The Future of Buddhism

Sogyal RinpocheSogyal Rinpoche
(Buddhist in America conference, San Diego, California, May, 1998)

I am just a practitioner, doing my best to practise, simply a student of the Dharma, who is trying, by working with myself, with the help of the teachings and my masters, to become a better human being.

Thinking about the Buddhadharma and its future, my mind turns to my master Jamyang Khyentse Chokyi Lodro, who was a master of all the lineages of Tibetan Buddhism and who passed away in exile in Sikkim in 1959.

He was truly a leader, regarded by many as one of the greatest Tibetan masters of the twentieth century, the embodiment of Tibetan Buddhism and living proof of what someone who had realised the teachings would be. He was a master of masters, the teacher of many of the great Lamas who were to teach in the West, such as Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche, Kalu Rinpoche and Dezhung Rinpoche, yet he treated everyone equally, rich or poor, high or low.

Jamyang Khyentse had a vision. He was, in fact, the heir to the non-sectarian Rime movement which had swept through the eastern part of Tibet during the nineteenth century. This was a kind of spiritual renaissance which rejected all forms of sectarian, partisan bias and encouraged each tradition to master completely the authentic teachings and practice of its own lineage, while at the same time maintaining a spirit of openness, harmony and co-operation with other Buddhist schools. There was no blurring or synthesis of one tradition with another – the purity of each was ensured – but they co-existed and often drew inspiration from one another.

In some ways the Rime vision offers a model of how the Dharma must continue in the West and in America: with total respect for our separate authentic traditions and yet with an eye to the creativity and resourcefulness of different branches of Buddhadharma.

Jamyang Khyentse also saw that the Dharma would come to the West. He told not long before he passed away: ‘From now on, the Buddhadharma will spread further, in the West.’

Looking now at the sheer impact that the Dharma has already had on the mainstream of Western life, one can only marvel at the number of different areas of American culture which have been touched by Buddhist influence, and which are very familiar now to us all: serving the dying and hospice care; mind/body medicine and healing; the world of psychology and therapy; the arts and education (Naropa Institute); movements for peace and non-violence; and, not to forget, in the case of Tibetan Buddhism, Hollywood and the movie industry! .

The various Buddhist lineages have established themselves in one way or another in America, and many wonderful expressions of Buddhist-inspired action have emerged under the banner of Engaged Buddhism. I know how much Jamyang Khyentse – and all the masters of the Rime tradition, if they were here – would have appreciated and applauded them.

Two Ways to Present the Dharma

His Holiness the Dalai Lama has been pointing out that there are two ways to present the Dharma today.

One is to offer the teachings, in the spirit of Buddhism, without any notion of exclusivity or conversion, but as openly and as widely as possible, to he of service to people everywhere, of any background or faith. Since the heart of the Buddhadharma, the essential View, is so very practical, simple and yet profound, it can enrich and deepen anyone’s understanding, regardless of what spiritual path he or she might follow.

The second way is to present the teachings for those who have a serious wish to follow the Dharma so that they can pursue a complete and thorough path, in whichever tradition. We must never forget that the uniqueness and great strength of the Dharma is that it is a complete spiritual path, with a pure, living lineage, unbroken to this day, and if we lose that, we have lost everything.
I see the Dalai Lama’s statement as a blueprint for us all in the twenty-first century, and crucial for the survival of authentic Buddhism.

Some Concerns

How will Buddhism in the future find the way to make its fullest contribution towards the transformation of society? And yet how can we avoid it being absorbed and neutralised by its encounter with the contemporary world, so that it is reduced to yet another tool with which to numb us, conscripted and ‘integrated’ into Western society?

Where will the popularity of Buddhism lead? Are we witnessing the conversion of Buddhism into a product, something which is quick and easy to master and which ignores the patient discipline and application that is really needed on the Buddhist path, as on any other spiritual path?

In trying to make Buddhism palatable to American tastes and fashions, are we subtly editing or rewriting the teachings of Buddha?

Understanding and Change

Take the issue of making changes and adaptation, for example. It is time now, I feel, to present the essence of the teachings, without cultural paraphernalia, and yet without compromising the force or edge of the Dharma, while at the same time offering something appropriate for the conditions and mentality of modem Western people. This is the challenge. Not to remain too rigidly traditional but to adapt in an authentic manner.

In Tibet, there were exceptional Indian masters and Tibetan translators present to inspire the full integration of the teachings in a Tibetan setting, even the title ‘translator’ (lotsawa) had a much deeper significance then than it does now. It was a term of great respect, implying a profound understanding; Milarepa’s master Marpa, for example, was called ‘Marpa the translator’.

This is what we need too authentic translators, who have the discernment, in making the translation to create an appropriate form without ever losing the essence. Whatever our concerns about the manner in which Dharma is presented, as far as the future is concerned, the overriding need is for us to deepen our understanding and experience of the Dharma. To put it simply: to make changes we need an extremely clear understanding of the teachings; it’s a question of a very subtle, profound translation.

His Holiness the Dalai Lama has observed that there are aspects of the tradition which are due to geography, time and culture and which will change as conditions differ; but there are many other aspects which are a compassionate, skilful manifestation of wisdom based on an inherent truth. So when things become complex and difficult, we must take extra care not to throw out the baby with the bathwater.

In my heart of hearts it has always been my deepest wish to find ways to transmit the Dharma for the present-day world, and it has been, and remains, a constant process of learning: from my teachers, from the teachings and from my own students.

However, one thing I have observed is that when, through study, practice and integration, a student of the Dharma does arrive at real and full understanding, then they become a vessel for the Dharma, and they begin to have the ‘wisdom of discernment’. I pray that this wisdom of discernment may grow among practitioners of the Dharma and their understanding will become so complete that when adaptations are made, they will quite naturally be appropriate.

At any rate, the challenge of our time is to steer a course between the standards of tradition and the perceived demands of a new situation. This is no easy task, and it is a dangerous and precarious one. Decisions we take now could have very far-reaching consequences in the future. And yet we must meet this challenge, striking a fine balance between creative daring and sober caution, but at the right pace, as the Dalai Lama has advised, and with the right understanding.

Sogyal Rinpoche, Permalink

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