Distortions We Bring To Buddhism
Transplanting anything from a foreign culture is a difficult process which may corrupt what is being imported. Buddhism is certainly no exception; in fact, among imported foreign goods, dharma is perhaps the most prone to corruption. Initially, to understand dharma even on an intellectual level is not at all simple. Then once we have some understanding, to put dharma into practice is even more subtle, because it requires that we go beyond our habitual patterns. Intellectually, we may recognize how our narrow-minded habits have brought about our own cycle of suffering, but at the same time we may also be afraid to engage wholeheartedly in the process of liberating these habits of ours.
This is cherishing of ego. For even if we think we want to practice the Buddhist path, to give up our ego-clinging is not easy, and we could well end up with our own ego’s version of dharma—a pseudo-dharma which will only bring more suffering instead of liberation.
For this reason, most Oriental teachers are very skeptical about exporting dharma to the Western world, feeling that Westerners lack the refinement and courage to understand and practice properly the buddhadharma. On the other hand there are some who try their best to work on the transmission of the dharma to the West.
It is important to remember that a thorough transplantation of dharma cannot be accomplished within a single generation. It is not an easy process, and as when Buddhism was brought from India to Tibet, it will undoubtedly take time. There are enormous differences between the attitudes of various cultures and different interpretations of similar phenomena. It is easy to forget that such supposedly universal notions as “ego,” “freedom,” “equality,” “power,” and the implications of “gender” and “secrecy,” are all constructions that are culture-specific and differ radically when seen through different perspectives. The innuendoes surrounding a certain issue in one culture might not even occur to those of another culture, where the practice in question is taken for granted.
In recent years there have been numerous critiques of both the Buddhist teachings and certain Buddhist teachers. Unfortunately, these often reveal a serious degree of ignorance about the subject matter. Many Tibetan lamas adopt the attitude that “it doesn’t matter,” because they genuinely don’t mind such attacks. I think the perspective of many lamas is vaster than trying to keep track of the latest likes and dislikes of the fickle modern mind. Other Tibetan lamas adopt the attitude that Westerners are merely spiritual window-shopping, telling the younger lamas like myself, “See, we told you! They are not here for the dharma. For them, we are a mere curiosity.” In an attempt to adopt a good motivation, I would like to propose some alternative perspectives.
Certain critiques of Buddhism actually enhance my devotion to the teachings and to my teachers, because I feel the dharma defies any such criticisms. But I also feel that some of these writings can be harmful in their effect. There may be many beings whose connection to the dharma is just about to ripen, and these writings can jeopardize their opportunity. In our life we encounter a multitude of obstacles and difficult circumstances. But the worst possible obstacle is to be prevented from engaging in an authentic path to enlightenment.
In this age, when people naively jump to conclusions based on the writings of those who try to warn about the hazards of guru-disciple relationships, such critiques may result in the tragic destruction for many people of their only chance of liberation from the ocean of suffering. In the sutras, it is stated that someone who rejoices even momentarily over something that leads to such a lost opportunity will not encounter the path of enlightenment for hundreds of lifetimes.
How to be Constructive
Generally, I think that when we want to expose a fault or present an opinion, two attributes are necessary: one should know the subject thoroughly and one should not oneself have the faults that one is criticizing.
Otherwise, one will be, as the Tibetan proverb describes, “a monkey who laughs at another monkey’s tail.” Let us not forget that as human beings we are victims of our own narrow-minded interpretations. We should not give so much authority to our limited points of view: our interpretations and subjective perspectives are limitless and almost always stem from our own fears, expectations and ignorance.
It would be of great amusement to many learned Tibetan scholars if they could read some of the presentations written by Westerners on such subjects as Buddhism or gurus. It is like imagining an old Tibetan lama reading Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet or listening to a beautiful aria. He would most probably think the former uninteresting and that the latter sounded like a cat being skinned alive!
It is better not to distort things with our limited interpretations at all, but if we have to, then at least we should be more aware of how powerful and one-sided our interpretations can be. For example, I could claim all kinds of things about the way that Westerners approach the study of Eastern cultures. I could easily put forward an interpretation, one that might seem entirely valid, that claims Western conceptual frameworks stem from a basic attitude of arrogance in the way that they construct themselves and others.
In almost all departments in Western universities that allegedly teach Buddhism, the teachers usually have to hide the fact if they happen to be Buddhists themselves. Do the mathematics teachers hide the fact that they believe in the logic of mathematics? Western scholars need to be more questioning about their own rigid biases that prevent them from being able to appreciate other perspectives. I find heartbreaking the imperialist attitude that arrogantly isolates one aspect of Eastern culture, analyzing it at a careful distance, manipulating and sterilizing it to fit Western agendas, and then perhaps concluding that it is now suitable for consumption.
Certain Rinpoches, those known as great teachers, would by definition, be the ultimate bad partner, from ego’s point of view. If one approaches such great masters with the intention of being gratified and wishing for a relationship of sharing, mutual enjoyment etc., then not only from ego’s point of view, but even from a mundane point of view, such people would be a bad choice. They probably will not bring you flowers or invite you out for candlelit dinners.
Anyway, if someone goes to study under a master with the intention to achieve enlightenment, one must presume that such a student is ready to give up his or her ego. You don’t go to India and study with a venerable Tibetan master expecting him to behave according to your own standards. It is unfair to ask someone to free you from delusion, and then criticize him or her for going against your ego. I am not writing this out of fear that if one doesn’t defend Tibetan lamas or Buddhist teachers, they will lose popularity. Despite a lot of effort to convince the world about the pitfalls of the dharma and the defects of the teachers, there will still be a lot of masochists who have the misfortune to appreciate the dharma and a crazy abusing teacher who will make sure to mistreat every inch of ego. These poor souls will eventually end up bereft of both ego and confusion.
Nothing to Fight Over
I know there are plenty of people who will disagree with much of what I have said. For as much as I am set on my interpretations, so are others set on theirs. I have met great teachers whom I admire enormously and although I may be a doomed sycophant, I pray I will continue to enjoy the company of these teachers. On the other hand, people may have other ideas and be happy with them. My practice is devotion to the Buddhist path; others may choose doubting the Buddhist path. But as Dharmakirti said, ultimately we must abandon the path.
So I hope in the end we will meet where we have nothing to fight over.
Dzongsar Jamyang Khyentse Rinpoche was born in Bhutan in 1961 and was recognized as the second reincarnation of the nineteenth-century master Jamyang Khyentse Wangpo. He has studied with and been empowered by some of the greatest Tibetan masters of this century, notably the late Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche and the late Dudjom Rinpoche. Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche supervises his traditional seat of Dzongsar Monastery in Eastern Tibet, as well as newly established colleges in India and Bhutan. He has also established meditation centers in Australia, North America and the Far East. http://khyentsefoundation.org/
From Lama Yeshe Wangmo
"I hope, in the end, we will meet where we have nothing to fight over." This takes my breath away. It's gentle, wise, hopeful and discourages pointless debates.
Tthere's almost too much wisdom in this article. Let me run with relinquishing the need for ego gratification in learning from our teachers.
Too much time and energy has been wasted and too much unnecessary suffering created simply because this has not been understood from the beginning.
Yes, most of us prefer the warm fuzzies over the razor's edge. But truthfully, the warm fuzzies are just that and don't challenge us where we need to be challenged. Of course, there are also some who find the warm fuzzies challenging (like me!) Ouchies are great if you're sincerely seeking enlightenment.
I feel sorry for Asian lamas. We approach in humility and then act with pride. What are they to do?
Sooner or later, a fruitful vajrayana teacher student relationship must cross this sensitive territory. The question is when will the teacher make the move?
Have you experienced a teacher's tough love?
I invite your refelctions below.
—Lama Dechen Yeshe Wangmo