EastWest & Forward

EastWest & Forward

A Few Reflections

Those of us who have been practicing Buddhism for decades have probably at one point or another considered how a spiritual tradition from the East could be brought into a very different culture in the West.

The two environments are shaped by their particular assumptions and unexamined habits of thought, which can create misunderstandings when they come into contact. Added to this are the more universal desires that can come into play here—the wish to be powerful, recognized, and spiritual, for example.

Power. . .

. . . religious institutions are vulnerable to its corruptions just as any other institution: where there is a hierarchy, people will want to be on the top and seek to preserve their position, not taking risks that would diminish their power and security. Generally, when problems arise, the eastern way is to handle everything behind the scenes, and the western way is to deal with them more publicly, though not all Westerners are comfortable with this, especially if they have been influenced by eastern ways of thought. 

Inertia. . .

This reluctance to bring difficult issues into the open can be due to a certain psychological inertia as well, especially when one is enclosed in the system of a religious institution. When you have been part of a community for years, your life is so intertwined with this group that moving away, intellectually or physically, is very difficult. You are giving up part of your life’s history and stepping into the unknown. You’ve had a place to stay or visit, good friends, work that feels meaningful, recognition for what you have done, and of course, you have truly benefited from the Dharma you learned and practiced. Balanced against all this, the doubts that come up on the far horizon of your mind just slide back into obscurity. The price of considering their implications is too high.

Desire. . .

For both men and women, there is also the compelling lure of being an insider, of being in the know and specially chosen as a close assistant, sexual partner, or member of a group receiving secret teachings. You think you are finally entering the inner sanctum of the practice, that you’ve arrived at the most special place. Being treated as exceptional could also fulfill a wish to be part of an elite, maybe acknowledged as spiritually superior as well. But all this is a very sad misunderstanding. Being close to the guru or receiving advanced teachings do not guarantee a deeper practice, insight, or realization (think of Devadatta and the Buddha, etc.). Actually, guru devotion simply means that through your practice and study, you develop the positive qualities your teacher has. Your compassion and wisdom grow, and your afflictions diminish.


It is also true that Westerners attracted to Buddhism tend to be idealistic, which can lead to being a bit naïve and overly trusting. In addition, we do not have a strong tradition of examining religious leaders, whether priests, popes, or saints. We just trust them to be pure and holy and give ourselves up to their guidance. This attitude then gets mapped onto the practice of guru devotion, which can cause immense suffering if the guru’s behavior is harmful or unethical. Furthermore, the Buddhist tradition is relatively new to the West, so we do not receive the inherited lore that indigenous Buddhists have—the shared family stories, the frank exchanges, and the rich gossip—to give us a cultural background on how to relate to teachers and other issues that come up.

Analyzing, Questioning, Naivete, Idiot Compassion

And then the Buddhist tradition handles the matter of questioning differently.

The famous verse from the Dharmapada encourages us to analyze everything, and some texts instruct that a student should examine a potential teacher for up to twelve years.

The thirtieth slogan of Mind Training by the Kadampa master Chekawa Yeshe Dorje speaks directly to this question of trust and naiveté. It has been translated in various ways, such as Don’t be so trustworthy or Don’t rely on your good nature.

In his book, Tralek Rinpoche wrote:

Whether we tolerate a situation or not isn’t the problem; it’s whether we can recognize what is beneficial for us and what is only going to be harmful. If we examine ourselves more closely, we may find that blindly showing good-naturedness is one of our most problematic impulses
— Traleg Rinpoche

This slogan’s take on being good-natured correlates to blind faith and what Trungpa Rinpoche called idiot compassion. All three are problematic because the aspect of wisdom and analysis is missing.

So there is still a significant learning curve that has to happen on the both sides of the East-to-West transmission. It will take time and courage to find the clarity and understanding we need. Shared wisdom and compassion are the only way forward.


Michele Martin has been a Buddhist practitioner for over forty years and has spent the last thirty of those based in Nepal and India studying with Tibetan lamas and working as a translator of oral and written Tibetan. With two graduate degrees from Yale, she also had a long career in publishing and is a founding board member of the Tibetan Buddhist Research Center. Among numerous translations from Tibetan texts on philosophy, meditation, and history, her books include Music in the Sky: The Life, Art, and Teachings of the Seventeenth Karmapa Ogyen Trinley Dorje (author and translator) and Gaining Certainty in the View (translator). In cooperation with others, she has edited and translated Song for the King: Saraha on Mahamudra MeditationThe Karmapas and Their Mahāmudrā Forefathers: An Illustrated GuideThe First Karmapa: The Life and Teachings of Dusum Khyenpa; and Traveling the Path of Compassion: A Commentary on the Thirty-Seven Practices of a Bodhisattva. Facebook

For All Sangha Endeavoring in Great Perfection

For All Sangha Endeavoring in Great Perfection

Inter-Dimensionality—Our Birthright: Buddhism & American Cinema

Inter-Dimensionality—Our Birthright: Buddhism & American Cinema