Challenges with bringing the Dharma to the West

After some years of studying, receiving empowerments, and being close to the masters in India and Nepal, in particular my main Lama, the Gyalwa Karmapa Ogyen Trinley Dorje, I went back to the West with his blessing. At first, I came to live in New York, at Karma Triyana Dharma Chakra, the Gyalwa Karmapa’s main seat in North America, where I served as the assistant shrine keeper.

After receiving an invitation of a Dharma organization in Malmö, Sweden, I accepted their request and moved there as their teacher in residence.

During these first couple of years that I was back in the West, I embarked on an ongoing investigation in how to apply and live the Dharma most beneficially. That investigation is continuing.

My mind was soon filled with questions like, “Where do we find the motivation today to uphold the Buddha’s teachings in a society that is filled with values and ways of life that are not always so helpful?” “How do we go from a place filled with encouragement for self-indulgence to a shared space of basic sanity?”

The process of investigation became an indispensable part of both my own and our collective progression towards a more awakened, compassionate, and wiser state of being. As a part of our culture, many Westerners come from a perspective that is highly suspicious of orthodoxy and religion. This makes hierarchical, medieval patriarchy such as the system that has been developed within Vajrayana Buddhism even more impossible to digest for many Western spiritual seekers. This skeptic approach can paradoxically be a strength when approaching the Buddha Dharma as many of our masters are emphasizing the foundation of studying the Buddhist teachings based not on faith alone, but also a rigorous investigation, just like a merchant of gold who buys the gold only after a thorough analysis of its purity.

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Buddhism appeals to this rationality by challenging ingrained ideas about death, suffering, happiness, and the nature of mind. Still, when we study with traditionally trained Tibetan masters, we often find that the teachings are intertwined with cultural assumptions that do not fit neatly with a strictly rational perspective and other Western-oriented perspectives. Here in the West individualistic needs and opinions usually come before community building and prioritizing the power of the collective, which is quite the opposite to the traditional Eastern habituation. These different standpoints create a fertile field for cultural clashes to arise. Applying rigorous inquiry to traditional Eastern Buddhist teachings is therefore more delicate than it might appear, and a lot is yet to be done to create a harmonious bridge.

There is a growing interest in Buddhism among the general public in the West. This has come about primarily through the popularization of Buddhist philosophy and core values, such as the seventh branch of the Noble Eightfold Path, mindfulness, along with many psychologists who are turning to Buddhism to find sustainable ways of caring for our mental health. This has also led to an increase in the confusion that may arise when students don’t know the broader perspective of the Buddha’s wisdom teachings, nor how to develop a healthy approach to their lama and monastic sangha. Students may be enchanted by the intriguing aura that often surrounds Tibetan lamas, and we may not have the emotional or spiritual maturity to distinguish healthy behavior from unhealthy patterns of emotional dependence. These co-created patterns are also due to teachers’ lack of bridging the Dharma from one culture to another. Western students may be seeking a “quick fix” to their problems or a spiritual experience, which may unconsciously manifest as excessive devotion to their teacher without a careful examination of the teachings or the teacher. Likewise, turning to mindfulness meditation in the same way you would go to the gym for an hour might not have such longstanding positive results. So to avoid falling into these situations of culture clash based on lack of knowledge and thereby potentially watering down the Dharma, it is crucial for both teachers and students to carefully investigate with whom we form spiritual relationships and how these relationships are carried out. We need to learn what to adopt and what not from another culture and above all how to adopt the Buddhist wisdom teachings beyond time and culture when integrating the Dharma on Western soil.

At this point, the Dharma has yet to be carefully nurtured in the West to grow into a steady and rooted tradition in our culture. We need to make a smooth bridge to our part of the world, learning from our Eastern sisters and brothers while knowing that we need to grow up. At this point there are but a few Western torchbearers out there who are keeping the light of the Dharma burning in the West. If it weren’t for them, those parts of the world would lack the compassionate and wise presence of the Buddha Dharma even more. I feel humbled at the prospect of following in the footsteps of such pragmatic and fearless heroines and heroes. My heart is yearning to keep bridging an ocean of Dharmic wisdom, art and activities into the open fields of these native grounds of ours, to be part of and to welcome a continuous blossoming for the Western Buddha Dharma altogether.

Blessed be,

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Published by Lama Chimey

Buddhist Minister, Meditation & Dharma Teacher

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