Tantric (Vajrayana) Buddhism, according to American-born teacher and translator Sangye Khandro, does not need to be adjusted for Westerners. Still, she says, Western seekers often struggle to receive full transmission and find proper instruction; or they run up against cultural misunderstandings, translation issues, and other obstacles to accomplishment. She sees these impediments as separate from the practice itself which, whether encountered in Tibet or the West, can enlighten sincere practitioners.

Tricycle has long-covered Tibetan Buddhism’s transmission to adherents living in Europe, the United States, and elsewhere. Oftentimes such converts must make difficult choices as they weigh the tenets and rituals of Buddhism against the intellectual mores and practical limitations of Western life. But Sangye Khandro offers a different perspective: that of the traditionalist. 

She was born in Oregon and grew up in Salt Lake City, Portland, Chicago, and Hawaii. After traveling overland to India in 1971, she underwent six months of intensive study that culminated in her taking the lay precepts. Over the following seven years, she returned to India and Nepal annually to pursue teachings on Vajrayana practice and Tibetan language, receiving transmission from her root guru Dudjom Rinpoche and other high lamas. She has since translated several texts, including A Garland of Immortal Wishfulfilling Trees and Generating the Deity, plus additional commentaries and liturgies. She currently devotes her time to practice, translation, and overseeing Tashi Choling Retreat Center in Oregon, where she teaches alongside her partner and collaborator, Lama Chonam.

Donna Lynn Brown, a freelance reporter and Buddhist practitioner, spoke to Sangye Khandro recently in Portland, Oregon.

What enabled you to become a serious practitioner of the Vajrayana? I walked into the opportunity at a young age and at just the right time, when the Tibetan Library for Works and Archives, created by the Dalai Lama to preserve and disseminate Tibetan culture, was opening in Dharamsala, India. There I started studying both sutra and tantra right from the start. Then after several years I decided that I had to study the Tibetan language as well. In time, I was able to bring those all together.

Do you feel that the Vajrayana is being successfully transmitted to the West? Yes and no. But, in general, there is enough fully informed practice to begin anchoring Vajrayana in the West.

Vajrayana calls for three aspects of transmission: the empowerment or initiation into the practice (dbang), the reading transmission of the text (lung), and the liberating instructions on how to actually do the practice (khrid). In the West, when a teacher passes through town, these three aspects of the transmission are often left incomplete. Because there are far more opportunities for empowerment, a student may receive empowerment but not transmission or instruction. The process then gets out of order or goes unfinished. I’ve seen people do practices without knowing them properly, or even give up from lack of instruction. Students need to take steps to obtain all three aspects of transmission from a qualified teacher.

What misconceptions do Western practitioners have about tantra? People sometimes think that the life of a lay tantric practitioner is quite easy. For example, I see Westerners, even when they are quite new, wearing the ngakpa zen [robe] of a tantric practitioner. I wonder sometimes if they even know the vows for this category of practice. There are the basic refuge vows, meaning the five root vows of lay ordination, then the Bodhisattva vows that focus on attaining enlightenment for the sake of all beings, and finally the Vajrayana commitments, which are particularly difficult. Keeping all those vows is a practice in itself. It can be embarrassing to see people wearing the zen when they don’t know how to simultaneously hold all three levels of vows. If you’ve been holding all of those for a while, then go ahead and put on the zen!

Have there been other problems in the transmission of the Vajrayana? Let me give you one example. An abbot—who works with my partner Lama Chonam and me—is coming to the United States soon to teach Dzogchen. He will give the empowerment, the reading transmission, and the instructions. But there will be restrictions on who can participate. It’s very important to him that no academic researchers be present unless they are there to actually practice. He is concerned about Westerners getting these transmissions, going back to their universities, and then teaching or publishing, out of context, what they were given. This is a problem in the West, and those of us who understand proper transmission need to speak out about it. It needs to stop.

What about challenges in the translation of texts? Problems arise when translators work on profound material before they have practiced it. With tantra, you should not just pick a text up off the shelf and translate it because you are interested in it. Other issues arise when people translate texts without working with a qualified Tibetan scholarNo Adaptation Required. Those of us who translate know that, without help, we often don’t understand what we are reading. If we think we do, we are deluded. In order to clearly understand a particular subject one needs to both work with a scholar-practitioner and have some personal practice experience.

Do you think that practitioners should learn Tibetan to get the full transmission? I wish they would, but it’s not practical. And I believe that sooner or later everything will come into English. Are we there yet? No. We are still pioneers. But we can have confidence that full transmission will occur in Western languages at some point.

How can lineages be maintained given how people nowadays mix traditions and practices? People will mix practices—that’s bound to continue. All we can do is keep presenting genuine lineages that carry authentic blessings. I have no doubt that the truth and power of their timeless wisdom will prevail. I find that some people are discouraged by watered down versions of dharma, because they don’t get results. Later they come for more traditional teachings because they want something authentic.

What aspects of Western culture make it difficult for us to practice the Vajrayana? Just ordinary conceptual mind. Vajrayana demands a faith in that which is intangible. You never physically see or feel a wisdom deity. You have to cultivate pure view towards phenomenal existence. Eventually you see the world as pure land, as deity. This is not easy for Westerners; we are so conceptual, so addicted to ordinary materialistic mind. Though we may do daily sessions visualizing wisdom deities, in between we plunge into ordinariness. Then it becomes really hard to make progress.

Do Westerners fully understand the physical aspects of Vajrayana practice? Yes, if they have received instruction from a qualified teacher. Empowerment allows you to purify the obscurations and defilements of your body, as well as your speech and mind, so that you can visualize yourself as a wisdom deity. Body, speech, and mind are not separate; you work with them simultaneously. If people receive and follow the instructions, they will be okay.

What aspects of Tibetan culture can Western Buddhists leave behind?  How do we deal with the hierarchy and sexism that sometimes come along with dharma? Well, we don’t have to dress in chupas [traditional Tibetan garments] to practice the dharma! We shouldn’t pretend to be Tibetans. Still, Tibetan culture has many wonderful qualities that resonate with spiritual training, like humility. Bending down, as the Dalai Lama does, so you are lower than your teacher or the shrine—is that culture or dharma? It’s probably both, but we can learn from it.

Amongst Tibetan practitioners, the most respected people are the humble ones who aren’t involved in hierarchy. I just got back from Tibet last week, and while I was there, I visited the mother monastery of my partner Lama Chonam. The teachers in charge there sit in the lowest position. Honestly, a lot of authoritarianism in dharma centers comes from Westerners themselves—it’s just power-mongering. Asian or Western, human beings are what they are.

Your question about sexism makes me think of a visit I made to Larung Gar, Eastern Tibet, where there is a large, thriving practice community. I certainly didn’t see any patriarchal Buddhism there. It has more Khenmos [female abbots] than Khenpos [male abbots]. The female practitioners run the show. The head lama for those tens of thousands of practitioners is Khandro-ma Ani Mumtso, a nun. She’s the one who gives the empowerments for all the transmissions. No one has a problem with that. It’s a given that women can teach men there. I disagree with blaming sexism on Tibetan Buddhism. During my years among Tibetans, I have not been disadvantaged on account of being female—just the opposite. From the very beginning, I was given every opportunity to learn, sometimes even more so than men!

How do we deal with teachers, whether Asian or Western, who may be qualified but sometimes behave poorly? Westerners shouldn’t put Tibetans on a pedestal, even if they are called “Tulku” or “Rinpoche.” Keep your eyes open and look for the qualities that teachers demonstrate. In this day and age, names and titles are no longer very meaningful. Sooner or later this whole process of identifying tulkus will reach an end anyway, because the structure for it is disappearing. The great masters who are qualified to make such recognitions are passing on. You can’t know who’s who anymore. That’s something that Westerners do not understand—we think that if someone has a title, they are qualified.

A teacher should embody the dharma all of the time, not just while giving instruction. Students have to be savvy enough to discern whether this is the case. With Vajrayana, you should know this before you take empowerment. You don’t want to jump in and later find yourself in a bad position. If a teacher’s behavior doesn’t suit you, you should keep a distance. Also, ask Tibetans. You have to check both your teacher’s credentials and his or her reputation back home.

Are there differences in how Westerners and Tibetans practice guru devotion? Tibetans are practically born with it: Babies and children see their parents full of devotion. For us, it’s new, so usually we have to cultivate it. You occasionally hear of instances when Westerners see a spiritual teacher and drop to their knees, their lives forever changed; but those are not common. On the contrary, many Westerners interested in Vajrayana don’t have a guru at all. This is a problem. To practice, you have to have open-hearted devotion to a guru. That’s what gives you inspiration, sources of which are rare nowadays. So if you feel a connection to a qualified guru, seize the opportunity.

In an attempt to reduce ego, teachers sometimes inadvertently worsen a student’s already low self-esteem. How can we build the confidence we need to energize our practice? To practice Vajrayana, you have to develop vajra pride. In the initial stage of tantric practice, called the generation stage, there are three requirements: clarity in visualization, clear recollection, and vajra pride. Clarity in visualization means that you can concentrate on the wisdom deity, while pure recollection means you can remember every aspect of that deity. Vajra pride then allows you to identify with the qualities of mind that these aspects of the deity represent. By seeing them as part and parcel of yourself, you gain confidence.

If you are in a practice situation where you feel put down, you need to get out of it. Teachers who are too harsh don’t help—they harm. True vajra masters never harm their disciples. If teachers say harsh things, they need to know that their disciples can take it. People have different faculties and a good teacher discerns that. It is not compassionate to treat everyone the same way.

Does Tibetan ritual work in the West? Yes, but the teacher needs to explain a practice before asking a disciple to do it. If the meaning of each method is clear, then what you are doing is more than a ritual: it’s the practice needed to achieve the results you want. If students understand this, they will do it happily.

Some Buddhist rituals deal not with enlightened beings but with worldly ones: spirits. The merit of rituals that give something to spirits is tremendous, because they have no means to escape their terrible suffering. So making connections with them is very potent—and it works. To understand this, Westerners have to have faith in the teachings of the Buddha. It’s important not to discourage these rituals in the West, because they do bring benefit.

What is the role of monks and nuns? The Buddha taught that the presence of the monastic community was vital to the stability of his doctrine in the world. Monasticism has struggled in the West because the community support has not been in place, but I think that will change. I also think we have to focus on helping the lay community become more advanced and empowered. Then communities of lay practitioners can live and work in cooperation with monastic communities.

Will Westerners who attain enlightenment ultimately adapt the Vajrayana to our culture? We just need to keep transmitting the lineages. They will work for all humanity just as they are, notwithstanding culture or language. Yes, at some point Westerners will become fully awakened. This has probably already occurred. Can we say it hasn’t? I’ve seen practitioners die in ways similar to high lamas, with their consciousness remaining in their body for days. Those practitioners haven’t modernized or Westernized the dharma; they have been devoted disciples of their teachers, and humble, sincere practitioners of the same lineage that’s been passed on since the time of the Buddha. No adjustment is necessary—no adaptation. That wisdom is timeless.

 —Donna Lynn Brown