In the West, there are many different schools of Buddhism. Where do we find common ground? I would like to say that we are all students of one teacher—the Buddha. One very kind, wise teacher. That is most important. As followers or students of this great teacher, we should take his own life as a model. His sacrifice—leaving his palace and remaining in the forest for six years. He worked hard in order to become enlightened. When the Buddha started teaching, he considered his audience’s mentality, their mental disposition, and then, accordingly, gave teachings.
Sometimes, we put less emphasis on the Buddha’s way of life. We prefer a more luxurious life-style. Sometimes, when we explain or teach Buddha-dharma, there’s a slight attitude of imposing one’s own view.
All the traditions in Buddhism have their own unique aspects. But in essence, we are all students of the same teacher.
People everywhere in the world are very inspired by your refusal to give in to anger or despair or revenge about the situation in your country. In this country, we can display more anger about a car that pulls out in front of us on the highway than you do about China. We see that for you this has something to do with deep religious training. Can you get so far away from the kind of anger we experience every day without religious training? In my own case, if the car is delayed, I am also irritated. But for more serious things, perhaps I have more patience and calm. Of course, the training of mind—or religious belief, and certainly in my case, as a Buddhist—is one method. Training involves not just one single method but many methods. It’s like building a huge airplane. It takes so many pieces that all have to fit together to make it work. In the same way the transformation of our minds—or setting the right kind of mental attitude—takes time.
So certainly in my daily life, in my mental attitude toward myself, toward other fellow human beings, toward problems, toward enemies—there are perhaps some differences because of the long process of training in various methods.
You’ve often said that we should remain in our own traditions. Can you say what you mean by that? Generally speaking, it is better to keep one’s own tradition. It is more suitable. But among some people—in the West they are usually Christians, Jews, and to some extent Muslims—there is an interest in Buddhism. Sometimes, because of their individual mental dispositions, they do not find much in their own tradition that is effective, but they still want a spiritual practice. They feel a strong pull toward Buddhism, and then, of course, it is their right to follow Buddhism. After all, all religions belong to humanity. What’s important is that once we make a decision to follow another religion we should keep in our minds that we must avoid criticizing our own previous tradition. We must show respect for it.
What do you think is going on in the West that makes Buddhism so attractive to us? Variety, maybe. People always want something new, something new. New furniture, new fashions, a new color for their hair. All these things. Some even want to change their face (laughter). They just like something new. That’s one factor.
Another more serious factor is that people sometimes are very skeptical about religious beliefs. Then they discover that some of the Asian traditions rely on work, or intelligence, and do not ask people to simply accept the teachings on faith. There is a lot of explanation that follows investigation, so for those who are skeptical of purely faith-based systems, the Asian traditions can be very attractive. That’s one reason. Then, another thing: All major religious traditions have teachings on the practice of compassion, love, forgiveness, but the Buddha has become a symbol of nonviolence around the world, a symbol of compassion. All ancient masters teach the same message, but the Buddha’s message is not just for humanity alone; it is for all sentient beings. It puts a strong emphasis on respect for all forms of life. And I think that this is perhaps why the Buddha has become a universal symbol of compassion and nonviolence and why so many are attracted to Buddhism.
Do you think that Buddhism can temper some of the violence in this country? I think so.
How do you think the values of our country affect Buddhism? As far as Buddhist philosophy or concepts are concerned, I don’t think there’ll be any substantial change. But the ancient Indian traditions have tried to explain cosmologies. So here, modern science—the science of cosmology, and also biology, neurobiology, psychology and physics—will be very helpful in developing a deeper understanding of reality in these fields.
Then there is the Vinaya, the monastic code. In the Vinaya, the Buddha gave equal rights to male and female. But then, in some forms of practice, it looks like there is some discrimination. In the past, we just took these things for granted. There was no selfconsciousness about it. In the West, there’s a lot of consciousness about equality, especially when it comes to the rights of women. This situation could help to open our minds. And perhaps to have some discussion or make some correction or modification.
But there’s one problem: One single person cannot decide to make changes to the Vinaya. This kind of decision must be made with a group of sanghas, a group of bhikshus—because this is the monastic practice of the Thai or Theravada system, the Tibetan system, the Chinese system, and [in this regard] they are essentially the same. So logically, this needs change or modification by an international sangha group. Otherwise, it is a little difficult for us Tibetans to make change alone. For many years I have been eager to have an international gathering of bhikshus from all Buddhist countries, especially for the Vinaya traditions, in order to have discussions about the Buddha’s teachings and today’s reality.
In the United States one of our realities is capitalism. You have said that capitalism is too focused on money. Does this present special problems for the study of Buddhism and for the transmission of Buddhism into a Western value system? I don’t think so. Whether socialist or capitalist, generally people everywhere are concerned with money. I think it’s the same. Easterner, Westerner, capitalist, socialist— everywhere, generally speaking, people are always drawn toward money and material comfort.
You have said so many times that your religion is kindness. And sometimes we hear this to mean something other than “religion” as we know it. I believe that it is very useful or important to have a nonreligious way of approaching a nonbeliever in order to give him peace of mind. And in that way to give it to the community and to humanity as a whole. In any case, the majority of the world’s population of six billion people has little interest or seriousness when it comes to religion. That majority, that group of people, has a greater influence on society—or a more important role in society—than those who are religious do.
I get the impression that when people are not much interested in religion they also neglect values like compassion, a sense of sharing, a sense of caring—all the things that people consider to be a religious message and reject. That’s a mistake. These are secular ethics, not a religious message, and they are for everyone. Everyone can understand that being human, you want a happy life, a happy family, to be a happy individual. But material things will not provide you with genuine inner peace or inner happiness. Human values are essential. We must find a way to present basic human values to everyone—and present them not as religious matters but as secular ethics that are essential whether you are religious or not.
Sign up for Tricycle’s newsletters
Thank you for subscribing to Tricycle! As a nonprofit, we depend on readers like you to keep Buddhist teachings and practices widely available.