The second in a series of conferences called ‘Buddhism in America’ was held in San Diego, California, in May 1998 and attracted an audience of Buddhist practitioners, teachers and scholars. Sogyal Rinpoche was invited to give a keynote address on the future of Buddhism
Speaking on the future of Buddhism, all I can do today is to offer some thoughts and aspirations based on my own experience and observations while teaching in the West over the past twenty-five years. What I say will inevitably have much to do with the Buddhist tradition of Tibet, and yet I hope that it will hold some interest or meaning for practitioners of any tradition.
I hasten to point out, to begin with, that I am just a practitioner, doing my best to practise, simply a student of the Dharma, who’s trying, by working with myself, with the help of the teachings and my masters, to become a better human being. Let me say how honoured I am to be invited to address this conference on Buddhism in America.
Jamyang Khyentse and Rimé
Thinking about the Buddhadharma and its future, my mind turns to my master Jamyang Khyentse Chökyi Lodrö, 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 this century, the embodiment of Tibetan Buddhism, and a living proof of how someone who had realized 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, like Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche, Kalu Rinpoche, and Dezhung Rinpoche, yet he would treat everyone equally, rich or poor, high or low.
I often wonder whether the whole future of Tibetan Buddhism might not have been different had he lived longer, to inspire its growth in exile and in the West with the same authority and infinite respect for all traditions that had made him so beloved in Tibet.
Jamyang Khyentse had a vision. He was in fact the heir to the non-sectarian ‘Rimé’ movement which had swept through the eastern part of Tibet during the last century. This was a kind of spiritual renaissance, which rejected all forms of sectarian, partisan bias, encouraging 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.
I feel there is an intriguing parallel between the extra-ordinary richness of the spiritual culture of Tibet at the time of the great pioneers of this Rimé movement, like Jamyang Khyentse Wangpo and Jamgön Kongtrul, and the great variety of lineages we find in the West today. In some ways the Rimé 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 as they have settled into the American landscape. We can all inspire, help, and network with one another, yet without confusion or inappropriate mixing of our traditions.
Jamyang Khyentse also saw that the Dharma would come to the West. In Tibet there had been many prophecies, from the time of Padmasambhava onwards, that this would occur, and Jamyang Khyentse spoke of it a number of times. He told the Tibetan master Tulku Urgyen in Sikkim, not long before he passed away: “From now on, the Buddhadharma will spread further, in the West.”
Looking now at the sheer impact of the Dharma already on the mainstream of western life, one can only marvel at the range of different areas of American culture which have been touched by Buddhist influence, and which are very familiar now to us all:
- the field of serving the dying and hospice care, an area very close to my own heart;
- mind/body medicine and healing;
- the world of psychology and therapy;
- the arts and education—we only have to think of the Naropa Institute;
- interfaith dialogue and ecumenical exchange;
- the life sciences;
- movements for peace and non-violence;
- right livelihood and ethics in business;
- ecology, and so on...
- 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 think of Glassman Roshi’s Greyston Mandala, the Zen Hospice Project, the various initiatives in prisons, the work of Thich Nhat Hanh, and the Buddhist Peace Fellowship. I would like to celebrate them all, and I know how much Jamyang Khyentse—and all the masters of the Rimé tradition, if they were here—would have appreciated and applauded them.
Two Ways to Present the Dharma
In recent times, 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 be 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 intention of wanting to follow the Dharma, so that they can pursue a complete and thorough path, in whichever tradition.
What’s the relationship between these two? The first cannot happen without the second. 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 21st century, and crucial for the survival of authentic Buddhism.
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 neutralized by its encounter with the contemporary world, so that it is reduced to yet another tool to numb us, conscripted and ‘integrated’ into western society, to become simply an interesting offshoot of psychology, a branch of the New Age, or part of the health movement? Many of the Tibetan masters I know today have the same concerns and are asking themselves the same questions as western Buddhists, as we pass through this period of transition together. They also have concerns of their own. They see a number of warning signs for the future.
When we see Buddhist images on advertising hoardings, in Hollywood films and as icons of the chic, it is a testimony to the popularity of Buddhism, which can be gratifying, even exhilarating—but at the same time chilling. Because 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, like on any other spiritual path? Then what are the dangers of trying to make Buddhism too palatable for American tastes and fashions, so that we are subtly editing or re-writing the teachings of Buddha? Is there a risk of Buddhism being ‘sold’ too hard, and being too pushy, even evangelical? Commercial-style grasping seems foreign to Buddhism, where the emphasis has always been on examining ourselves. Driven by our compulsive desire for something ‘new’, what will be the long term result of seeking to put a little bit of knowledge into action too soon: rushing in too early, only in order to be productive? My feeling, and that of the masters I know, is that practicality should never take priority over the authenticity of the teachings.
Reproduced from 'The Future of Buddhism' by Sogyal Rinpoche with kind permission of Rider Books, Ebury Press.