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."
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
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 --
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.
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
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
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
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
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
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."
While many Westerners are learning Buddhism, their predominantly Asian
teachers are learning to adapt to the mores of the West.
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 Gyatso. Also 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
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
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
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
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
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
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.
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.
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
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