances? For years I studied in the Gelug tradition, but then Khetsun Sangpo Rinpoche came to Virginia and talked about dzogchen, and I was irrevocably inspired. There was no way I wasn’t going to seek that out. Then in India I had an audience with His Holiness, and he said it was OK—after all, he was doing it [laughs]. Later I found out that one of my greatest Gelugpa teachers had secretly studied with Dudjom Rinpoche. So there’s always been crossover. One teacher I was close to made it clear that when I got teachings from a different sect, I should not come back and disrupt his other students’ focus. As long as I didn’t do that, and was open with him in private, then it was OK; in fact he blessed me warmly in a way that totally comforted my heart. So it can be sticky, but Tibetans have always done it.

Any final words on transmission? Transmission requires an open heart, a softening of defenses. This is dad-pa in Tibetan, which I like to translate as “openhearted devotion.” Many people translate it as “faith,” but it does not mean believing something. No teacher has ever asked me what I believed! Dad-pa means being delighted by the dharma to the point of irrevocable openhearted devotion. The late psychologist Emmanuel Ghent talked about a surrender that is not a defeat, but a quality of liberation and expansion of the self based on letting down defensive barriers. That’s it. And that is an embodied state, not a belief system. It is a way of experiencing with our entire being. And it’s what we need to be receptive to the transmission of both compassion and wisdom. That’s not well understood in the West. People say, “I got transmission!” but sometimes that’s just projection. You have to be in your body. You have to be in your heart. You have to be settled and not crazy. Dad-pa is heart-to-heart relationship. It’s love. You love your teacher, the teaching, reality, your true nature, everybody else who has the same true nature. Not love across a chasm, but love that is the field in which everything occurs. The whole path is about love. Transmission is about love. Really.

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