Policy for the West

SEARCH     Home     Site Map    Symbolism    Calendar     Karmapa     News    DONATE

American Buddhists number around 2 million, but two-thirds are Asian immigrants.  In France where Buddhists comprise a mere 0.6% of the population, the view according to the National Geographic French issue of Dec. 2005 issue is that "Buddhism is booming." 

Zen Door

While knowledge of Buddhism was long available outside Asia, fostered especially by people who had come into contact with it as a result of the colonial experience, the first kind of Buddha-dharma to appeal to a wide section of Western society was probably Zen.  In fact, a German translation of the Lotus Sutra appeared as early as the 1850s.

Some of the people interested in Zen began to seek out influential teachers of other traditions.  In April 1973, Beat poet Allen Ginsberg, describing himself as one who  "scribbled laughter," set out in the opening lines of Ego Confession, a contemplation of the impact of his 1960s trip to Sikkim: 

I want to be known as the most brilliant man in America 
Introduced to Gyalwa Karmapa heir of the Whispered Transmission 
Crazy Wisdom Practice Lineage 
as the secret young wise man who visited him and winked anonymously 
decade ago in Gangtok 
Prepared the way for Dharma in America without mentioning Dharma -- 

Mysterious East

There had also been interest in Buddhism as part of a trend known as Orientalism or Exoticism.  People were taken by unusual customs and practices.  It was some time before there was a sincere interest in Buddhism for the benefits it could bring to our daily lives.  For example, in the first part of the 20th century, curiosity and imagination were stirred by the accounts by Alexandra David-Neel of her own experiences in Tibet. 

Books by those few other Westerners who managed to spend time there appeared sporadically and further stimulated this interest. Since the "Land of Snows" was so inaccessible in terms of language and politics, as well as geography, dharma as it is  practiced was poorly understood.  This gave rise to the expression, "lamaism," as if Tibetan Buddhism were an entirely different system.

The formation of the Western Buddhist Order, and societies like the Friends of Buddhism; the impact of Zen Buddhism via the Beat Generation of the late1950's with Jack Kerouac's novels and the poetry of Lew Welch and Allen Ginsberg; the Korean and Vietnamese conflicts and martial arts movies; the appearance in America of some charismatic Hindu teachers and The Beatles' experience with meditation all contributed to opening people's minds to the interesting possibilities extended by the Buddha's teachings. The welcoming attitude was fostered further by the charisma and popularity of teachers such as Thich Nhat Han, and Nobel laureate, the 14th Dalai Lama. 

*Eastern Philosophy in Kerouac, a paper by C. R. Smith.

Interest and acceptance was amplified by the arrival from Tibet via India of a number of other esteemed teachers to the haven of various welcoming communities.  A most notable one was HH the 16th Karmapa, who also encouraged younger monks to come to the West.  Another was Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche, who came to America after his Spaulding scholarship at Oxford University, England.  Here he founded Shambhala, a new vision of Dharma for the West.

16th Karmapa Rigpe Dorje (L)  & Trungpa Rinpoche (holding a chamaru)~ photo R. Graffis

The First Nations Connection

When the 16th Karmapa traveled to Arizona in 1974 to meet with Hopi elders, he was acknowledged as the fulfillment of their prophecy, "When the wearer of the red hat comes to the West, he will build a bridge of wisdom between east and west." 


As young people continue to question the traditional western approach to religion, Buddhism or Buddha-dharma continues to provide an interesting option to outright rejection of religion. Also, older people who had traveled widely in the 60's in search of transitory solutions to the problems of living, are now re-examining some of the views they had encountered "on the road." 

Support by newly arrived people from traditional Buddhist cultures also plays an important role in the flourishing of Buddhism in Europe, the Antipodes [New Zealand and Australia] and the Americas.  

Generally there appear to be two trends: Groups that rely on traditional forms of practice in which the Asian customs and classical languages are in use, and those in which the teachings are adapted to local language and custom.  


It may be that a new expression of Buddhism is in the process of evolving.  However, people who are devoted to the Buddha's dharma have to be circumspect. 

New Age

The West has, at least since the Age of Enlightenment, periodically discovered systems and philosophies from other cultures, but rarely have people been ready to learn and apply them in a methodical manner.  The aesthetic and the lingo are fashionable for a time, then these remnants become part of the "underground" or "alternative" lifestyle. 

In our day, the result is called New Age.   Currently, this label refers to a vague mixture incorporating aboriginal material (dream-catchers, and so-called shamanism,) pagan (mythology as learned from Anime and role-playing games, Celtic music and Wicca,) Taoism (eg. feng shui) all peppered with terms, grossly misunderstood and incorrectly used, such as karma and tantra that come from Hinduism and Buddhism (the distinction between the two rather blurry.) 

An astute young Tibetan lama, the Western-educated Nyingma-Kagyupa, Dzogchen Ponlop Rinpoche, warns:

"Vajrayana is very different from the New Age approach. The difference is that the Vajrayana teachings are controlled by the lineage. I know we don't like the word control, but the Vajrayana teachings are actually held by the authority of the lineage. I know we also don't like the word authority, but we have it in Vajrayana. 

When we have this pure lineage, this genuine lineage, there is no space for our egocentric interpretation of dharma. We cannot interpret dharma like the New Age gurus. We cannot invent a new lineage because a lineage must be received. It must be received by transmission. It is not something we can just create here. That would be New Age, probably from California."

A Policy for the West

While many Westerners are learning Buddhism, their predominantly Asian teachers are learning to adapt to the mores of the West.  In 1993, a conference in India under the auspices of His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama was held at which several Western, and a number of Tibetan teachers, agreed to respect six important principles.

In March (16-19) of 1993, a group of 22 teachers of Buddha-Dharma from the major denominations of Buddhism that are active in Europe and America met in Dharamshala, India under the auspices of His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama, Tenzin GyatsoAlso present were Tibetan lamas Drikung Chestang Rinpoche, Panchen Otrul Rinpoche and Amchok Rinpoche, among others. 

The aim of the meeting was to discuss openly a wide range of issues concerning the transmission of Buddha-dharma to the Western lands. The conclusions were that:

1. Our first responsibility as Buddhists is to work towards creating a better world for all forms of life. The promotion of Buddhism as a religion is a secondary concern. Kindness and compassion, the furthering of peace and harmony, as well as tolerance and respect for other religions, should be the three guiding principles of our actions.

2. In the West, where so many different Buddhist traditions exist side by side, one needs to be constantly on one's guard against the dangers of sectarianism. Such a divisive attitude is often the result of failing to understand or appreciate anything outside of one's own tradition. Teachers from all schools would therefore benefit greatly from studying and gaining some practical experience of the teachings of other traditions.

3. Teachers should be open to beneficial influences from secular and other religious traditions.  For example, the insights and techniques of contemporary psychotherapy can often be of great value in reducing suffering experienced by students.  At the same time, efforts to develop psychologically oriented practices from within the existing Buddhist traditions should be encouraged.

4. An individual's position as a teacher arises in dependence on the request of his or her students, not simply being appointed as such by higher authority.  Great care must therefore [be] exercised by the student in selecting an appropriate teacher.  Sufficient time must be given to making this choice, which should be based on personal investigation, reason and experience. Students should be warned against the dangers of falling prey to charisma, charlatanism or exoticism.

5. Particular concern was expressed about unethical conduct among teachers. In recent years both Asian and Western teachers have been involved in scandals concerning sexual misconduct with their students, abuse of alcohol and drugs, misappropriation of funds, and misuse of power.  This has resulted in widespread damage both to the Buddhist community and to individuals involved. 

Each student must be encouraged to take responsible measures to confront teachers with unethical aspects of their conduct.  If the teacher shows no sign of reform, students should not hesitate to publicize any unethical behavior of which there is irrefutable evidence. 

This should be done irrespective of other beneficial aspects of his or her work and of one's spiritual commitment to that teacher.  It should also be made clear in any publicity that such conduct is not in conformity with Buddhist teachings.  No matter what level of spiritual attainment a teacher has, or claims to have, reached, no person can stand above the norm of ethical conduct

In order for the Buddha-dharma not to be brought into disrepute and to avoid harm to students and teachers, it is necessary that all teachers at least live by the five lay precepts.   In cases where ethical standards have been infringed, compassion and care should be shown towards both teacher and student.

6. Just as the Dharma has adapted itself to many different cultures throughout its history in Asia, so it is bound to be transformed according to conditions in the West.  Although the principles of the Dharma are timeless, we need to exercise careful discrimination in distinguishing between essential teachings and cultural trappings

However, confusion may a rise due to various reasons.  There may be a conflict in loyalty between commitment to one's Asian teachers and responsibility to one's Western students.  Likewise, one may encounter disagreement about the respective value of monastic and lay practice. Further more, we affirm the need for equality between the sexes in all aspects of Buddhist theory and practice.

Western teachers were encouraged to take greater responsibility in creatively resolving the issues raised.  For many, the Dalai Lama's advice served to confirm their own feelings, concerns and actions.

The list of teachers present at that conference  includes:  Stephen Batchelor, Alex Berzin, Ven. Thubten Chodron (Cherry Greene) Jack Kornfield, Lama Namgyal (Daniel Boschero) Ven. Tenzin Palmo, Ven. Thubten Pende (James Dougherty).  Also  Lama Surya Das (Jeffrey Miller) and Robert Thurman.  The entire list is available at The Network for Western Buddhist Teachers 4725 E. Sunrise Drive, suite 137, Tucson, Arizona 85718 USA.

"Awakenings:  How formerly obscure Tibetan Buddhism became one of the West's fastest-growing religions"

Jeffrey Paine opens his riveting narrative about Tibetan Buddhism's
emergence in the West with an account of Thomas Merton's brief but prophetic encounter with "the dharma." In 1968, the last year of his life, America's most celebrated Catholic writer stopped in India on his way to an interfaith conference in Bangkok. The Trappist monk was a serious student of Asian religions, a translator of the Tao Te Ching, and had written extensively about Zen. Yet Merton had dismissed Tibetan Buddhism as a sect riddled with superstition. After a series of unscheduled meetings with several Tibetans, however, Merton, without rejecting his Catholicism, vowed to return to pursue a yearlong retreat as preparation for advanced Buddhist spiritual practices. " 'The Tibetan Buddhists are the only ones at present,' " he wrote in The Asian Journals, " 'who have a really large number of people who have attained to extraordinary heights in meditation and contemplation.' "

Long before Merton visited India, Buddhism's signals were picked up by the "antennae of the race:" An unusual number of artists and writers, from Jack Kerouac, Gary Snyder, and Allen Ginsberg to Peter Matthiessen and Philip Glass, registered its frequencies. Earlier still, historian Arnold Toynbee had written that the arrival of Buddhism in the West "may well prove to be the most important event of the twentieth century."

The most famous of the Tibetans whose presence so utterly changed Merton's mind was Tenzin Gyatso. As just about everyone knows by now, the 14th Dalai Lama fled the Chinese invasion of Tibet in 1959. Yet, nearly a decade later, few people outside India were aware of him or of the unfolding tragedy of the Tibetans, whose culture was being systematically destroyed by the communists. Paine points out that in 1968 there were only two Tibetan
Buddhist centers outside Asia: in Scotland and Vermont. By 2000, nearly every sizable American city had one, with eight in Washington, D.C., 25 in Boston, and about 40 in New York. One of every 35 French citizens is a Buddhist. Buddhism is the fastest-growing religion in the United States, with the Tibetan variety drawing the most converts.

Paine, formerly editor of the Smithsonian Institution's Wilson Quarterly, offers several reasons for Tibetan Buddhism's many recent successes. First, uprooted from its country of origin, it has been encouraged by circumstances to become ecumenical and universal. Second is its emphasis on individual responsibility, enabling those who succeed at their practice to communicate directly what they have learned. Then there's the heightened mental capability nurtured by meditation. Scientists recently began documenting the
physical benefits of prolonged meditative practice. A religion defining itself as "a science of the mind" has made a timely arrival in the empirically oriented West. Finally, and most immediately, the Chinese occupation created a cadre of uniquely qualified teachers who welcomed new students and were willing to travel.

Paine's immensely readable study tells its stories through a series of
cameos and profiles of several great Tibetan Buddhist teachers and their disciples. Here we meet the charismatic Lama Yeshe, one of the first Tibetans to take on Western students. His legendary selflessness and inexhaustible exuberance electrified his students. Though he died before the age of 50, the organization he created continues to thrive, with hundreds of centers worldwide.

Paine's chapter on Chogyam Trungpa, founder of the first two Tibetan Buddhist Centers in the West, as well as the first Buddhist university in the United States -- the Naropa Institute in Boulder, Colo. -- performs a much-needed service. By most accounts a great and dynamic teacher, Trungpa was also an alcoholic whose more outrageous actions confused and hurt some of his disciples. Paine's balanced portrait, chronicling both Trungpa's excesses and his achievements, offers a model of transparency.

Among the accounts of Tibetan Buddhism's Western followers, the story of Alexandra David-Neel stands out. In 1912 she became both the first Western woman to win an interview with the previous Dalai Lama as well as the first Westerner of either sex to receive advanced Tantric teachings directly from a Tibetan. Paine's vivid recital of David-Neel's travels through India, China, and Tibet makes for fascinating reading.

Paine's speculations on the synergies between Buddhism and film might explain its attraction for many Hollywood notables. Emphasizing the deceptive nature of appearances surely appeals to people who slip in and out of identities without attachment. Quoting Alexis de Tocqueville, Paine observes that "American art will no longer attempt to evoke the divine or the ideal but concentrate solely on human realities." A non-theistic practice, Buddhism nevertheless underscores people's capacity to become
buddhas, to achieve enlightenment.

And this is where the matter of re-enchantment comes in. Donald Lopez, among other senior American Buddhist scholars, has cautioned against projecting onto this lost Shangri-La one's own longings for mystery. Fortunately, Paine's sensibility is steeped in Western rationalism. He recounts elegantly, yet without fuss, stories of human transformation that consistently incite our capacity for wonder. He relates the change Buddhist practice has wrought on death-row inmate Jarvis Masters, who recognized through it his power to alter the plot of his own story and the history of Diane Perry's metamorphosis from a working-class English girl to a Buddhist nun named Tenzin Palmo, who stayed in solitary retreat for 12 years.

These authoritative sketches reflect Paine's fluency with the essentials of some of Buddhism's thorniest ideas, from emptiness to bodhicitta -- perhaps the central concept in Tibetan Buddhism, sometimes translated as "loving-kindness." Is it possible to love your enemy, turn the other cheek, put another before you, and embrace death with equanimity? The Dalai Lama's example seems to embody an unequivocal answer to at least three of these questions and remains a primary cause for our enchantment. Whether it's possible to return love for hate and win your country back for your people remains, however, the subject for another volume."


Read the Village Voice article "Guess who's coming to dharma?" about black American women and the dharma:  bell hooks, Alice Walker et al.


Zen:  Corruption of the Chinese word, chan.  It is how the Sanskrit word dhyana meaning Wisdom borne of knowledge of Mind, is rendered in Japanese.  Knowledge of Mind is derived through meditation, the subjective but systematic way of studying consciousness.

mores: pronounced mor-aize, it is a good English word for values, customs, attitudes all at once.   

In December 1995, a lawsuit brought against a noted Buddhist teacher was settled through mediation. That civil suit, which had been filed in November of 1994, concerned a prominent teacher who was the author of a best-selling book.  It alleged that over a period of 19 years, he induced female students to engage in sexual relations with him "by preying upon their vulnerability and belief that they could only achieve enlightenment by serving the sexual and other needs of ... , their enlightened master."  The complainant listed assault and battery among the charges, which also included intentionally inflicting emotional distress and breach of fiduciary duty.

Age of Enlightenment:  The 17th-century European trend that allowed for free inquiry into nature and philosophy following greater commercial contact with the rest of the world, and the rise of opposition to the predominant  established religion that eventually produced, in much of Europe and America, a separation of Church and State.    

Back ] Home ] Up ] Next ]

Up ] Cultural Context ] Daily Life ] [ Policy for the West ] Women ] Buddhist Sutras ] Refuge ] Paths ]

Articles About Karmapa ] Our Neck of the Woods ] Buddhism ] Dharma Diary Items ] Dying ] Links ] Symbolism ] Language & Literature ]


Copyright 1998-2018 Khandro.Net All rights reserved. This Web site is designed with Firefox as browser but should be accessible to others. However,  if you eliminate underlining in your Preferences you could miss some of our links.