The Distortions We Bring To The Study of Buddhism

Dzongsar Jamyang Khyentse calls on Westerners to acknowledge the distortions we may bring to the study of Buddhism—through our cultural arrogance, the deceit of ego, and simple ignorance. The successful transplant of such a subtle and challenging practice as Buddhism, he says, depends on thorough study and clear recognition of our habitual patterns.

Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche
2 April 2014

Dzongsar Jamyang Khyentse calls on Westerners to acknowledge the distortions we may bring to the study of Buddhism—through our cultural arrogance, the deceit of ego, and simple ignorance. The successful transplant of such a subtle and challenging practice as Buddhism, he says, depends on thorough study and clear recognition of our habitual patterns.

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.

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.

Another example of the hypocrisy involved with this kind of attitude is the Western “benevolent” wish to “liberate” Eastern women from the clutches of what is imagined to be the oppressive tyranny of a misogynist system, resembling the Western missionaries wanting natives to adopt Christian morals and values. In the West, amongst other things, women are photographed naked and the pictures are published in magazines. Many other cultures would regard this as exceedingly embarrassing, as well as extremely exploitative and oppressive of women. So from their point of view, Western criticism of another culture for its subjugation of women is a highly contentious matter.

Surely no culture should claim to have the deep appreciation and understanding necessary to produce a thorough and justified critique of an important aspect of another’s culture (especially when the topic is as sophisticated and complex as Buddhism) without having the humility to make the effort to accurately and deeply learn about that topic on that culture’s own terms.

Sometimes it might help Westerners to develop more respect and appreciation for the East if they remember that 3000 years ago, when the East was flourishing with philosophy, arts, languages and medicine, the Western natives still didn’t have the idea to brush their own teeth! And in many cultures’ perspectives, so-called Western science and technology has not really done much besides destroying the world’s resources. Ideas such as democracy and capitalism, as well as equality and human rights, can be seen to have failed miserably in the West, and to be nothing but new dogmas.

I find it difficult to see the advantage of incorporating these limited Western value systems into an approach to the dharma. These certainly do not constitute the extraordinary realization Prince Siddhartha attained under the Bodhi tree 2500 years ago. The West can analyze and criticize Tibetan culture, but I would be so thankful if they could have the humility and respect to leave the teachings of Siddhartha alone, or at least to study and practice them thoroughly before they set themselves up as authorities.

If people could put some effort into being respectful and open- minded, there is so much knowledge available that could liberate them from all kinds of suffering and confusion. It is only now that I have come to realize the significance of the great respect that the Tibetan translators and scholars of the past had toward India, their source of dharma and wisdom. Instead of being critical or even resentful of their source, they called it “The Sublime Land of India.” This kind of attitude is very different from the Western shopping mentality that regards the dharma as merchandise and our own involvement as an investment—only wanting to accept what sits well with our habitual expectations and rejecting what we don’t find immediately gratifying.

This is not to say that Westerners should not he critical of the Buddhist teachings. On the contrary, as the Lord Buddha himself said, “Without melting, beating, weighing and polishing a yellow substance, one should not take it for gold. Likewise, without analysis one should not accept the dharma as “valid.” Logical analysis has always been encouraged in the Buddhist tradition, and Buddhism has always challenged the promotion of blind faith.

The difference lies in the attitude you take towards the criticism. In the process of analyzing that “yellow substance,” the analyzer must not only maintain an open mind, but also acknowledge that he/she may not have an adequate knowledge of the subject matter. That is the whole point of analysis. Otherwise we are just seeking confirmation of what we already believe. Being skeptical and seeking faults are two completely different things.

Nowhere is the difference between these two attitudes more obvious and more important than when it comes to criticisms of the guru in Vajrayana Buddhism. Unfortunately, the guru is a must for Vajrayana practice. However, all great masters and teachings repeatedly advise that one should always be skillful in checking the lama before one takes him as one’s master. We have that option, and we should take advantage of it. It is vital to study the teachings extensively in order to be prepared to take on a teacher. In fact, some of the Vajrayana scriptures mention that one should check a potential teacher for twelve years before becoming his student.

However, I think it is also important to remember that Buddhism is not only Vajrayana. There are other paths such as Theravada, which is the foundation of all Buddhist paths. This is a straightforward path, which does not spark off all kinds of mystical expectations.

What sometimes seems to happen is that people want to practice Vajrayana because they see it as something exotic, when in fact they would be better off with the sanity and simplicity of the Theravada.

In Vajrayana, in order to enable the guru to help us and work on our dualistic ego-centered preoccupations, we are supposed to think that the guru is no different in wisdom than the Buddha. This is the highest form of mind training. We are literally making a hero out of someone who, because he sees our potential, has no qualms about challenging and even abusing our narrow minded and habitual patterns. This is a very radical, difficult and revolutionary method. From a conventional point of view, or from the point of view of ego-cherishing, the whole notion of the guru- disciple relationship is something almost criminal. Yet the point to remember is that the only purpose of the existence of the guru is to function as a skillful means to combat habits of dualistic conceptualizations, and to combat the tricks and tenacity of ego-clinging. In this way the guru is a living manifestation of the teachings.

It needs to be emphasized that it is our perception of the guru which enables the guru to function as a manifestation of the dharma. At first we see the guru as an ordinary person, and then as our practice develops we start to see the guru as more of an enlightened being, until finally we learn to recognize the guru as being nothing but an external manifestation of our own awakeness or buddhamind. In a subtle way then, it is almost irrelevant whether or not the teacher is enlightened. The guru-disciple relationship is not about worshipping a guru, but providing the opportunity to liberate our confused perceptions of reality.

Looking at it from the teacher’s point of view, if someone assumes the role of a teacher without being qualified, the negativity of this deception obviously will remain within their mindstream. It is important to understand that unless a lama is completely enlightened, he or she must carry the burden of what they do. Obviously, if he is an enlightened being, he has no karma, but if not, the consequences of his actions will come to him; his actions are his responsibility. From our point of view as students, if we have chosen him as our teacher, we should just learn from him, according to whatever path we wish to follow.

The principle of guru and devotion is much more complicated than creating a role model and worshipping him or her. Devotion, when you really analyze it, is nothing more than trusting the logic of cause and effect. If you cook an egg, putting it in boiling water, you trust the egg will be boiled. That trust is devotion. It is not blind faith or insistence on the illogical. The Buddha said, “Do not rely on the individual, rely on the teaching.” Yet it seems that we nonetheless decide to continue judging individual teachers without remembering the wider perspective and context of the purpose of the teachings.

One issue that can be controversial, and which has attracted a great deal of attention, is that in the vajrayana pleasure such as sex is not rejected as a threat to spiritual practice, but rather is used to enhance spiritual purification. While this may sound fascinating, it is important to remember that such practice requires an immense theoretical and practical grounding, without which, when viewed from the outside, it is easily misinterpreted.

Vajrayana male-female symbolism is not about sex. The practice can only exist in the context of a correct view of the unity of compassion and wisdom. Furthermore, as the tantric path works on a personal and non-conceptual level, it is not possible to make judgments about a practitioner. Tantra transcends completely the conventional idea of a man and woman having a sexual relationship. It is about working with phenomena to bring about the extraordinary realization of emptiness and bodhicitta in order to liberate all beings from samsara. To expect a yogin or yogini, who is aspiring to go beyond the chauvinism of the confused mind, to worry about sexual rights issues seems absurd in the context of such a vast view.

Yet for the neophyte Westerner, certain Tibetan traditions must be very annoying, and seem sexist or male chauvinist. Western perspectives on sexual relationships emphasize “equality,” yet this is very different from what is meant by equality in Vajrayana Buddhism. Where equality in the West stands for two aspects reaching equal footing, in Vajrayana Buddhism equality is going beyond “two-ness” or duality all together.

If duality remains, then by definition there can be no equality. I think social equality between men and women is less important than realizing the equality between samsara and nirvana which, after all, is the only true way to engender a genuine understanding of equality. Thus the understanding of equality in Vajrayana Buddhism is on a very profound level.

The notion of sexual equality is quite new in the West, and because of this there is a certain rigid and fanatic adherence to the specific way it should be practiced. In vajrayana Buddhism, on the other hand, there is a tremendous appreciation of the female, as well as a strong emphasis on the equality of all beings. This might not, however, be apparent to someone who cannot see beyond a contemporary Western framework. As a result, when Western women have sexual relationships with Tibetan lamas, some might be frustrated when their culturally conditioned expectations are not met.

If anyone thinks they could have a pleasing and equal lover in a Rinpoche, they couldn’t be more incorrect. 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.

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.

Mind’s ultimate nature, emptiness endowed with vividness,
I was told is the real Buddha.
Recognizing this should help me
Not to be stuck with thoughts of hierarchy.

Mind’s ultimate nature, its emptiness aspect,
I was told is the real Dharma.
Recognizing this should help me
Not to be stuck with thoughts of political correctness.

Mind’s ultimate nature, its vivid aspect,
I was told this is the real Sangha.
Recognizing this should help me
Not to be stuck with thoughts of equal rights.

One cannot disassociate emptiness from vividness.
This inseparability I was told is the Guru.
Recognizing this should help me
Not to be stuck with depending on chauvinist lamas.

This nature of mind has never been stained by duality,
This stainlessness I was told is the deity.
Recognizing this should help me
Not to be stuck with the categories of “gender” or “culture.”

This nature of mind is spontaneously present.
That spontaneity I was told is the dakini aspect.
Recognizing this should help me
Not to be stuck with fear of being sued.

Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche

Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche

Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche

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.