"Buddhism in the West and the Image of Tibet" by Dagyab Kyabgön Rinpoche
The eminent Dagyab Kyabgön Rinpoche’s article “Buddhism in the West and the Image of Tibet” offers a persuasive analysis of the East-West view dichotomy. (Link to the full article) Dagyab Kyabgön Rinpoche relates the history of western and Tibetan interchanges. Over the past, western views of Tibetan practices vacillated from patronizing, indifferent to a rather romantic idea prevailing at present.
The Tibetan Myth
“The myth of Tibet and the Western crisis of the senses thus work together to make a quick, but rather superficial, spread of Tibetan Buddhism possible. Tibetan Buddhism, however, has quite a bit more to offer than exotic symbolism and mystical sensations. It is a path that one must take seriously: Clear instructions and a disciplined, systematic practice are its foundation. Tibetan opinions diverge on the question of the capacity of Western believers to recognize the path that lies behind their images—and their capacity to walk that path.”
First Approach to Tibetan Buddhism
“Two different approaches have emerged over the last ten years. The first approach, which stems from a conscious attempt to abandon the myth, leads to a more realistic and, ultimately, more authentic and spiritual attitude. It is only in this way that the culturally neutral message of Buddhism can be grasped gradually and transformed on the individual level, so that Tibet and its lamas no longer stand in the spotlight, but rather the believers themselves do.”
These words make so much sense. I have often wondered about the Buddha’s ideas drowning in expressions of Tibetan culture, which in the end has no connection or relevance to a western person, at least no more than any other cultural habits from any other region of the world.
Second Approach to Tibetan Buddhism
“The second approach is marked by the persistent clinging to a romantic image of Tibet, and it leads, necessarily, to neglect of reality. This in turn leads to superstition, sectarianism, and dogmatism, and perpetuates the negative aspects of the myth of Tibet among outside observers. Inner development, as Buddhism the universe teaches, is impossible under these conditions, and stagnation, delusion, and defensive rigidity stand in their place.”
Mimicking Tibetan Culture
I can attest to this as a Buddhist and an observer of western Buddhist behaviour and practice, and I am grateful for these words. I find them refreshing and honest. It is not a view one commonly hears in Buddhist circles. Generally, I have observed variants of the second view of various dogmatic intensities. What comes first, Buddhism or Buddhist Tibetan culture? Does one have to embrace Buddhism through another culture? Is it not possible that the Buddha’s suggested path is intrinsically free of cultural obtrusions in the same way the Calculus does not rely on the language or culture of its teaching environment. The desire to mimic Tibetan rituals and precisely follow obscure Tibetan liturgies appears more like a theatrical performance than a deeply appreciated spiritual insight. In this way, the impression is that many participants enjoy the experience of dipping into an exotic taste and may even be entirely ignorant as to the deeper meaning.
We must be grateful to the Tibetan lamas who have dedicated their lives to teaching Buddhism to the west. One could argue that they arrived at a fortunate time, as Dagyab Kyabgön Rinpoche points out. But good on them; they deserve respect and admiration.
That was then. What about now? What about the longer-term future?
Hundreds, if not thousands, of Buddhist centres worldwide, attest how firmly Buddhist ideas are grounded in the west. Is Buddhism a religion like the other established religions that provide guidance and hope to many people who follow their doctrines? Or has Buddhism more to offer, much more? It seems there has never been a time in history more worldly, more potent and more distracted. Buddhism can provide a sense of satisfaction, meaning and calm without compromising belief, environment or creating division. Here is a powerful medicine entirely without adverse side effects, a gift of immense value. It may well be that in time the Buddha’s propositions will play a crucial role in preserving human future. The conventional Buddhists, the lamas, the Buddhist teachers need to contemplate this big picture. Developing Buddhism into a global religious brand that splits into rivalling franchises wastes the Buddha’s message.
Look at the future ahead and look for an universal, culturally independent approach. Buddhism must evolve, shed its cultural boundaries and fulfil its potential in a global environment becoming more tense and broken.