Cultural richness, or cultural barriers?

As I have mentioned previously on this blog, I belong to the Karma Kagyu school of Tibetan Vajrayana Buddhism.

I have no wish to disparage Tibetan Buddhism at all. If this post comes across as being in that vein, please understand that it certainly isn’t my intention to do so. There are many wonderful things about this tradition; I wouldn’t have joined it otherwise, and it is very close to my heart. So with that said, I’ll get to the point.

As a fairly new Buddhist, I am still able to see Buddhism very much from an outsider’s perspective – specifically, a Western outsider’s perspective. (Even more specifically, a Welsh outsider’s perspective.) I can still remember how it felt when I walked through the doors of a Dharma centre for the first time, when I heard Tibetan chanting for the first time, when I saw people prostrating to the shrine for the first time. It felt alien, to say the least.

I have heard it said many times that as Buddhism spread throughout many different cultures in Asia, it adapted to them all without losing the central message of the Dharma. The secret of its success was its adaptability. This can only be a good thing. However, how much has Buddhism – and specifically Tibetan Buddhism – adapted to Western cultures?

We have prayers and chants in the Tibetan language, and although the prayer book we use has  English translations alongside the Tibetan, English very much comes second to Tibetan (when it is used at all).  Tibetan etiquette and culture pervade every aspect of life at the Centre, right down to the Centre’s name (which is Tibetan, of course, and quite long). Now, I understand that Tibetan culture is endangered since the Chinese take-over of Tibet in the 1950s. I understand that it’s something worth preserving and promoting, with a beauty all of its own. However, that laudable aim is not always in harmony with the aim of making the Dharma accessible and understandable to Westerners.

We also have visiting teachers who speak for up to two hours at a time, whereas it has been suggested that the average attention span of a Western adult is about 20 minutes. This is another cultural difference that can become a barrier to learning.

Our rituals, teachings etc are led by people with shaven heads who wear robes. As Andy Puddicombe of Headspace, himself a former Karma Kagyu monk, said in an interview with The Secular Buddhist podcast, people often “struggle with the whole ‘bald-headed guy in a skirt’ thing.”

I’m not saying that there is anything wrong with monastics wearing robes, but it does add another layer of cultural separation.

Surely what is needed is a form of Vajrayana Buddhism that fits more closely with Western culture, if the Dharma is to have a successful long-term future in the West. Will we see the emergence of an explicitly American form of Vajrayana Buddhism, for example? An explicitly Australian or French version? Even (gasp) an explicitly Welsh form?

Personally, I’d like to see prayers, chants, pujas and the like spoken primarily in the local language(s). How does it benefit the spread of Buddhism in the West if almost everything is in a language not spoken by 99.99% of the locals?

As I said at the start of this post, I love this tradition. If I have criticisms of it, they are the (hopefully) constructive criticisms of a friend, not the destructive attacks of an enemy.


2 thoughts on “Cultural richness, or cultural barriers?

  1. I used to attend the Dharmavajra Kadampa Buddhist Centre in Swansea.They have translated the Tibetan chanting, prayers, etc into English. At first, it is still fairly inaccessible. Lots of unfamiliar cultural references to get your head around e.g. saying how Buddha is greater than a Wish-Fulfilling Jewel, which always reminded me of the school assembly scene in Monty Python’s Meaning Of Life (‘Oh Lord, you are so big, so absolutely huge, gosh we’re all impressed down here I can tell you’).

    I went to their book study groups, which highlighted the cultural differences further. I joined halfway through, when they were covering the Hell Realms. I recall that in one, all the food grows at the top of tall trees with thorns pointing downwards to shred climbers – and that once you climb down, the thorns turn the other way around to inconvenience you further. It didn’t cover what happens if you stay at the top & build yourself a treehouse – or build a ladder with the branches. When I first encountered Tibetan Buddhism, I was told that such things shouldn’t be looked upon as existing in a literal sense but at that time, the core group at the Kadampa centre all took them at face value. As many of them are still there, I suspect that little have changed.

    I also used to pick up some American Buddhism magazines from to time, like Shambhala Sun, Buddhadharma & Tricycle. These publications were multi-denominational & in virtually every issue there would be articles pondering when a Western approach to Buddhism would take hold, what form it would take, etc. For me, the language is the lowest barrier. It would have to be an approach rooted in science & such approaches are already springing up. Mindfulness has been developed by modern psychologists & Buddhist monks working together. And I personally practice Vipassana – a secular form of meditation. Certainly when I first started, the stark no-nonsense of Soto Zen was much more accessible than the more esoteric & alien Tibetan style. It was just too… religious!

    So personally, I would like to see prayers, chants & pujas pushed aside along with the rest of the religiosity & metaphysical distractions. What is needed is to get back to the core of the message. Buddha didn’t ask people to build statues & say prayers to him, for a very good reason. Rich cultural traditions indeed but another Tibetan cultural tradition was to not assist the needy because their karma meant they deserved to be poor. Which is why the temples would be filled with golden statues while the common people starved.

    Cultural traditions are of interest to me but when it comes to meditation, IMO they are an unfortunate distraction which cause people to lose sight of the goal.


  2. I think different people respond to different things, Sam. Like you I see myself as sceptically-minded, but I do find value in pujas, chants etc. Not because they correspond to any literal external reality, but because they have certain internal effects on me and on others. For example, prostrating to the shrine teaches humility far more effectively than words can; but I prostrate to what the Buddha represents, i.e. the potential that is in all of us, rather than to the Buddha himself as some sort of god.

    Yes, some practices involve working with deities (or archetypal Buddhas and bodhisattvas, if you prefer); but I don’t view these as literally existing. Rather, they are ways of expressing desired qualities, and visualising them can help to develop those qualities within oneself.

    It’s interesting to hear that the NKT translates liturgy into English. I’ve always heard that they are a rather fundamentalist, strict sect, but then I suppose every sect has its own peculiarities.


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