Problems in the development of Tibetan Buddhism in the West

L. S. Dagyab Rinpoche

An eminent Tibetan lama is worried that wrong motivation on the part of some of the Tibetan Buddhist teachers in the West and their disciples may eventually prove a threat to the Buddhist tradition.

T ibetan teachers and the Western followers of Tibetan Buddhism may agree that the gradual spread of Buddhism in the Western society is to be welcomed. Generally, we try to make the teachings accessible to us as well as to others, yet in a non-missionary way and in the spirit of tolerance according to Buddhist tradition. Buddhist analyses and methods are of great value in facing various crises and problems that are threatening the survival of mankind on this earth. The desire to find sense and quality in one’s own life and harmony with others leads many Westerners to the Buddhist path. Obviously Buddhism contributes a lot to the development of that “changing mind,” which the people are longing for and which is undoubtedly needed. So, the necessity of our efforts is not only based on the religion but on the situation itself. Bearing this in mind, is there any reason for criticism and self-criticism?

If we go into detail, things are not so clear, smooth and simple. I think one of the main problems is that most of the teachers and disciples only believe that by using the phrase “Tibetan Buddhism” they are talking about the same thing. In fact they are not, and this misunderstanding is maintained persistently, because there is not enough genuine communication between teachers and their Western disciples, only a lot of illusions and projections—on both sides.

To describe this discrepancy and its consequences, let me give you an example of how we deal with the four still existing lineages in Tibetan Buddhism. This is one of the most delicate topics within the context of the Tibetan tradition, and sometimes it leads to sad incidents.

Those interested in Tibetan Buddhism know that four main lineages have developed in Tibet in the course of the centuries: Nyingma, Sakya, Kagyu and Gelug. They were created by great teachers who considered it necessary to relay the same teaching in different ways to different disciples in order to achieve the best results. These efforts are summarised officially under the technical term of “skilful methods.” So the impression was created that the followers of the four schools were striving for enlightenment together, hand in hand, in beautiful Buddhist harmony. But those who have studied Tibetan history a little know how difficult the contact between followers of different schools really was. Apart from the sincere efforts for a pure Buddhist theory and practice, other influences played an important role: social reputation, academic pride, economic interests, political power, etc. This was difficult enough in Tibet and led partly to regrettable conflicts. But there were at least some antidotes too. Everyone had already learnt from his earliest childhood that such attitudes are nothing more than “ego in action.” There was no chance of hiding behind any justification. Buddhist thoughts were deeply rooted after all these centuries.

However, such a foundation does not exist in the Western society. The Westerners who accepted Tibetan Buddhism did so because it suited their mental attitude. The Western way of thinking, in comparison with the Eastern, tends to be more analytical, discriminating and categorical. Thus it is not astonishing that many people in the West enthusiastically grasp at the phenomenon of the four schools and—before even understanding the common basis of all Buddhist traditions—they passionately analyse the differences, work out the distinguishing elements and deliver their qualitative judgments.

But that is not enough. To accept a new religion voluntarily is a very sensitive matter. For many people, the new religion is the essence of their yearnings and expectations. Ail the so-called faults of their former religion should not appear in the new one. The ocean of fear and loneliness should now be forever eliminated. Such an urgent necessity explains why so many Westerners compulsively insist on the thesis that everything has to be supernaturally perfect. For them Buddhism is the only real teaching, flawlessly transmitted and free of human influences, Vajrayana is the only thing worth practising, all lamas (especially one’s own “root guru”) are enlightened, omniscient Buddhas, and of course one’s own lineage in this excellent region is the best, purest, most effective and holiest.

Such fantasies of absoluteness indicate a desperate fear of life, rather than signify advanced spirituality. Some of these “yogis” would be bette placed in psychotherapy than in teachings, initiations and retreats. An enormous effort is required to maintain their unrealistic ideals of religious tradition and practice. Their own experiences and perceptions, which do not correspond to this ideal, must continuously be reinterpreted by spending a great deal of energy. Naturally, in the long run this does not work, but that is another issue.

Tibetan teachers, when confronted with such an attitude of their disciples, normally develop one of the following two assessments:

A) If they belong to the large group who get a lot of “guru-devotion” but have little communication with their students, they will probably not perceive the inner tension lying behind their declarations of gratitude, devotion and religious belief. These lamas are just happy to see the fertile soil for Dharma in the West and consider problems, crises and catastrophes as regrettable mishaps, but not as unavoidable, predictable breakdowns.

B) If there is a close cooperation between teacher and student, the lamas may have collected a large amount of experiences. When the above-mentioned attitudes arise, they are immediately alarmed and try to bring this kind of students gradually into contact with reality. At the same time they may think how it is possible that Westerners who mercilessly condemn the mistakes of Christian institutions and dignitaries, now—being confronted with the Tibetan system—obviously forget their own critical alertness.

We Tibetans are of course often surprised to see how fanatically the conflicts of Tibetan schools, sub-schools and splinter-schools are carried out in the middle of Europe. We then sometimes wonder why on earth do Westerners adopt the mistakes of the Tibetans, and become even worse than them. This is not easy to understand.

But anyway, in this problematic situation, the Western students are excused by the fact that they are just students. Nobody expects them not to be caught in the usual traps for beginners. Quite the contrary, it is moving to see how they tum to Dharma in searching for more quality in life and overcoming their obstacles, even if sometimes this happens in an innocent manner like saying “My football team is better than your football team.” Especially during this period, it is demanded of the teachers to support and help their students to gain a correct understanding.

Looking back in the mirror Tibetan Buddhism© Photo by Fred Moon on Unsplash

However, which role are the Tibetan teachers playing in this context now? Usually I enjoy discussing with Western Buddhists of all traditions and lineages. Most of these people are open, critical and communicative. This gives me an opportunity to gather a lot of information of how Tibetan lamas of different traditions answer the questions of their Western disciples. Most of the answers are correct in their contents, some are excellent, but some are even shocking.

Let me give you some examples. There are Tibetan lamas who consider the taking of refuge with teachers of other traditions (even Tibetan Buddhist traditions) as insufficient and ask their students to take refuge again, but in their lineage now. There are also Tibetan lamas, and unfortunately not just a few, who take part in spreading prejudices about other lineages. Some schools are said to have not enough intellectual knowledge, others to miss the practice of meditation or the knowledge of rituals—even though every Tibetan teacher and scholar knows quite well that the real differences are very subtle and all four lineages are adequately qualified to teach the complete Tibetan Buddhism in a valid and correct way. Moreover, there are teachers who, against their own education and experience, gather disciples around them with the promise not to waste time with basic studies but to start with the highest essential practices right from the beginning. All these examples are based on information supplied by more than one source. I have been listening to such things over a long period of time from many Western Buddhists.

It is not easy for me to say this but problems of sectarianism and narrow-minded fanaticism among the Western followers of Tibetan Buddhism are not only due to avoidable misconduct of Dharma beginners. There are irresponsible Tibetan teachers, too, who stir up these conflicts—but of course not in public, as this would not result in good reputation for a “professional Buddhist.” But they do it even more efficiently through the inner circle of their disciples.

The question now is: why do they do that? What advantages do they gain? Some may be so fanatically fond of their own lineage that they believe it would be best for all sentient beings to embrace it. Others might be cynical enough to make sure of getting a “major share” in the Western spiritual market. We have to face the fact: this is not only a matter of love and compassion, but also of solid financial and political interests.

In this context let me give you another example of a phenomenon which has been creating great astonishment among Tibetans for the last few decades—the so-called Tulku Boom. The number of reincarnated lamas in exile has increased like inflation. Now, the system of reincarnation has been in existence in Tibet for centuries, and the benefit of it is undisputed among almost all Tibetans and many Westerners. But obviously many people in exile have become aware of the fact that the title of a Rinpoche is a capital with considerable value in the Western market. And nowadays, among the Tibetans there is an ironical saying: “Each cook of a monastery has to reincarnate.” Well, even this would not cause any problems according to the principles of reincarnation. But trying to control one’s own reincarnation is indeed a very subtle process. That it “works” does not only depend on the desire of the disciples but on the capability of the teacher too. In Tibet it was more or less taken for granted that at least three quarters of all rinpoches were real tulkus. But nowadays, if we get more and more “tulkus by declaration,” a deterioration of the quality of teachers and a degenerated presentation of the teachings will follow.

Let me remind you that there is no reincarnations of the great masters Marpa and Milarepa, and of the Five Great Sakya masters and of Je Tsongkhapa, not to speak of Buddha himself. But this has never been an obstacle for their veneration and guru practice. So why on earth, one may ask, is there this tulku-hysteria?

The motives are a curious mixture, which is evident, for instance, in the strange titles for lamas created in the West. I have read things like Lama XY Tulku Khenpo Rinpoche. And of course, there is a swarm of eminences and holinesses. If you follow the biographies which are edited by the students of some so-called lamas, you can see how they become more and more baroque from year to year. After being called “His Holiness” will there be a “His Divinity” next? It is true that the Tibetans themselves laugh at this. But there are also Tibetans who are supporting these tendencies in the West. Why and to which purpose?

I could now start lamenting and say that such conducts threaten the pure Buddhist tradition and in the long run will destroy Tibetan Buddhism. This is undoubtedly true but, unfortunately, such moralizing views are not very effective.

But there is also a practical aspect to it, and I may ask all administrators of the Tibetan Buddhist tradition to consider the following:

Westerners are not at all stupid. On the contrary, they are generally very critical and reflective people. Their common psychological knowledge is far higher than one may imagine in the East. And more important, they have already shown in the past that they are able to get rid of a religious system, which in their eyes seems to have proven contradictory, untruthful and arrogant, and whose priests seem to lack integrity. Now, longing for quality and inner development, many new Buddhists may, for a certain period of time, try to ignore the uneven points of their new religion. But no Tibetan lama should feel too safe on his throne, performing the great show of his own omniscience and the uniqueness of his lineage. The day will come when people will realize what kind of show it is and then retire—just like many of the young Tibetans in the West, who already know too much and cannot be bound to the old system anymore.

Thus, we Tibetan lamas have to be aware of the fact that where the spread of Dharma in the West is run with inadequate motivation and inadequate means, it is doomed to failure.

And the Westerners should know that the maintenance of the same clear, critical attitude which they try to use in their daily lives is necessary in Dharma too. A healthy common sense is not only a prerequisite of the spiritual practice but also a good protection against drastic misdevelopment.  ■

From TIBETAN REVIEW October 1992, pp. 15–17. Originally written in German in cooperation with Regine Leisner, translated into English by Susanna Maass-Sagolla. The original was published in the 2/1992 edition of the German magazine Tibet-Forum.


Dagyab Kyabgön Rinpoche

DAGYAB KYABGÖN RINPOCHE was born in East Tibet in 1940 and at age four he was recognized as the IX. Kyabgoen (protector) of the region of Dagyab. He is one of the highest Tulkus in Tibet.

In 1959 Rinpoche escaped with His Holiness the Dalai Lama to India. From 1964 to 1966 he directed the Tibet House in New Delhi, which is an internationally recognized institute for the preservation and support of the Tibetan culture.

For more than 40 years Rinpoche has lived with his family near Bonn. He came to Germany in 1966 in response to an invitation from Bonn University to work as a Tibetologist at its Institute for Central Asian Studies. A list of his publications—academic works about Tibetan Buddhist art, iconography and symbolism, translations of religious texts from Tibetan into German, introductory explanations for western Buddhists—can be downloaded as a PDF-file.

In the 1980s, due to the explicit request of people interested in Buddhism he began to be active as a spiritual teacher for Europeans.

Dagyab Rinpoche is the originator of the Tibet House in Frankfurt am Main / Germany.

© Dagyab Rinpoche, Tibetan Review and Tibet-Forum

This article was published in TIBETAN REVIEW October 1992, pp. 15–17 and originally written in German in cooperation with Regine Leisner, translated into English by Susanna Maass-Sagolla. The German original, Die Entwicklung des tibetischen Buddhismus im Westen – Probleme und Gefahren, was published in the 2/1992 edition of the German magazine Tibet-Forum.

Offered with kind permission from Dagyab Rinpoche.

Photo: © by Fred Moon on Unsplash.