«But there’s another extreme here, and that is dogmatism that is radically disengaged from people’s actual experiences through the practice of Dharma. Tibetans over generations have worked out strategies, teachings, rituals, and sequences of practice that were designed for Tibetans. They did not simply replicate Indian Buddhism. I have a lot of confidence that they did retain the core, the essence of Indian Buddhism. But theirs is also a tradition that modified itself over the centuries to best suit the Tibetan mentality, the Tibetan environment, Tibetan customs. Now, the proof is in the pudding, because what turned out was generation after generation of great Tibetan adepts. Going back to the time of Padmasambhava, Milarepa, Tsongkhapa, right on into the twentieth century— it has worked!
And so, with that success, it is possible to conclude that since it worked for the Tibetans, we Americans must take their tradition, the pure teachings, exactly as they were taught in Tibet, and introduce it in Los Angeles or New York City. But the reason those teachings are considered to be pure is that they worked in Tibet. The test is—do they still work? If those same teachings, in the same format, with no adaptations for the West, are transplanted in Europe or America, ignoring the difference of cultural context, this can wind-up being rigid, fundamentalist, dogmatic, and non-observant of whether those teachings are producing the same type of wonderful effects and transformations in Western practitioners as they did in Tibetan practitioners.
If they do not yield the same benefits—if after thirty or forty years of Tibetan Buddhism in the West we do not have people here ascending along the path to enlightenment, such as the achievement of shamatha, vipashyana, genuine bodhichitta, the four yogas of Mahamudra, and the two stages of Dzogchen— then we have to ask the question: Are those same teachings that have worked for the Tibetans equally effective for Westerners? Do we now have Western adepts comparable to the twenty-five principal disciples of Padmasambhava?
Insofar as Tibetan lamas find that their Western disciples, apparently engaging in the same practices as their Tibetan disciples, are not gaining comparable realization, then one has to ask a number of questions, namely: How do these teachings and practices need to be modified in their format, in their sequence, in their context? To what extent do the theories need to come into dialog with Western worldviews? This is something relatively few Tibetan lamas are doing to any significant extent— drawing the presentation of Buddhist views, meditation, and way of life into dialog with Western scientific, religious, and philosophical views, values, ways of life.
We do have a civilization here after all. And to come over here as if we had no civilization at all, as if one were simply dropping the teachings into a cultural tabula rasa, is not reasonable. That is the other extreme, whose proponents declare, “We have the pure teachings!” and don’t even notice whetherthose so-called “pure teachings” are really producing good results, or whether they’re just producing a lot of fundamentalists who are rigid, arrogant, and elitist, declaring, “We have the only way!” To the extent that that’s what’s happening in the West, this seems to me like a very quick way to turn Buddhism into a museum piece or worse.»
Are Tibetan lamas in the West talking about this, asking questions about how effective their teachings have been?
AW: I’m sure there must be individual teachers, both Tibetan lamas as well as Western Buddhist teachers, who are paying attention to this. But I haven’t heard it very widely discussed. And in a way it’s a little bit of a delicate topic. If students are not deriving deep benefits from their Buddhist practice as taught to them according to Tibetan tradition, they are often told simply that the defect isin them and notin the teachings, which are pure and infallible. The alternative is not to conclude that the Buddhadharma is defective, but to ask: Within the vast range of practices taught by the Buddha and later Indian and Tibetan adepts, which ones and which sequence of practices might be especially emphasized for Western students so that they are of optimal benefit?
To pursue this question we need to reintroduce a strong element of empiricism and pragmatism, which is perfectly consonant with the Buddha’s own teachings. And that is: What really helps to purify your mind so that your mental afflictions are attenuated, you find greater contentment, greater serenity, greater wisdom, and greater compassion? What really works?»
- Interview in SNOW LION ‘52’, Fall 2000