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.