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Home » Discussion » "Toward a Western Buddhism and Contemporary Dharma" by Lama Surya Das

"Toward a Western Buddhism and Contemporary Dharma" by Lama Surya Das

26 April 2010

What is important? The past is past; the future is important.We are the creators. The future is in our hands. Even if we fail, no regrets. We have to make the effort . . . to contribute to others rather than to convert others. Motivated always by the altruistic bodhicitta, you in the West should be creative in adapting the timeless essence of the Dharma to your own cultural times and circumstances.
— His Holiness the Dalai Lama

In the 1970s, I went to Asia, learned the Tibetan language, and haunted monasteries in the Himalayas for ten years, accosting innumerable lamas with questions and requests for teachings. When I returned to this country, I only came as far as helping to establish a Tibetan monastery in Woodstock, New York, and then turned right around and lived for nine more years in a cloistered Tibetan retreat center in the forests of southern France.

When I first left the United States, I could not have imagined that by the time I returned twenty years later, the Dharma would have fully arrived in the West. My first inkling of this occurred during a short visit back to America in the late seventies. At a family gathering, I had a conversation with my great uncle Max, who was born “in the old country,” as he put it. At the advice of his physician, he had taken up meditation—twenty minutes every morning and night. He had learned how to meditate at a local “Y” in Brooklyn.

“I can’t live without it, Jeffrey,” he said to me in his middle European accent. “Now I understand what you have been doing for all these years.” My great uncle Max was an unlikely harbinger of the future.

One of the best examples of the spread of Buddhist philosophy in the West is found in the work of Jon Kabat-Zinn who has taken the meditative practice of mindfulness out of the religious setting into the health and healing field, where it has proven effective in dealing with chronic pain and stress. Who but the enlightened Buddha could have imagined a time when mainstream medical doctors would regularly prescribe meditation as a treatment for a wide range of medical problems including stress, asthma, hypertension, and migraines? Who could have imagined the extensive, meaningful work being done in conscious dying at Western hospices and hospitals? Who could have imagined that yoga, tai chi, and meditation would be taught at the local “Y,” synagogue, church, senior facility, and adult ed class? Who could have imagined flourishing spiritual bookstores and bookclubs, graduate programs in Buddhist studies, and more than two thousand Buddhist centers in the United States alone?

Three Great Traditions, One Contemporary Western Dharma

It has often been pointed out that historically whenever Buddhism has entered a culture, it has not only changed the culture, it has also been changed by it. This is the nature of Dharma translation and transmission. The Dharma is always able to retain its essence while reinventing itself anew in order to remain applicable, accessible, and relevant.

At the first Western Buddhist Teacher’s Conference a group of Buddhist meditation teachers met in Dharamsala, India, to discuss the transmission of Dharma in the modern world. At one point during this conference, about thirty of us were sitting on chairs and couches in a circle in a room in the Dalai Lama’s one-story house. Outside the windows we could see the towering white snow-clad Himalayan peaks.

At first glance, we probably appeared to be a fairly disparate group of men and women. Some of us were in sweaters and jeans, some in sports jackets and ties, some in dresses, some in Kashmiri shawls, some in traditional yellow, orange, maroon, gray, and black monastic robes. Coming from twelve Western countries, the group included senior teachers from most of the major Buddhist traditions. We came from different cultures; we had been trained in different traditions; we utilized different styles of teaching. Yet we shared much common ground.

The Dalai Lama teased us about the way we Westerners had taken up old-fashioned Asian ritual instruments, clothing, furniture, and decor. He pointed out that this was not the heart of Dharma, but mere culture that had changed in each country throughout the centuries as Buddhism moved from its homeland of India to the Himalayas, Southeast Asia, China, and Japan. He was reminding us once again that the Dharma is timeless and not culture bound. The essential truth of the Dharma, the heart of enlightenment, is not limited by the trappings of culture, language, or time.

Today, Buddhism is at a critical juncture as it encounters the West. It is no surprise that there have been formidable cultural, linguistic, political, and material barriers to overcome in the transmission of Buddha Dharma from East to West and from the past on to the present and the future. This is a transition through time as well as through space, spanning continents and oceans, from a traditional Oriental world to a scientific postmodern Western culture.

We have inherited from Asia the three major Buddhist traditions and their various offshoots. They have been translated, synthesized, and distilled into user-friendly forms here in the West, especially by teachers of the Zen, Vipassana, and Dzogchen practice lineages. Now this wisdom is undergoing the rich and fascinating phase of transformation and adaptation while we facilitate and midwife its rebirth into liberating and viable contemporary forms. At the same time, ethnic Buddhist groups have formed pockets where the Buddhist traditions of their Asian homelands are being transplanted almost intact.

Strong bridges have been built from East to West, and the Dharma has arrived in the New World. This inevitably raises all sorts of interesting questions and challenges and even a certain degree of confusion, contradiction, and paradox. This is the first time all of the extant schools of Buddhism have existed together, closely rubbing shoulders, in one place at one time.

Many of us study and practice with more than one teacher, each of whom may represent different traditions. It is conceivable that someone could attend a silent sitting group on Tuesday and a chanting or visualization group on Friday. This need not necessarily be considered superficial, dilettantish, or pop Buddhism. We in the West have the opportunity to sample various teachings and practices to see what best fits our own aspirations and interests. In the initial spiritual “shopping phase,” we can try any number of paths and techniques before settling down and committing ourselves to one practice. The social mobility in our culture can be a wonderful catalyst to the spiritual search. We each have the opportunity to choose for ourselves, to find something that resonates and connects with our experience.

We All Come to Buddhism From Different Directions

A few years ago, a sincere guy from the southern part of the United States came to be in a long-term practitioner program at a large meditation center in Massachusetts. After several months, he came for a private meeting with an instructor, and in the course of the meeting, she realized that every morning when the group chanted the three-fold refuge prayer, he had been chanting,“I take refuge in the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sun God.” But his mistake didn’t seem to matter. It hadn’t interfered with his meditation practice, which was coming along fine. If he was having a few problems with a mere matter of translation it was simply par for the course.

As Westerners we are all coming to the Three Jewels—Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha—from different directions. I think it’s fair to say that few of us learned about Buddha Dharma or meditation from our parents. As children, some of us went to Sunday school, some sang in church choirs, some studied Catholic catechism, some learned Hebrew prayers and lit Shabos candles, some were brought up in the religion of science, and some were raised in families where God seemed to be persona non grata.

We didn’t come from a monolithic culture where everybody used the same chants and knew the same prayers. We weren’t born and raised in countries where everyone had the same images, ancestors, icons, and holy days. Small wonder that occasionally we get confused. We are part of the encounter between East and West and although the essential truth, the kernel of the Dharma, retains its integrity, the husk continues to evolve and change.

Although there are different views on this, one of the most interesting things about Buddhist spirituality is that it does not necessarily require that you immediately abandon your current faith or the faith of your ancestors. Kalu Rinpoche said that you could take refuge in the Three Jewels, practice Buddhism, and get results without necessarily renouncing an earlier faith or belief system. And, in fact, today many people have a Buddhist meditation practice such as mindfulness or zazen without identifying themselves as Buddhists.

I personally had to sift through many forms and varieties of the teachings before I could really appreciate the essence of Dharma within myself and in our own culture. I had to learn foreign languages, take ordination, shave my head, wear monastic robes, live abroad in monasteries, and learn to practice all the many rites and rituals of Tibetan Buddhism until finally finding the distilled heart-essence of the Dharma in the Dzogchen teachings. However, within that framework I discovered that finding my own practice actually required that I synthesize and streamline what I found most useful and applicable from different traditions, including my intellectual roots here in the West. My own makeup actually required this synthesis; I could not do otherwise. I am an American, and I am a Buddhist. This is our Western karma.

Looking Forward

I believe deeply that we must find, all of us together, a new spirituality. This new concept ought to be elaborated alongside the religions in such a way that all people of good will could adhere to it.
- His Holiness the Dalai Lama

Today I see a great need for us to be very forward rather than backward-looking in our approach to spirituality. To be torchbearers in a benighted and violent world we need to collaborate harmoniously, effectively, and with a spirit of mutual respect, genuine understanding, and openness. We need to keep to the high ground and remain honest, ethical, humane, and even lighthearted—not taking ourselves too seriously. We need to be willing to go beyond routine thinking.

There have been three waves of Buddhist transmission in the West represented by three generations of Dharma teachers. The first group were the Asian-born teachers, who were mainly traditional in their approach. They introduced meditation and related practices as well as personally instructing Western disciples, both in the West and in Asia. The second wave was the generation of Western Buddhist teachers who trained under these teachers. Their task was to further translate the Buddhist words, concepts, and forms of practice for transmission to Western students in their own countries. Now beginning to emerge are the first generation of Dharma teachers who have trained solely in the West under the guidance of Western teachers.

Some people from other cultures are proud that they have maintained much of their cultural identity; others have eagerly adapted and assimilated.We are bringing about a synthesized or an amalgamated Dharma distilled from the best of what has been transmitted to us from the past and from Asia. Added into this Dharma mix is what is most useful from our own modern experience. This is a present day version of what the Buddha himself termed “Ekayana”—the single great way of awakening—when he referred to all of his teachings as a whole. It is one Dharma, one coherent liberating path to enlightenment.

To be contemporary, we can’t ignore that our modern landscape is much influenced by democratic principles, ecology, feminist thought, civil rights, psychotherapy, entrepreneurship, and reformist religious movements. Protestantism altered Christianity without abandoning it; Reform Judaism loosened many of the restrictions of Orthodox Judaism while retaining the core of the Jewish tradition. Something similar is happening to the Buddha Dharma. I think these are mainly positive developments, revitalizing Dharma with a fitting new Western design. It’s like good California wines made from transplanted European grapevines. One of the main tasks of contemporary Western teachers is to stabilize both the study and practice of Buddhist Dharma and to provide leadership in further integrating wholesome Dharma values, Buddhist lifestyles, and contemplative practices into the mainstream of our postmodern society.

We owe it to ourselves to carry on the Dharma in a sane way. We must keep the spirit, the very heart of the Dharma alive while not being afraid to let outmoded forms die and be reborn in accordance with current conditions. Each of us can give birth to a Buddha! This is Do-It-Yourself-Dharma, as the Buddha indicated.

Ten Emerging Trends

For a number of years now, I have been observing religious trends and the transplantation of Asian Buddhism into the fertile fields of the Western world. From my particular vantage point, I observe what I call ten trends in Western Buddhism or American Dharma. Speaking of the emerging Western Buddhism, there are many colorful, smaller threads woven into the larger tapestry. There seem to be groups variously emphasizing monastic Buddhism, lay Buddhism, ethnic Buddhism, meditation Buddhism, chanting Buddhism, ritualistic Buddhism and bare bones Buddhism; there is mystical Buddhism and practical Buddhism, academic Buddhism, therapeutic Buddhism, intellectual Buddhism, as well as anti-intellectual, no-mind Buddhism. Some people are attracted to hermitage and retreat Buddhism, congregational Buddhism, socially engaged Buddhism, missionary Buddhism, health and healing oriented Buddhism, upper-middle path Buddhism, Jewish Buddhism, Christian Zen Buddhism, vegetarian Buddhism, pacificist Buddhism, tantric Crazy Wisdom Buddhism, Beat Buddhism, eclectic, New Age, and roll-your-own Buddhism, to name a few. The Vietnamese Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh said, “The forms of Buddhism must change so that the essence of Buddhism remains unchanged. This essence consists of living principles that cannot bear any specific formulation.”

In The Awakening of the West: The Encounter of Buddhism and Western Culture, Stephen Batchelor writes, “Buddhism cannot be said to be any of the following: a system of ethics, philosophy, or psychology; a religion, a faith, or a mystical experience; a devotional practice, a discipline of meditation, or a psychotherapy. Yet it can involve all these things.”

Like him I know there is really no such thing as Buddhism; there are only Buddhists. When I speak of the ten trends in Western Buddhism, I therefore do so with certain reservations, not the least among them that I am primarily emphasizing meditation practice groups. Remember, these are emerging trends, and there is still a way to go to fulfill this vision.

Trend #1. Meditation-based and Experientially Oriented
As Westerners, we typically come to Buddhism for meditation and contemplation in an attempt to improve our quality of life. We want to bring more mindfulness to what we do. We are usually attracted to Buddhism not through academia but because we want personal transformation, direct religious experience, and we want to integrate wisdom, goodness, and compassion into our daily lives. The Dharma is not just something we believe in, but something we do.

Trend #2. Lay-oriented
Although there is certainly room for traditional monasticism—both short- and long-term—Buddhism in the West is obviously much more lay-oriented than it has been historically. Practitioners are now bringing personal issues of relationships, family, and work to the Dharma center in an effort to make more sense out of life.

Trend #3. Gender Equal
In an effort to go beyond traditional patriarchal structures and cultures, we have already made great strides in supporting women as well as men in teaching and leadership roles. There are more and more women teachers, and they are providing some of the finest teaching. Gender equality remains an ideal, but one that seems reachable. We all—male and female—have an opportunity to refine our more feminine aspects and practice a Buddhism in which we keep the heart and mind balanced, respectful of both body and soul. We are trying to learn from the past so as not to unwittingly repeat the mistakes of others.

Trend # 4. Democratic and Egalitarian
Western Buddhism needs to become Western wisdom. As might be anticipated, it is evolving in a much less institutionalized, less hierarchichal, and more democratic fashion. Almost by definition, personal growth and the interests of the individual are going to be stressed more than institutional preservation and growth.

Trend #5. Essentialized, Simplified, and Demystified
For the most part, noticeably absent from Western Buddhism are the complex, esoteric rites and arcane rituals designed for initiates only. Western teachers stress essence more than form, as well as teachings that are relevant for daily life. It is thus practical and this world oriented, rather than otherworldly and hermetic, with great emphasis on integrating Dharma practice via mindfulness and compassion into daily life.

Trend #6. Nonsectarian
Most Westerners seem to have a true appreciation for many different meditation techniques and traditions. We have seen how politics, the quest for power, and sectarian bias have created chaos within various religious communities. We understand it is essential that we strive diligently not to fall into those same traps. As practitioners, we are generally interested in broadening and deepening our experience of the various different Buddhist spiritual practices. I think it is safe to say that there is a true appreciation of the benefits of nonsectarianism, ecumenicism, and cross-fertilization. In fact, many teachers are already synthesizing the best of the various traditions into the one amalgamated Western Dharma that seems inevitable. American karma is our great melting pot. We have to live with that and make the most of it.

Trend #7. Psychologically Astute
There is a growing appreciation for explaining Buddhist principles within the idiom of transformational psychology. Faith and devotion are important and useful for some, but the larger appeal is to the individual’s spiritual development and psychological and emotional well-being. Dharma students are encouraged to bring spirituality into their lives as opposed to using spirituality as a way of avoiding personal issues. We are working on ourselves, and there are any number of interdisciplinary tools and methods. Psychotherapy and Buddhism are most often taken as complementary.

Trend # 8. Exploratory
In line with our scientific and skeptical upbringing, questioning and inquiry are encouraged. We are striving to be dynamic and forward-looking instead of mere preservationists. I see contemporary Dharma as basically a Buddhism without beliefs, a Dharma that’s less doctrinaire, dogmatic, and belief-based while being much more inquiring, skeptical, rational, and devoted to testing and finding out for ourselves. Western Dharma is trying to stretch beyond dogma, insularity, and fundamentalist thinking.

Trend # 9. Community Oriented
Through our shared spiritual, ethical, and educational interests, we are strengthening and building our spiritual community as well as our connections to each other. There is a great emphasis on the needs of the sangha in the sense of the larger community instead of individual priests and leaders. One day Ananda asked the Buddha,“Is it true that the Sangha, the community of spiritual friends, is half of the holy life?” Buddha answered,“No, Ananda, the Sangha community is the whole of holy life.”

Spiritual friends, spiritual friendships, and simple friendliness—this is the holy life. Here in the West where more and more people are expressing their personal needs for spiritual growth, it is the the challenge of the sangha today to provide spiritual encouragement and a loving, supportive, nourishing environment for generations to come.

Trend # 10. Socially and Ecologically Conscious
Gandhi once said,“Those who say that religion has nothing to do with politics do not understand religion.” Increasingly as Buddhists we are attempting to extend our sense of social and moral responsibility to include others, particularly those who are suffering from various injustices and deprivations. We are also searching for ways to express our deep concern for the natural world. The contemporary lay sangha is like an interdisciplinary “Lobby for Wisdom and Compassion.” This differs dramatically from the image of the traditional reclusive monk, who is often isolated and out of touch with the problems of the world.

The Dharma is very suited to a Western way of life. It need not be complicated, mysterious, or fancy. Buddha Dharma is ordinary life including everything from meditation to relationship yoga and parenting practice. Among other things, it involves itself with the body-mind connection, which might well include suggestions like eating right, exercising right, and having a sense of humor. One of my teachers, the late Dudjom Rinpoche, once said,“The Dharma is not fancy. It’s like blue jeans: good for every occasion, every day. It’s good for work. It’s good for school. You can wear blue jeans to a wedding, to ride horses, anytime.”


Virtuous Reality: Finding Your Own Practice Path

When the Buddha is gone, look to the Dharma as your teacher. Make the practice your teacher. The Dharma and the Sangha will be your teacher.
-- The Buddha Speaking to His Disciples

Many of the issues in contemporary Dharma concern the student teacher relationship. I regularly hear the same kinds of questions from people who are trying to establish a meditation practice and a more spiritually fulfilling lifestyle. Do I need a teacher? What kind of teacher do I need? Should I become part of a group? Where should I look for spiritual guidance? What is the appropriate role of the teacher?

Practical questions such as these are very relevant. When you choose a teacher or join a spiritual group you have a unique opportunity. These people with whom you will chant, meditate, and study will become part of your spiritual family. What kind of family will you choose? We need to be very aware of these issues in developing a sane Western Dharma, which I like to think of as a virtuous reality.

At one time seekers walked the path to enlightenment. Today we seem to be running. This is all the more reason why we need to keep our eyes peeled. We must conscientiously cultivate selfawareness, and we need to be very conscious of possible pitfalls, potholes, and problems that might deter us along the way. Otherwise we could easily be blindsided by the shadow of our own unconscious behavior, setting ourselves up for disappointment and even disillusionment. Searching for a teacher, a group and a practice requires both discernment and common sense. There is a quote from the Buddha that I have often relied on:

Do not believe in anything simply because you have heard it.
Do not believe in traditions because they have been handed down for many generations.
Do not believe in anything because it is spoken and rumored by many.
Do not believe in anything simply because it is found written in your religious books.
Do not believe in anything merely on the authority of your teachers and elders.
But after observation and analysis, when you find that anything agrees with reason, and is conducive to the good and benefit of one and all, then accept it and live up to it.
- The Buddha

This is a very powerful teaching that has come to us. Those of us who have been involved with the Dharma over a period of time have seen these words written so many times that we tend to take them for granted. I think it’s important that we pay careful attention to the Buddha’s advice; we need not only to remember his guidelines but also to respect others when they are being cautious and skeptical in making steps toward finding their own authentic spirituality.

Choosing A Spiritual Group or Teacher

Students often ask me what they should look for or avoid. In general, I think everyone should be wary of joining groups that control behavior, thinking, emotions, or the right of individuals to question the leadership, the teachings, or the organizational policies. If information is tightly controlled, new students may be in for some unhappy surprises. Let’s not forget that destructive cults sometimes masquerade as religious groups—like wolves in sheep’s clothing.

More specifically, here are some things to consider:

1. If you’re becoming a part of a spiritual group, don’t give your power away too quickly to authority figures, thus disempowering and perhaps even infantilizing yourself. Don’t become overly dependent on leaders; be aware and wary of projection, over-idealization, transference, and placing charismatic teachers and masters on too high a pedestal. We should not naively imagine that leaders are all-knowing, infallible, and omnipotent parent figures. Once again, the Buddha himself said:

Rely not on the teacher [person], but on the teaching.
Rely not on the words of the teaching, but on the spirit of the words.
Rely not on theory, but on experience.

2. Be wary of exotic gurus and leaders who make fantastic promises, claim fabulous powers, or expect blind obedience.

3. Take a long hard look at any teacher or group leader where there is even the slightest scent of self-serving conflicts of interest and misuses of power, sex, money, or intoxicants. Instead seek out teachers who practice what they preach.

4. When you are considering joining a sangha or being part of a spiritual group, be alert to prejudice or bigotry, self-righteousness, “group think,” double standards, and an atmosphere that encourages inner circles, secrets, and white lies.

5. Walk away from any group that tries to separate you from your family or friends or exhibits cultlike behavior. Danger signs of spiritual blight include demands of unquestioning adherence to the party line; any indication that you will be asked to harm yourself or others; use of threats, curses, excommunication, and hellfire to people who consider leaving the group; attempts to control your behavior and your finances.

In order to discover your own path, you may find it very helpful to read spiritual books, to cruise the bookstores, libraries, and friends’ bookshelves. You can look at reading lists compiled by teachers, and access Buddhist Websites for recommended reading lists and discussion groups. Find what resonates with your personal needs. Go to lectures; sample introductory meditation classes and events at different spiritual centers. Let’s appreciate the banquet of Dharma now available to us all. Often it helps to attend some weekend meditation workshops or residential retreats. Use your own discriminating mind, and trust your heart and your intuition. In short, follow your nose.

When choosing a teacher, don’t be overly attracted to grandiose titles, church titles, past-life résumés, or any form of hyperbolic advertising. Even if these highly advertised masters or teachings are the greatest, perhaps someone more like yourself would be most helpful to you during the initial stages. You don’t need a Nobel Prize–winning physicist to teach you arithmetic; such a person may even teach over your head instead of providing the basics you need. Keep in mind that the teachers’ main purpose is not to be brilliant, entertaining, or fascinating. A teacher should be judged by different standards than a performer who plays to an audience.

Buddhism’s purpose is to provide us with tools and techniques that we need, which is perhaps not always what we think we
want. Whatever group or teacher you may become involved with, check them out for a good while before irrevocably committing yourself to anything. The Dalai Lama has said, “Why not learn from everyone as much as you can, wherever you can? Go and listen to ordinary instructors, taking what you find useful and leaving the rest. But if you’re considering taking on a certain teacher as a guru, check them out meticulously for many years before signing your life away. Spy on them!” I have found this to be very good advice.

As Dharma students, let’s not forget that Truth itself—Reality-Dharma—is our teacher. If and when we find it well-embodied in anyone, let’s not overlook the opportunity to learn. In fact,we can learn from just about anyone. Chuang Tsu said that we can learn as much from the fools as the wise. From the fools we learn what not to do; from the wise we learn what to do and how to be.

Traditionally there are various kinds of teachers: the guru, the elder, the instructor, the spiritual friend. In the West, other kinds are emerging as well, like the coach, the mentor, the workshop leader, and the facilitator, who often acts as a role model for us instead of as an all-powerful, all-knowing guru. Devotional practice has its value, and I myself have benefited from a devotional relationship to my Tibetan gurus, but what Western students often need today is simply someone to midwife their spiritual transformation, rather than to make them into disciples and followers. We don’t have to subscribe to a teacher forever. With the practice itself as our teacher, we spiritual seekers can retain our autonomy and responsibility and discover for ourselves a path of infinite possibility.

Examining Your Own Motivations

I also think it’s reasonable for us to spend a certain amount of time in self-examination, checking out our own motivations and impulses. 

Some questions to keep in mind:

1. Are we genuinely trying to follow the Buddha’s example of the Middle Way—balancing wisdom with compassion as we walk the spiritual path?

2. Are we in any way overindulging a fascination with extraordinary experiences and special, spiritual states of mind? In this way, are we running the risk of becoming an experience junkie or bliss addict?

3. Do we sometimes fall prey to bouts of superficiality, dilettantism, diluted Dharma Lite, instant-coffee mind—seeking instant enlightenment without sacrifice, training, sincere efforts, or relinquishing anything?

4. When we choose a teacher or a group, are we unconsciously trying to fit in by reproducing the situation in our family of origin? Are we acting like the child, trying to be the favorite daughter or son? Are we trying to manipulate ourselves into some kind of special relationship?

5. Is there any unhealthy way in which we are using spiritual practice to withdraw from the world? Are we engaged in excessive quietism, avoidance, hiding out, self-denial, and self-suppression?

6. Are we stunting personal growth and a genuinely significant life in an attempt to attain exalted spiritual states? Again, let’s never forget that the Dharma is about clear vision—and a love of life in all its infinite forms.

7. Are we sometimes overly motivated by ambition to rise in the religious hierarchy—instead of truly trying to loosen the grip of ego and its selfish dominion?

8. Are we guilty of the Shangri-La Syndrome: naively idealizing foreign cultures as magically perfect and far superior to ours in every way? (No, the grass is not greener on the other side of the fence, and enlightenment is not shinier on the other side of the world.)

9. Are we using too much head at the expense of heart? Are we merely thinking about and studying Buddhism rather than fully feeling, experiencing, integrating, and assimilating the soulful healing message of Dharma?

10. Are we ourselves sometimes given to spiritual pride, hypocrisy, and arrogance? Are we truly softening up our hardened, recalcitrant nature, or just paying lip service while reinforcing our own ego needs?

Expect to Have Questions

As students of truth, we shouldn’t be afraid to question anything—from the teachers to the teachings. The Dharma isn’t fragile; it can withstand scrutiny. I am very grateful to my teachers. They were very kind to me, like second parents. And I have a lot of faith in both my teachers and the teachings. However, I asked them a lot of questions. Kalu Rinpoche used to call me “The Ocean of Questions.” When I lived in his Sonada Monastery in Darjeeling in the mid-seventies, when he said after a Dharma talk, “Are there any questions?” he knew where to look first in the crowd. One day I asked, “Rinpoche, is it okay to ask so many questions?” He replied,“Ask all your questions. Then one day you will know.”

Anticipate Road Bumps

Be aware of the tendency to give up too early because you have problems getting comfortable with meditation. Eventually you can get used to it or find a better sitting position. Perhaps you’ll find that meditating in a chair instead of a cross-legged position is better for you in the long run.

I think it’s important that new students don’t give in to the “comparing mind syndrome” of looking around and thinking
everyone else is “getting it” while you are not. In group meditation, it sometimes seems to the beginner as though everyone else looks like a Buddha while you’re sitting there feeling distracted out of your mind. In fact, they may very well be distracted too; even the leader in front may be struggling with distraction or sleepiness. Why compare? Each of us is like a flower in God’s garden, blossoming in our own time and in our own way, each in different seasons of our physical and spiritual life. Each of us has been given a special gift—just for entering. So remember, you are already a winner.

When we start to practice Buddhism, it may not be exactly what we expected. Try not to be easily swayed if it doesn’t always go exactly as planned. The spiritual path is not just a straight ascending road to happiness; there are many bumps and rises and dips on the road. Things may get more difficult before they become more coherent and tranquil. A great deal depends on what you’ve been ignoring in yourself. Some things inevitably must come up in order for you to know yourself and free yourself.

The spiritual path isn’t always a joyride; it can be like a roller coaster. Don’t stop with the cheap thrills—go for long lasting fulfillment. Stick to it through the rainy days and the barren deserts and the feeling of being stuck on a plateau of development. It’s often said that the brighter the light glows, the deeper and darker the shadow becomes. The shadows are always inseparable from the light. They come from light; they are light. Constancy and perseverance pay off. Furthermore, life is much like photography: You use the negative to develop.

On the spiritual path, we are unraveling the tight straitjacket that is the cocoon of ego. We are threatening ego’s dominion over us. It’s like when we squeeze a wet bar of soap and it suddenly squirts out of our hands. Ego is a slippery fellow, intent on survival at all costs. If we don’t squeeze it, it’s glad to just sit there as ruler of our domain. When practice heats up, the ego can become like the squeezed soap bar, and things can become a little confusing. That’s when we really need to maintain the bigger perspective that is such an important part of the process. It is during these times that sangha practice, spiritual friends, and experienced teachers can be most helpful.

Ushering In The Future

Whatever you can do or imagine, begin it;
boldness has beauty, magic, and power in it.
- Goethe

Each of us is like a jeweled star in the universal constellation called the greater Sangha, the complete circle of all beings. We are modern mystics—living in monasteries without walls. The entire planet is our heaven on earth. Instead of being overly dependent on anyone else, we must be the leaders and seers. We must take the lead and see for ourselves. We must pick up our meditation cushions and walk.

Here in the West, as we renew ourselves through the Dharma, the Dharma is also being renewed. We are the elders now. Let’s remember that we are the ancestors of generations to come. This is no small responsibility. Yet we can manage to wear it lightly. The Dharma is a gift, a present we can give ourselves. As a sage of old said, “If not you, who? And if not now, when?”

The summit of Mt. Everest is made of marine limestone; once upon a time it was part of the ocean floor. Awakening is simply a matter of spiritual evolution. Practice is perfect. What we seek we are. As the Buddha said,“Help yourself.”

Lama Surya Das is a Buddhist teacher and authorized Dzogchen lineage holder in the Tibetan tradition. He is the bestselling author of many books, including Awakening the Buddha Within: Tibetan Wisdom for the Western World; founder of the Western Buddhist Teachers Network with the Dalai Lama; a poet and translator; and has twice completed the traditional three year meditation retreat. Spiritual Director of the Dzogchen Center in Massachetts and Austin, Texas, he leads retreats and seminars year round and has long been active in charitable third world causes. His websites are www.surya.org and www.dzogchen.org.

 

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