What can establish dharma in the West forever? Forever is a long time, but that’s how I understand this question. It’s a big question, and a big answer will just confuse everyone. So I’ll make it simple: One Western person must attain full enlightenment in the same way as Marpa, Milarepa, or Guru Rinpoche [Padmasambhava, Indian founder of Tibetan Buddhism]. If one Westerner—man or woman, doesn’t matter—attains that level of realization, then pure dharma will be established in Western culture, Western language, and environment, and so forth. Until that time, dharma can be taught in the West, which is already happening; it can be practiced in the West, which is already happening; and it can be recited in Western languages. But it’s not yet one hundred percent complete.
Only with the presence of great mahasiddhas like Guru Rinpoche, Marpa, and Milarepa did dharma become established in Tibet. After that, dharma flourished within its own culture and language and has lasted to this day. This unbroken living lineage and blessing explains how even an unenlightened person like myself can teach and practice the enlightened dharma. In India, Buddhism took root with the appearance of Shakyamuni Buddha and the Indian mahasiddhas. In both Tibet and India, dharma was established through the appearance of enlightened beings, and it will take root in the West the same way.
Until that happens, Tibetan dharma for Westerners remains inseparable from Tibetan culture and language, Tibetan ways and mentality. All that will change when a Westerner attains full enlightenment. The cultural context will become your own, and this will greatly increase inspiration and confidence.
Of course, some people may not have the karma to appreciate a Western Milarepa. In Tibet, some Buddhist kings who encouraged the spread of dharma were assassinated. Shakyamuni Buddha’s own cousin, Devadatta, didn’t appreciate the Buddha’s qualities. But milk is milk and water is water—in the end, the majority of people will discern the difference. If you get enlightened and appear in the sky above the entire city of New York, and you manifest all the Buddha qualities while singing the most perfect dharma song, which is the most appropriate song for New Yorkers, all of them will have some realization.
No one can help make a Western Milarepa. Nobody supported the historical Milarepa. His own mother urged him to continue black magic. When he was practicing in the cave, people were very critical; they called him a ghost because he was so thin. For years, he ate no human food and his clothes were shredded by the wind and rain.
The West needs such a person, but you cannot make such a person. But I’m sure there are plenty of people out there. Perhaps one Westerner has already made the decision to attain full enlightenment. I don’t know about now, but in our past, hundreds of people attained the same level as Milarepa. Our faith, confidence, and trust are based on experience that has been confirmed over and over and repeated by hundreds of individuals through many generations. In the West, people are sincere and intelligent, but faith, trust, and a genuine understanding remain difficult because you don’t have your own lineage. Once you can see Buddha qualities within your own environment and culture, and hear pure dharma in your own language, you will no longer be dependent on some foreigner.
At that point, the language will change and become part of the transmission. The translations will shift. You won’t need ten dictionaries and five translators arguing over one small text. Translators, too, will become like Marpalosa. I am not saying in any way that the current translators are inadequate. But the full blessing of transmission can’t happen until the person translating is enlightened.
My English is not good—it’s not too bad either, but my teachings in English can’t have the full blessing as when I teach in Tibetan. Not because Tibetan language is superior and English inferior—both are just languages—but because the words of enlightened masters have continued through my guru, and blessings inhabit the words themselves. So even though I am not enlightened, I can benefit from the spoken transmissions. In English, I have to use twenty words to communicate one idea. When I say “religion,” “compassion,” or “devotion,” I am using the same words as many others use in English, but I’m not one hundred percent certain of the meaning. In the end, I have to justify my efforts by saying that I tried.
It all boils down to genuine living blessing or lineage. “Blessing” is more accurate because “lineage” can suggest authority. “Blessing” communicates a greater sense of genuine living transmission of the Buddha.
Nowadays, the West is developing so much awareness of psychology and the environment, and Western science itself has changed. It’s no longer a fixed, rigid discipline but has become flexible, transparent, ready to investigate anything. Scientists now accept that they don’t know everything, which is a big step. And the interdisciplinary research that is taking place offers very positive possibilities. Of course, if an unenlightened Buddhist like myself and an unenlightened scientist who doesn’t even believe in enlightenment team up to investigate aspects of meditation, for example, there’s a very good chance of getting things wrong. That’s the downside. But we can definitely learn from each other.
I don’t mean to be arrogant, but Buddha’s teaching has nothing to learn from anything. Yet Buddhist persons have a lot to learn from others. For example, I watched a documentary film about a tribe that lives in the forest. Every day they kill monkeys for food. Of course, killing is bad karma, but without eating these monkeys they would starve to death. Now, this tribe has a rule: they will not kill the mothers of baby monkeys. However, if an accident occurs and a mother dies, the baby is adopted into the tribe and raised as a family member. After that, even if they are starving, they will never eat that particular monkey.
When this same tribe heard about people who raised animals among themselves, such as sheep or cows, who drank the milk and ate the cheese from these animals, or fed chickens from table scraps, and then slaughtered these same animals for food, they were just appalled. They considered this completely uncivilized behavior. Tribal people are often thought of as barbaric and ignorant and not quite fully developed as human beings, but I learned how civilized this tribe is. I don’t mean to suggest that anyone should live by hunting, but after watching this documentary,
I can appreciate the wisdom of their view.
Buddha does not have to learn that. But Buddhists can learn that. I pray that this coming together of science and psychology with Buddhism will have some positive benefits, but I hope it won’t be used to abandon the tradition. I don’t want to learn tomorrow that we must change our prayers because some unenlightened Buddhists and some unenlightened scientists got together and decided on better ways and words and sounds to help enlighten beings. I don’t accept that. Scientists can change anything about science, but I can’t change anything about Buddha’s teaching because I am not a buddha.
Generally I think dharma is doing very well in the West. Many professors are teaching Buddhism, university programs are increasing, dharma centers are growing—you have very good teachers, meditators, and translators. One Milarepa will make this complete. Then dharma in the West can flourish and be established forever.
Thank you for subscribing to Tricycle! As a nonprofit, we depend on readers like you to keep Buddhist teachings and practices widely available.