The Future of Buddhism, part 2

Understanding and Change
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. 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 modern, western people. This is the challenge. Not to remain too rigidly traditional, but to adapt in an authentic manner; neither to hurry too much nor to wait too long; but to strike a middle way.


Of course, it is easy enough to adapt and make changes, but in my case what has always held me back has been the need I have felt to be absolutely certain that the result will be truly Dharma, in every way. For once we create a form, the tendency is for the form to stick, and then prove very difficult to change.

In Tibet, 1200 years ago when the teachings of Indian Buddhism were being transplanted, there were exceptional Indian mast
ers and Tibetan translators present to inspire the full integration of the teachings in a Tibetan setting, and to strike the right balance between maintaining the integrity of the teachings and channelling them into the bedrock of Tibetan culture and the Tibetan psyche. I sometimes wonder whether we today have the same qualities as they did!

Even the title ‘translator’ (lotsawa) had a much deeper significance then than it does now, and 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 scholars, like those Indian panditas and great Tibetan translators, who have the discernment, in making the translation, to create an appropriate form, but without ever losing the essence. 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.

Suppose, for example, we alight upon some aspects of the teachings which seem inconvenient and we assume they are cultural paraphernalia. How can we be sure we are not making a huge mistake, and they might be in fact an integral part of the teaching? We talk of cultural paraphernalia from the East, but in approaching the Buddhadharma, we of course bring with us the cultural preconceptions of the West, which may be even harder to identify or dissolve.

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.

Not that I am for simply preserving some ‘old tradition’. 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. So, even an essential presentation or a simple explanation of the teachings we make now must not in future turn out to have put limits on understanding or impeded the fullness of the Dharma. Wisdom, insight, experience, realization—all of these we need—and especially skilful means.

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.

Whenever I consider introducing some important change, I always consult my masters, so I can be sure to avoid the pitfall of merely putting ‘my’ seal on the teaching.

In my mind, for the years to come, the issues of paramount importance will be: the thoroughness of training; the authenticity of the Dharma in both teaching and practice; and the support of the Sangha. In a way, they evoke, respectively, the principles of Buddha, Dharma and Sangha.

I. Training
Buddhadharma is in the West, and it is not the preserve or monopoly of any Asian group. There is a saying in Tibetan: “The Dharma is no-one’s property; it belongs to whoever has the true knowledge.” Westerners are, will be, and must be, holders of these traditions, yet it is not simply an issue of authorization, but of training, or education.  I know that many masters in the Tibetan tradition are concerned over the quality of training these days. They say that a monk venerated today as a doctor of philosophy in the exile community in India can in fact be far less well-trained than someone trained in the same studies in Tibet in the past. If this is the case in India, they ask, then what does it say about the standard of training in the West?

The great question these days is how, in a turbulent, fast-paced, and restless world, students can find ways to train in and practise the teachings with the calm and steady consistency they will need to realize their truth. In the past, people stayed in one place and followed a master almost all their lives—look at Milarepa, serving Marpa for years before he left him to practise on his own, or in our time the great Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche, who served and stayed by my master Jamyang Khyentse for years. It requires a continuous transmission, and there is no substitute or alternative to consistency and stability.

Even in my own work, I have seen how, when students devote themselves to training the mind and working with themselves over time, and in a special environment, they can achieve remarkable results.

From the traditional point of view, the training is tailored to whether a person wants to become a practitioner, or a scholar, or a teacher, but whichever it is, there must be a solid grounding in the basic Dharma teaching. The main points, the heart of the teaching, must be instilled in the student’s mind so that he or she will never forget them. For example: refraining from harm, the crux of the Fundamental Vehicle; developing a good heart, the essence of the Mahayana; and pure perception, the heart of the Vajrayana.

Equally there must be a good grounding in

  • meditation practice
  • training in compassion
  • understanding the nature of mind

In my work, over the years, I have found how important it is for students to establish this basis in the Dharma, and really come to some inner understanding, in the right kind of environment. This they need to return to, again and again, whilst at the same time continuing, with different kinds of support, and following a graduated path of study and practice, where they accomplish whatever they can, on the level they are on.

The most appropriate approach is the Mengak Nyongtri Chenpo, the method of Patrul Rinpoche, from the Dzogchen lineage, where the master applies the training to the experience of the student. The traditional requirements of the practice can, in some ways, be adapted to the student’s experience.

To pass on the teachings of Buddha is a tremendous responsibility and demands us always to examine our own motivation. One of my teachers, Nyoshul Khen Rinpoche, told me someone once asked him: “What are the qualities needed to be a Dharma teacher?” He replied: “To have a pure motivation.” The prime concern of Tibetan masters will always be that 1) the source of the transmission is pure, and 2) the motivation to teach is pure—the bodhisattva ideal. The key qualities in a Dharma practitioner which I know a teacher will always look for, with an eye to the continuity of the lineage, are that he or she is a good human being: reliable, genuine, with their basic character and being tamed by the Dharma teaching itself, and with their motivation being one of bodhichitta. The Dalai Lama has warned: “Too many people have the Dharma only on their lips. Instead of using the Dharma to destroy their own negative thoughts, they regard the Dharma as a possession and themselves as the owner.” At all costs, a teacher must avoid failing the Buddhadharma with his or her own limitations, ego and personal agenda.

Reproduced from 'The Future of Buddhism' by Sogyal Rinpoche with kind permission of Rider Books, Ebury Press.