I met Lama Chopel six years ago, in 2010, when I was in Budapest courting my wife-to-be. Friends took us to a restaurant featuring thirties-era Hollywood “Oriental” decor laid out as a pseudo-bazaar amid a variety of small stores selling Asian semi-spiritual knickknacks. While taking a break from the strenuous Hungarian meal, I went into one store and found a number of Hungarian books on Buddhism translated by “Lama Csöpel.” Lama Chopel’s books in hand, I wondered what Buddhism might look like in a country with Hungary’s unique, long, and complex history.

Throughout its history, Buddhism has maintained a core of teachings and practices while also adapting itself to the varying beliefs, folkways, tastes, and ethical mores of the countries where it has come to reside. Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche, my own teacher, had come to the West as part of the Tibetan diaspora and taught extensively in the United States and Europe. His relationship with new cultures produced fresh discoveries and unanticipated depths for both teacher and students. One might regard such adaptations as mere pragmatic steps that Buddhist teachers took to gain some kind of foothold in a new world. But far more to the point, by responding to the particular circumstances presented by a new culture, the Buddhist teachings themselves found new emphases and forms of expression. Aspects of teachings and practices that were not developed in one culture were explored, expanded, and deepened in another.

After dinner, I looked up Lama Chopel online. He had been trained in the Karma Kagyu tradition, one of the four main schools of Tibetan Buddhism, and was currently the head of the Hungarian Karma Kagyupa Community, on whose website he had published several dharma talks. His way of speaking had warmth and solidity. I wrote him, hoping we could meet.

Lama Chopel invited me to one of the Community’s centers, Karmapa Ház [House], located in a somewhat scruffy part of Pest [the eastern part of Budapest]. I soon found myself sitting in a large, traditionally appointed Tibetan shrine room facing a very tall, bearded Hungarian man with a superb nose and a lovely smile. He spoke excellent English and put me very much at ease, but when I told him I no longer taught, he said: “Good. It will be very helpful to the students for you to give a talk.” “OK, but I don’t like to talk about myself,” I said. “Yes, something about your personal path would be very helpful,” he responded. I felt I was meeting a relative from a branch of a family I’d heard of but not encountered before. He was less self-conscious than many American Buddhists and had a kind of direct enthusiasm that indicated less anxiety about finding Buddhism’s place in his culture.

What follows comes from exchanges that took place at Karmapa Ház in 2009, a later conversation over a breakfast in Nándor’s, a wonderful little pastry shop across from a large church, and some correspondence.

Douglas Penick

Photography by Tamas Szemann

What do you emphasize in presenting the buddhadharma here? There is a lot of freedom in how this can work for any individual student, but basically we teach in the tradition of the Karma Kagyu school as transmitted by Kalu Rinpoche and Lama Ngawang. Overall, it seems most important for people to understand that Buddhism in its entirety as well as in our tradition is nondogmatic. The path is not about presenting certain doctrines and showing people how to adapt. The dharma is about exploring our own minds, our experience, and discovering in our own lives the actual reality of buddha nature, compassion, and wakefulness.

Would you say that the nondogmatic aspect of the Buddhist approach might be more obvious in a Hungarian context? Well, Hungary has had authoritarian governments in the past and seems to have a tendency to veer in that direction, so perhaps people here, who have often been raised with a great deal of dogma, find its absence both challenging and fruitful. But Buddhism’s circumspection about dogmatism is certainly valuable anywhere.

When students begin to come, what are the first things they get exposed to? I understand that in the United States it is most common to begin with mindfulness awareness, shamatha and vipassana. In Hungary we often begin with teachings on compassion. Perhaps because of our difficult history, but also because we are still deeply rooted in the relationships that come from our families, villages, and towns, it seems more congenial to begin by working with our engagement with others.

Related: Cultivating Compassion 

And afterward? That depends entirely on what the person wants to do, what they’re attracted to. But usually, we then continue with shamatha and vipassana and add lojong [a form of mind training]. Some people like to stay with that while others like to do various kinds of pujas [ceremonies of invocation and prayer] or go on to tantric practices, ngondro [preparatory practices], or some kind of yidam [deity] practice. But there’s no pressure.

So that means you have quite a few different kinds of programs. Yes, our centers in Budapest are both very busy, and there are more intensive, longer practice programs at our rural center in Tar, which are also quite well attended.

Do your neighbors find this strange? [Smiles.] Well, some do. A little. And this is, of course, more the case in Tar, since country people tend to be a bit more conservative. But they get to know us and find we’re just people, you know. And often they find our public festivities interesting.

You’ve built a large stupa and temple there that are very conspicuous. Yes. The stupa was the first large one built in Hungary. Maybe people were puzzled at first. Then they found out that it was a monument to Alexander Csoma de Kőrös, a Hungarian. And then the Dalai Lama came to dedicate it, and a lot of visitors came. So it became something people in the area could feel some pride in. And now, when we have celebrations there, people come from all around. It doesn’t matter whether they’re Christian or don’t believe anything; they like the celebration and revere the sacredness of the place.

Who is Csoma de Kőrös? He was a Hungarian noble who lived in the early 19th century. He had a very broad education and wanted to find the origin of the Hungarian people and language. So he actually walked all across Asia to Tibet (to Ladakh, actually), where he not only learned Tibetan but also became a true Buddhist practitioner and scholar. He later went to Bengal, where he wrote the very first comprehensive Tibetan-English dictionary. So he is really the beginning, not just of a link between Tibetan Buddhism and Hungary but between Tibet and the West altogether. He was a great bodhisattva, and we are all in his debt.

Wasn’t that kind of an unusual choice for the stupa? I don’t know. It seemed an obvious choice, and certainly Lama Ngawang and then the Dalai Lama understood it. After all, Csoma de Kőrös made dharma practice possible for many, many people in the West.

And really, there’s been a connection between Hungary and Buddhism for almost 200 years. Absolutely.

Might I change direction for a second and ask how you became involved in Buddhism yourself? As is true for everyone else, there has been uncertainty in my life. But looking back, becoming involved in the dharma, having it become my life, seemed completely natural.

From when I was quite young, I wanted to be an artist. In high school, I went to Kiskepzo, a design and art school founded in Budapest in the 18th century, a place with a wonderful sense of tradition. And afterward I studied art in college. But Hungary at that time still had a very repressive Communist regime. People were completely depressed, and there was no sense of possibility, so I left.

I heard that you had to swim across the Adriatic from Yugoslavia to Italy to escape. Well, yes. It wasn’t quite so dramatic, though—it was the narrowest part of the Adriatic. And as soon as I got to Italy, I found friends. People helped me get registered in Italy, get some work, and make my way to Sweden. There, the government gave me, and others like me, a lot of support. I got a place in a very good art school, found work, a place to live, everything. Later I met a wonderfully talented girl, and we have two incredible sons.

This must make the current refugee situation very poignant for you. Yes. But obviously the situation for the refugees from the Middle East now is much more difficult. There are many, many more of them. They come from a very different culture. They have been traumatized by living through war and then other refugee camps. And, of course, because of the sheer size of the problem, it poses much greater problems for the governments in Europe. It will have a huge effect on Europe, actually. It’s a tremendous challenge.

Overwhelming, I’d think. Yes. My experience was nowhere nearly as difficult. Of course I had to leave behind, let it all go, and without money and the support of the social web of relatives and friends, possessing just the clothes on my body, start a new life, trusting the unpredictable possibilities ahead. This is something you cannot understand if you haven’t gone through it. Fortunately, I found a lot of support.

So while I was still an art student, I began practicing dharma with a group in Stockholm. It was a group from the Karma Kagyu lineage that had been founded by Kalu Rinpoche. Later, as my commitment evolved, I was able to take part in the first three-year retreat in Sweden under Kalu Rinpoche. Lama Ngawang led the retreat, and he later became my teacher. And while I am deeply indebted to Lama Kalu and others, I owe Lama Ngawang more than I can say.

I had already learned Swedish as well as English, and during the three-year retreat I learned Tibetan as well. So afterward I became Lama Ngawang’s translator and his regular attendant for eight years.

Related: Why Buddhism Needs the West 

It’s impossible to imagine the dharma taking root in the West without teachers from Asia coming here and finding ways to transmit the teachings into very different circumstances. That’s true. And Lama Ngawang was certainly a remarkable man. His parents were simple nomads and very devout. From childhood, he’d had a deep instinct for dharma. His training in various Karma Kagyu monasteries, including Tsurphu [the main center of the Karma Kagyu sect], was strict, even severe, and he always had a very direct, no-nonsense approach. He had done many, many solitary retreats and emphasized intensive practice. He often quoted the great yogi and poet Milarepa, saying, “I have never learned from books and ink. My masters are the phenomenal world.” That attitude may have made him more able to just jump in here. He often said, “I have not come to the West to convert people to Buddhism. I just came to help. People have to find their own way.”

Was translating for him a challenge? I was his attendant for a long time, but even so, yes. Lama Ngawang was not always easy to translate for. He often spoke for an hour without stopping. I took notes, but still… And then sometimes he’d look at me at the end and say, “Well, I think that’s all we need to do,” and he’d leave. Fortunately, his students had a lot of faith in him. But he didn’t believe it helped to make things too easy.

And why did he come to Hungary? Things had become relatively liberal in Hungary even before 1989, when a democratic government was elected. Some people had contact with our sangha in Sweden, so they formed a small group in Budapest, and later they invited Lama Ngawang. I accompanied him as his translator. And since Lama Ngawang came and taught here, things started to progress with unpredicted dynamics.

So he first came here in 1987 and was asked to establish a Buddhist community. The group then bought a place for a retreat center near Tar in 1991. They built a shrine hall and some residences the next year and began building the stupa in 1992. This was the point when I was invited here to lead the construction work as well as the spiritual practice of the community, as resident lama. In 2001 we bought a practice center in Budapest and another one, Karmapa Ház, in downtown Pest in 2008. In 2009 we started building a Tara temple in Tar. Lama Ngawang oversaw all of this, and although he lived mainly in Sweden, he visited and taught us regularly. He passed away in 2011.

What a lot he did, and what a loss that was for you all when he died. Yes. But we’ve been helped by many teachers who have visited and taught, and many students have joined and worked hard and practiced hard. As you know, Buddhism is very personal. What Lama Ngawang taught is what he learned, and so the teachings go on, expanding, changing, but at the heart the same. It’s about developing what is mostly deeply human in all of us.

But it’s an ongoing, ever-evolving process, isn’t it? And as the Buddhist teachings take root, things that were initially so crucial fade into deeper and broader concerns. For instance, Buddhism’s initial appeal in both China and Japan were the teachings and liturgies that enabled the living to aid deceased ancestors. Later, the dharma came to find more complex uses and expressions as it became a deeper part of the cultural life of those countries. Similarly, while the buddha dharma has been received in the West and most particularly in the United States as a kind of adjunct to other kinds of therapy, there is no doubt that it will evolve here in ways we cannot easily foresee. One of my art teachers in Sweden emphasized the great influence that the rediscovery of Neoplatonism and alchemy had in the Renaissance. As you may know, the works of Plato were rediscovered in the West in the early 15th century. This happened when the Byzantine Empire fell to the Ottoman invasion. In order to save the ancient treasures from the great libraries, books of ancient wisdom were transmitted to the West. The Italians, particularly in Florence, were able to purchase all the texts of Plato as well as many of the Neoplatonic texts by Plotinus, Hermes Trismegistus, and others. They brought them back to Florence and had them translated.

This philosophy then had a huge influence in stimulating new forms in painting, poetry, and the arts. It influenced the entire philosophical outlook of the age. Simultaneously, great practitioners of true alchemy escaped from the now-conquered Byzantine Empire and were dispersed over various European countries and royal courts. This also had a profound impact on European spirituality of the time.

True alchemy was, in reality, a form of yogic practice of inner psychophysical energies. It was really a crucial part of the Renaissance, and consequently it had a deep influence on European culture during the following centuries and up to our days.

Naturally, different aspects of the Buddhist teachings will find immediate resonances in different societies. But I feel extremely sure that like Neoplatonism, Buddhism will inspire all kinds of new discoveries in our Western culture. It can certainly enrich our lives in ways that are far less reliant on materialism. It can provide an impetus to the kinds of compassion and insight that we will need to meet the great social and moral challenges we face. And because it is so deeply and refreshingly nondogmatic, it can help bring people together in our 21st century, where many people are getting tired of an outlook rooted in philosophical, religious, and scientific dogma, and equally tired of the intolerance and aggression arising from that outlook.

At the same time, the genuine nondogmatism of Buddhism also presents a great challenge to our way of thinking, accustomed as we are to relying on dogma. We may erroneously interpret even the Buddha’s teachings in dogmatic ways.

But Buddhist teachings present us with an entirely new approach: they open up the inner path of spiritual development, which is an unfolding of the warmth of our limitless true nature. This is a way of life that leads us to a firsthand experience of reality beyond words. 

And what form do you see this taking? It’s impossible to say, of course. It’s a journey that takes place out of openness to unexpected possibilities and [smiles] unexpected friendships. 

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