Walking through the wall of strangeness

There’s no doubt about it: for a Westerner who hasn’t encountered it before, Buddhism can seem pretty weird at first. I don’t mean the essence of Buddhism, of course, but the cultural and external aspects that we are more likely to notice, since they are so foreign to us at first.

Even Triratna Buddhism, which was developed as a Western alternative to the older Eastern forms of Buddhism, has many elements that seem odd to uninitiated Westerners, because there are still many aspects of their practice that they have borrowed from older Asian schools of Buddhism without really Westernising them much, if at all.

As for Tibetan Buddhism, to which I belong, that can seem the wackiest of the lot to anyone who is new to it. However, once you can see past the cultural trappings and other differences, the heart of the practices seem as relevant here in the West as they do anywhere else.

I have mentioned elsewhere that I think it would be good eventually to develop a distinctly Western form of Vajrayana Buddhism, but for now the Tibetan version is what we have to work with. Although the cultural differences can seem like a big, thick wall that prevents you from seeing inside, let alone getting in for yourself, after a while you may well find, as I did, that what looked like an impenetrable wall actually has doorways in it through which you can pass freely.

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One of the first things I realised was that there was a bewildering variety of texts available, many of them with strange-sounding names like The Torch of True Meaning  or The Lapis Lazuli River (see the picture above for a few more of them). These texts are often in the loose-leaf format that is common in Tibetan Buddhism, but otherwise utterly unknown here in the West (see below).

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Then there’s the fact that the working language of Tibetan Buddhism, in which most prayers and rituals are performed, is Tibetan.

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Yes, there’s a transliteration and an English translation there to make things easier (as the average person around here isn’t exactly a fluent reader of Tibetan script), but at first this can all seem rather daunting.

And then there’s all the Tibetan iconography, which portrays exotic-looking figures who seem utterly alien at first.

Vajrasattva

Vajrasattva (Dorje Sempa in Tibetan)

Then there are the Lama dances, costumes, strange-looking headgear worn by some monks, the exotic musical instruments, the visualisations….

OK. Hold it there. Take a deep breath. If you’re new to Tibetan Buddhism, forget all that for now.

Take my word for it: you do get used to all that eventually. Once you pick up the “feel” for the Tibetan language, it’s actually quite easy to join in using the transliterated version (though I’m sure it would sound pretty odd to a native speaker of Tibetan). As for the meaning, the translation is there to help you, and as I’ve been told before by a Western monk from this tradition (Karma Yeshe Rabgye), it’s fine to do prayers, pujas or whatever in your own language when practising alone anyway. As for the other things I mentioned, some of them are irrelevant to a lay practitioner like myself, and others soon become familiar.

Meditation – a big part of Buddhist practice – is not language-dependent anyway. I don’t meditate in Welsh, English or Tibetan; I just meditate.

My Lama is Tibetan, and our community has members from all over the place. We have Welsh, English, Finnish, French, Indian and probably a few other nationalities. The language we all have in common is English, so that’s the language in which we communicate, discuss and learn.

I used to worry about visualising “deities” because I didn’t (and still don’t) believe in gods, but another way of seeing these is as visualising them as idealised personifications of attributes we ourselves would like to possess; a skilful means of developing compassion, purity etc as we meditate on the mythological embodiments of those virtues.

This has been quite a long post, and I’m not sure if I’ve expressed myself all that well. However, the bottom line is this: don’t be daunted by the wall of strangeness that seems to keep you out of Tibetan Buddhism. Once you find the open doors that lead through that wall, you may well wonder why it used to seem such an insurmountable barrier after all.

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