A growing number of Westerners, whether they identify themselves as Buddhist or not, are discovering that Buddhism is a highly effective means of dealing with life’s great complexities.
Yet Buddha-dharma has come to the West in many different languages and systems, not in a single, problem-free, plug-and-play package. There are several characteristics of Buddhist religion as it is put into practice that, I believe, threaten to undermine the heart of Buddhist philosophy. While we applaud the growth of Buddhism in America, we should also take time to weed out mistakes that our Asian brothers and sisters have made along the path. It is a classic opportunity for the disciples to surpass their teachers—something toward which all great masters aspire.
In the many traditions in Asia we can see entrenched sectarian views, with the adherents of each believing in the superiority of his or her tradition. The Mahayana schools of China, Vietnam, Japan, and Korea see themselves as having superior motivation and skill in helping all sentient beings to overcome suffering, whereas they see Hinayana as a tradition for beginners who are interested only in their own liberation. The very term Hinayana—which means “lesser vehicle”—was coined by the Mahayanists as a pejorative rebuke to the schools of Sri Lanka, Burma, Thailand, Cambodia, and Laos. The term used by these schools themselves is Theravada—or “teachings of the elders.”
For their part, Theravada practitioners sometimes argue that Mahayana is not based on the pure teachings of the historical Buddha, but rather that it contains many metaphysical and esoteric teachings concocted after the Buddha’s death. Theravada—as well as some Mahayana sects—rejects the Tantric Buddhism of Tibet, Mongolia, Siberia, and the Himalayan region as outright “spirit worship,” “magic,” or “Lamaism.” Some Westerners in the Vajrayana tradition label other traditions “non-Buddhist,” which is something increasingly said about Vipassana as it grows in popularity.
These negative biases inherent in Asian Buddhism have come to America like insects on imported fruit, and will be well preserved here by the masters and students who know no other way. If these biases were simply a matter of small disagreements within a larger framework of cooperation and mutual respect, they could perhaps be ignored. Yet this isn’t the case. The implications of sectarian adherence and squabbling in the West are significant, not the least of which is that it seems to prove the skeptics right: that all religions, including Buddhism, are flawed by the presence of hotheaded, power-hungry leaders who profess that they alone know the superior path.
Why should I, as an American, emulate, for instance, old Tibetan bickering between various sects? Asians can battle for power and prestige on their own soil if they really believe they must. I believe, however, that strong sectarian views within Buddhism are detrimental and an affront to the Buddha’s teachings. Why, in any event, should we replicate those conditions here, when we have the opportunity to improve how Buddhism is taught and practiced?
Once the Dalai Lama told me about a regret of his. A man came to him and asked to receive a teaching called dzogchen, which is traditionally considered a teaching of the Nyingma school. His Holiness told the man that he didn’t know enough about dzogchen to provide the teaching, and sent him away. “This human being, someone from the Tibetan culture, a Tibetan Buddhist, was seeking advice from the Dalai Lama regarding one of the Tibetan Buddhist traditions,” His Holiness recounted, “and I failed to provide that information. I feel this was a mistake, and I feel very sorry about it.” Partly because of this experience, His Holiness now encourages everyone “to receive teachings in all traditions. . . so that you can enrich your own practice, and also to help other people in whatever they want to practice.”
My teacher is His Holiness Mindrolling Trichen Rinpoche, head of a lineage within the Nyingma school of Tibetan Buddhism. He is an amazingly gifted teacher, greatly esteemed for his wisdom. He has insttucted me very clearly to pray to His Holiness the Dalai Lama, who is head of the Gelugpa school.
Learning about other faiths helps us to understand, and to live side by side with, differing views and belief systems. To remain in one tradition without absorbing the benefits of the others seems disrespectful to the gifts that the Buddha passed down to us. Only through mutual understanding and respect can we successfully implement what the Buddha taught.
We also must consider the cultural trappings of Asian Buddhism, which, at times, appear to be more intriguing to Westerners than the Buddha’s teachings themselves, and therefore contribute to all sorts of complications, including blind devotion to teachers who play their “mystic” roles well, and an oversimplified Buddhism that has little potency as an effective means for training the mind. Many Western practitioners revel in the new ways of accessorizing, dressing, decorating, and talking, as well as thinking. Westerners are great collectors, and many are now collecting new customs to add to their already overburdened identities. Some teachers have even crafted new lineages here, like little royal courts. Yet the cultural aspects that have been affixed to Buddhism are not essential Buddhist concepts that must be preserved. In fact, when they cause confusion or conflict, they should be discarded. What is their real value to us, we must ask. I am part Native American, but I don’t need to wear the clothes of my ancestors. I don’t need to play the part. Nor do I need to put on clothes from Asia to play the part of a good Buddhist. In fact, these things may actually undermine my ability to liberate my mind from attachment.
It is up to us now to insist that Buddhism in America be enriched by cooperation among all traditions, enlivened by a multiplicity of approaches, and yet remain free from cultural distractions that do not serve us well. If we do these things, then the beauty and effectiveness of the Buddha’s teachings will survive and flourish in the West.
A number of years ago I emerged from a retreat in a cave in the Himalayas with a vision of a new Buddhist transmission to the West. I sat amid prayer flags flapping in the wind and thought about a Dharma Voyage that would bring to our shores the essence of Buddhism, clothed not in the fancy dress of various ancient kingdoms but rather in the fundamental ideals of the Buddha: do not harm others, do what you can to help, work together, and continually strive to improve your mind.
This Dharma Voyage would send truly inquisitive, open-minded, and patient Western students to India. In the north, they can beseech the Buddhist masters from Tibet, Bhutan, Sikkim, and Mongolia to provide several of their best and brightest monks and nuns. From there, the newly formed group can go to Bodhgaya and collect several Indian monks before journeying to the sea. The small group can board a ship, sail to Sri Lanka, and pick up several of their best monks and nuns before moving on to the other Buddhist countries of Burma, Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam, Singapore, China, Taiwan, Korea, and Japan.
This tiny boat on the huge ocean, housing the major traditions of the East, can set sail for Hawaii or San Francisco. Along the way, the differences among the traditions can be discussed and debated in an attempt to produce a collection of wisdom and guidance and practices that can be understood and conducted without advanced training in foreign cultures or foreign tongues. The point is to find the heart of Buddhism again, to find the commonalities, the points of agreement that far outweigh the causes of dispute.
A Dharma Voyage is not about the invention of a completely new tradition, but is actually just a housecleanirlg, a return to the most essential Buddhist way, free from entrapments of cultural bias, codifications of ancient prejudice, and rivalries for dominance. Perhaps that tiny boat can serve as a model for our new dharma centers as well. Not chasing after dollars over and over again to construct a building that will serve the Tibetan Buddha, or the Thai Buddha, or the Japanese Buddha, or the Khmer Buddha, or the Vietnamese Buddha, but rather pooling our resources to build shared centers in each place to serve the ideals of the One Buddha.
I would have no problem learning, practicing, and teaching in such a center. I wouldn’t have any difficulties if we placed the dharmachakra, the eight-spoked wheel representing the Buddha’s teaching, in the center of the altar, surrounded perhaps by different images of the Buddha from different parts of the world. I don’t care what color the pillars are or what type of bell is used or huw many times it is struck. I have no need to believe that Asian languages are superior to English in the practice of Buddhism either. And in any event, we can figure these things out without continuing old wrangling and quarreling. Whatever cultural biases we drop certainly won’t water down the essential teachings of the Buddha.
I’m ready for this Dharma Voyage and the benefits it could bring, and I hope other people are as well.
Sign up for Tricycle’s newsletters
This is the first of your three free articles this month. Subscribe today to gain access to our award-winning publication plus all of our online offerings, including films, video dharma talks, e-books, and more.Subscribe Now
Already a subscriber? Log in.