Some Notes on Buddhism in the West  - a speech to the Karma Kagyu Meeeting in Bodh Gaya 2017

In the last five decades all the major Asian traditions of Buddhism have been growing steadily in the West. Thus, for instance, although the dharma’s presence in Western Europe and North America actually dates back to the nineteenth century, it was the beginning of the 1970’s that saw the first opening of centres dedicated to the four major Tibetan traditions.

Now there are Tibetan Buddhist centres in, more or less, every country in the West – from Russia to Argentina, and not forgetting Australasia.

The precise number of Buddhists in particular Western countries is unclear ( One should also acknowledge that there is no certainty regarding the total number of Buddhists in the world, with figures estimated at anywhere from 390 million upwards). Estimates for the United States vary from two to six million Buddhists. The most recent figures for the number of Buddhists  in the United Kingdom suggest that there are around three hundred thousand Buddhists ( a doubling in size within ten years ), while in France there are likely to be more than six hundred thousand Buddhists. In Germany, it appears that there are now five hundred thousand Buddhists. 

Alongside this growth in the number of Buddhists in the West over the last few decades, there has been an explosion of activity in translating Buddhist works in to European languages. Some of this has been carried out in Universities but, even more, has been achieved by endeavours sponsored by dharma organizations themselves. Parallel to this development, there are now Buddhist magazines and journals in many languages.  

Perhaps for us, at this Kagyu Conference, the most significant statistic is that a majority of the nine hundred institutions and centres that follow His Holiness Karmapa, according to His Holiness’ own web-site, are currently located in the Western world. It is, at least, equally important that, alongside His traditional seat in Tibet, His Holiness now has a Western seat, Dhagpo Kagyu Ling in France, and that a Karma-Kagyu nunnery and monastery under His guidance have been established in the Auvergne region.  

As to why dharma has grown in the West, one should probably begin by looking at changes in Western culture in recent times.

For nearly two millennia the dominant religious and cultural force in the West has been Christianity. However, all the evidence now points to the conclusion that it has become a minority religion in almost every Western country. Even in the United States the numbers of believers has fallen catastrophically in recent years.  

The decline of Christianity in the West began several centuries ago with the Reformation, an event that split the religion into two and, in the long run, ensured that politics and science would supplant religion in shaping most people’s attitudes. In some ways, this decline of Christianity has also created a space for Buddhism to fill. 

After all, as a non-theistic tradition founded on both reason and contemplative experience, the dharma appears well-suited to modern times and their somewhat sceptical spirit. Perhaps it is no surprise, therefore, that many in the West have indeed come to Buddhism after rejecting Christianity.

In fact, if one examines this question a little further, one might say that the dharma offers a solution to the chaos that has descended upon Western culture in four particular areas.

1.  Although the dharma is non-theistic, it has a moral seriousness  due to its teachings on karma, cause and effect and the role of moral conduct in bringing about happiness and providing a foundation for spiritual practice. This is particularly important nowadays, when, thanks to the decline of Christianity, many people are confused in regard to a variety of ethical matters. 

2.  The dharma offers profound methods of philosophical analysis and meditation by which its essential teachings can be confirmed though reasoning and direct experience rather than in reliance upon faith alone, which is a weakness for theism. 

3.  At a time when materialism regards people as mere machines, whose lives arise randomly and end without consequence, the dharma defends consciousness and the truth of past and future lives with sure reasoning.

4.  While political ideologies promise to transform the world but always make it a thousand times worse, the dharma teaches that we must begin in transforming the individual heart. Furthermore, it reminds us that, as all created things are impermanent, there is no use in dreaming that utopia can be achieved by politics. 

So one might be inclined to say that the situation of dharma in the West is presently healthy and the outlook decidedly rosy. However, there may be some difficulties for dharma that we may not have noticed or taken seriously.  

I would suggest that these problems are three-fold: 

1.  The Growing Hostility to Religion 

2.  Confusion about the Dharma   

3.  Scandals

1.   The Growing Hostility to Religion 

Despite the growth in Buddhism that we have just noted, I think that, by now, Buddhism should actually have made more progress in the West than it has. Indeed, I sometimes even wonder whether, rather than finding a home in the West, Buddhism might also find itself rejected, one day, alongside Christianity. 

Let me explain this last point a little more: most people’s alienation from Christianity nowadays is not based upon a reasoned repudiation of its teachings. More often, people’s rejection of Christianity issues from a resentment of the limitations that the religion’s ethics place upon their behaviour – behaviour, which, as Buddhists, we understand to be driven principally by desire, hatred and ignorance. Such resentment is quick to find hypocrisy in those in positions of authority, thus releasing the follower from any need to maintain his adherence to religion and its moral teaching.

Until now, despite the similarity between major aspects of Christian and Buddhist moral teachings, the dharma in the West has actually benefitted from this hostility to Christianity, because, it has often been mistakenly understood as a system that is completely in harmony with modern non-religious ideas. 

However, this mistaken perception is gradually fading and an increasing number of those in the West, who originally embraced Buddhism through hostility to Christianity, are discovering reasons to reject Buddhism also. Contrary to what they imagined, Buddhism turns out to be a religious tradition with defined views and practices and a notion of authority and Buddhists themselves are, in the main, not without human imperfections. Discovering this, they decide that the dharma is just as deserving of their hostility as Christianity.

Thus, we are now witnessing growing resentment towards Buddhism among some who were previously enthusiastic. In such cases their former irritation with God as a figure of authority and the church as representatives of this authority, an irritation which led them to Buddhism, has reappeared but, this time, with Buddhism and Buddhist teachers as the objects to be resented. 

At the moment, hostility to religion in the West principally takes the form of an intense criticism of religious institutions and the creation, through education and the media, of a culture that is opposed to the spiritual. As a result, indifference towards or outright hostility to religion is increasing rapidly among young people, who have all received a total immersion in such a religion-averse culture.

However, in the not too distant future, this hostility may well, as it did in Communist regimes, take the form of legal and economic sanctions that will attempt to make the practice of religion impossible. One should maybe recollect the fact that, simply because Karl Marx only criticised Christianity by name and did not mention Buddhism, Mao Tse Tung and Marx’s other disciples did not spare the dharma. If the current hostility to religion continues to develop, there is no reason to expect anything different the next time such people come to power.

2. Confusion about the Dharma 

Sadly some in the West who imagine themselves to be ‘Buddhists’ are actually not. Their values and beliefs do not derive from the teachings shared by all Buddhist traditions on such core doctrines as non-self, karma and rebirth. On the contrary, their deepest assumptions reflect modern Western ideas that affirm the absolute autonomy of the individual self, have no consideration of a continuity of lives and assert that suffering may be abolished by a re-ordering of the external world.

There are a number of areas where one can point to a confusion, or simple ignorance, in the Western understanding of Buddhism. These range from the blending of techniques from Buddhist and New Age sources to the notion, held by some, that there is no difference between the Buddhist systems of Mahamudra and Dzok Chen, on the one hand, and the eternalist system of Vedanta on the other. In addition, there is the casual assumption, made by by many Western Buddhists, that the dharma is fully harmonious with and supportive of their particular political ideology – a belief that can only result from an absence of serious knowledge of the dharma, a system which cannot be identified with any current ideology - left or right. 

However, perhaps the best way to illustrate this lack of knowledge is by reference to matters concerning the beginning and end of life and, in particular, the modern epidemic of abortion. This is an issue on which dharma is uniquely equipped to give the appropriate guidance, since Lord Buddha clearly described the process of death and conception in the sutras and tantras and, at the same time, depicted the taking of human life as the most severe ethical failing. Nevertheless,  many Western enthusiasts are surprised when they discover that, in the Vinaya and in the texts on the three vows, abortion, being the deliberate taking of human life, is described as a grave moral fault.

As this example illustrates, unfortunately, many Western Buddhist lack a serious and well-founded confidence in the Buddha’s teachings, a confidence that would have been acquired through study of Abhidharma, Pramana and Madhyamaka. Instead, their minds are full of a mass of contradictory and undigested fragments of teachings, all competing for space with equally undigested fragments of Western thought.

Many Westerners’ understanding of Vajrayana also betrays ignorance of the authentic teaching. For instance: some people erroneously imagine that they have samaya with teachers who cannot give authentic initiations and yet do not realise that they do have such samaya with qualified masters, who have indeed bestowed such authentic initiations upon them. The possibility of their being exploited by fake teachers, who might claim a non-existent authority, is all too obvious here. 

One can conclude from these examples of the serious deficit in people’s understanding of the dharma that such ill-educated followers will have little ability to withstand any negativity directed towards Buddhism. When the fashion for Buddhism declines, perhaps as a result of the scandals that we will address in the next section, such people will easily abandon the dharma. After all, they had no intelligent reason to be Buddhist in the first place.

Their superficial  understanding of the dharma will  not help them to refute the errors of materialism or theism and defend the truth of Buddha’s analysis of the true nature of reality. It is therefore quite likely that some will abandon Buddhism for Christianity or Islam and that even more will join the new religion of anti-religion.

 3. Scandals

Until now, the growing hostility to religion in the West has not extended to Buddhism so much. However, as we have indicated, there are signs that this is changing, in part due to the harm done to the reputation of dharma by a succession of scandals. There are certainly people who would be happy with such a development – political and cultural progressives, who are opposed to any religion on principal, and, on the other hand, some followers of theistic religions, who resent any alternative to their beliefs. 

Now, some criticisms of Buddhism and Buddhists will be fraudulent, springing from mere animosity, avarice and opportunism (as has been the case sometimes with attacks on the Catholic church). Unfortunately, however, some allegations of misdeeds (as with the Catholic church) will be all too true and it is to these that we must pay attention.

Of course, there have always been those who misbehaved, beginning with Devadatta, the very cousin of Lord Buddha. It is the nature of samsaric delusion that a shadow always follows goodness and will often seek to use that very goodness as a cloak to mask its own evil acts. Until all sentient beings are liberated we can expect this.

However, the modern situation, in which traditional Buddhist culture has been uprooted in its ancient territories like Tibet and finds itself in new lands where there is no existing knowledge of how dharma works, is particularly dangerous. The old checks and balances that safeguarded the integrity of the dharma and the well-being of those who practise it have been dislocated. It’s not, of course, that Tibet or any other Buddhist culture was perfect. However, there was enough sanity about the dharma and sufficient realism about people for most of the fakes and cheats to be recognised and avoided or sidelined. 

The very weakness of dharma education amongst some Westerners, that I outlined earlier, only adds to the dangers of the present situation. It allows the gullible to be exploited by ‘masters’, Tibetan and Western, who are at best themselves only semi-educated or more often entirely lacking in the knowledge and practice of Buddha’s teachings except for a few glib phrases that sound exciting.

Although there had been earlier episodes of scandalous and deceitful behaviour, the first major damage to the good reputation of dharma occurred in the 80s in the USA. Now, thirty years later, a much bigger crisis for the reputation of  Tibetan Buddhism has just exploded this past summer in Europe.

It seems, from this and other episodes of bad behaviour, that there are some people who will exploit the good name of the dharma to acquire women and power. They use their connections with authentic masters to attract followers. Hiding their actual behaviour from those great masters, they become famous through their reflected glory.  

Such scandals will certainly cause some people to leave Buddhism entirely, especially those who do not have the intellectual and spiritual resources to discriminate the dharma itself from the deceptions of their abusers. Regrettably some such disillusioned people, especially those who have been actually bruised, will become bitter foes of the dharma or, at least, of traditional dharma. 

In fact, these scandals are already provoking calls for the regulation and control of the dharma and lamas. Of course, the dharma will not work in such  circumstances. How can a master be trained and authorised by anybody other than the masters by whom he was educated? Equally, how can those, who are to be trained, know before-hand what form their training should take? If the apprentice already knew the craft, he would not need a craftsman to instruct him.

Even more alarmingly, some are calling for the licensing of dharma and dharma teachers by external authorities, perhaps national Buddhist organisations. Unfortunately, in many such bodies, politically astute but dubious groups have long ago gained influence. In any case, the source of spiritual authority can only lie in the lines of transmission themselves and in the choice of students to study with particular masters.

It is important to be decisive about the problem of scandalous behaviour and to work  to preserve authentic Buddhist ethical values throughout all Buddhist institutions in the West. If we do not do so and such abuse of the dharma goes unchecked, I fear the outcome. These scandals will not only inspire hostility to Buddhism but they could inspire state authorities to exercise political control of the dharma, as they do in totalitarian societies. This would probably lead to its rapid demise.

Having outlined these three problems confronting us, I would suggest that there are three points upon which we must be resolute:

1. Ensuring that the presentations of the general dharma are consistent with what is taught in the sutras by Lord Buddha and in the authoritative treatises composed by the great masters of India and Tibet

2. Ensuring that the presentations of the Vajrayana are consistent with what is taught in the Four Classes of Tantras and in the treatises composed by the great masters of our line 

3. Ensuring that those who teach the Vajrayana possess the requisite qualifications, such as maintaining the ethics of all three vehicles, being properly educated and having authentic meditative experience of the methods of practice. 

In any event, in seeking to discover how we might best overcome these problems, it is vital we remain undivided and speak with one voice. In other words, we should resist any temptation to divide into ‘Westerners’ and ‘Tibetans’ and so on. Working together, our focus should be upon preserving the unbroken lines of transmission for the benefit of future generations.

However, we Westerners should remember the necessity of our continuing to rely upon the teaching of our Tibetan masters. It would be a fatal mistake to think that Westerners can go forward alone in dharma, as some, who wish to invent their own ‘Buddhism’ with themselves as their own authorities, are saying in response to these recent scandals. Right now, dharma is insufficiently grounded in Western life. When there are, in the future, sufficient numbers of  authentic Western panditas and yogins, not to mention siddhas, we will be able to declare that the dharma has fully arrived in the West. This has not yet occurred.

Saying this does not, in any way, mean that Westerners are naturally inferior in terms of aptitude for the dharma nor that Westerners must adopt Tibetan political or social systems. However, it is simply obvious that we are still apprentices in the dharma, who need to perfect our craft with the guidance of skilled craftsmen.

We also need to recognise that there is no need to fashion a new dharma. Emptiness, the very heart of the dharma, never changes and, in any event, dharma is the communication of the enlightened thought of the Buddha. It cannot be designed by a committee. Such a dharma would be nothing more than the sum total of its members’ disturbing emotions and ignorance. It would have no blessing and, consequently, could not lead to realisation.

A  new dharma designed by us moderns would inevitably consist of just those elements that our disturbing emotions find pleasing. Rather than such a new dharma being a medicine to cure our ills, it would only intensify them. Instead, what is needed now is what has always been needed: that the dharma be taught with intelligence and that we exemplify its qualities in our behaviour.

We should be under no illusion as to the consequence of the failure of dharma today. It would result in the triumph of the evils of selfishness, whether they are expressed through materialism which reduces all sentient beings to the status of mere machines or a theism which seeks to subjugate all sentient beings to the rule of a cosmic dictator. Only the dharma can lead to happiness in this world and the ultimate freedom of suffering that is enlightenment. Our responsibility is thus clear; we must be faithful to the message of the Buddha in our words and deeds, lest the voice of the dharma be silenced in the world.

 In this respect, let us take to heart the advice of  Tokme Zangpo:

‘Having obtained this rare vessel of leisure and endowment

In order to liberate both oneself and others from the ocean of samsara

The bodhisattva’s practice

Is to accomplish hearing, reflection and meditation without distraction.’

In conclusion, I should say that these are just a few of my thoughts expressed out of concern for the dharma. If there are errors here or, if my words inadvertently cause disturbance, please accept my apologies.

Finally, I pray for the long life of the supreme master of the Karma-Kagyu tradition, His Holiness Karmapa, the swift rebirth of His Holiness Shamarpa, the continued flourishing of the precious Khon Sakya line and the long life of all my masters. May the wondrous dharma, which they have shared with us, continue to flourish throughout the world.