Hi Lam, with the strong influence of western culture around the world, I fear that we might lose our deepest treasure, Buddhist wisdom. I’m not saying that Buddhism will disappear, but as most of our people are not well versed in Buddhism philosophy, it is easy for misconceptions to arise, causing the Dharma to get diluted. Lam, have you noticed any common mistaken views on Buddhism in Bhutan? If so, could you point them out so I can be aware of them? Thank you la.  

JW, Thimphu

Well, yes, there are many western concepts and sensitivities that are influencing Buddhist traditions, not only in Bhutan, but everywhere, and so, as you say, they are becoming diluted and distorted. If this continues, then the Dharma will be at risk of losing its capacity to lead people to awaken to the truth, and monasteries will be rendered nothing more than tourist attractions and places to conduct rituals for the dead. To avoid this from occurring, it is absolutely essential that we preserve the purity of the core teachings, while, at the same time, ensuring that they retain their vitality and significance. To put it in another way, the way of presenting the teachings should adapt to the times and so remain relevant and attractive to each generation, but the core teachings must remain pure and cannot be tampered with to suit contemporary ideas and fashions.     

Now, one Buddhist concept that is quietly being nudged out by western sensitivities is that of karma. Due to lack of understanding of how karma operates, many so-called Buddhists in the west cannot accept the idea that past-life events can influence present day occurrences. Basically, as the concept does not fit with their culturally shaped ideas, they claim that karma is not an integral part Buddhist teachings but instead a cultural appendage, and so can be dispensed with. Some even take it further and contend that claiming that illnesses or bad incidences experienced in the present are the result of negative action in the past is victim-blaming and so they strongly oppose and reject the idea of karma entirely. In reality, however, karma is a perfectly rational concept when considered in the context of emptiness and interdependence, and it is a fundamental part of the relative teachings taught by the Buddha. Furthermore, it does not lay blame on a victim for the negative situations or illness that they encounter any more than someone would be criticized and blamed for a sickness that was caused by hereditary genetic imbalances. It is just an explanation of why certain situations are occurring. 

As I mentioned above, karma is a perfectly reasonable concept when understood in the context of interdependence. As an example, think of a papaya tree. It doesn’t suddenly materialize from no-where, but appears as the result of a seed that came from a former fruit, which then matured through interaction with other conditions, such as moisture, warmth, and nutrition. Similarly, we did not reach our present situation by chance, but arrived as the result of past karmic seeds interacting with other events and circumstances. Like floors in a building, each one develops as a result of the one below, and no floor just appears out of thin air. 

In addition, karma is often misunderstood as pre-destined fate. However, this confusion is not caused by western influence, but is a common misunderstanding even in traditional Buddhist countries. Due to this mistaken view, some people may believe that there is no point in trying to recover from sickness or, otherwise, they may feel that only spiritual intervention, such as pujas, can influence the outcome. As a result, they refuse medical treatment. However, this is not the correct view of karma, and to clarify the difference between predestined fate and karma as understood in Buddhism perhaps it is helpful to think of a person being in a boat far out to sea when a storm blows in. Now, as he can neither alight from the boat nor stop the storm, we can say that the situation is due to karma. However, how he sails the boat is in his hands. This is his free will. Now, if the situation were due to predestined fate, then he would only have two options – to unconditionally accept whatever happens or to offer prayers, but there would be no point in trying to sail the boat as the outcome is already predestined and so cannot be changed. Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche often uses the example of playing poker to make the same point. The hand you have been dealt is your karma, but how you play the game is up to you. Now, I feel this is really an important point. Basically, people who are sick can definitely perform pujas, but they should also ‘sail the boat’ and seek professional treatment. As evidence of this, we can note that all the high lamas who are sick receive both medical help and conduct religious rites. 

The common view of gods and heaven has also have been influenced by exposure to western culture, and as a result it is common for people to say things such as, “thank god he passed the exam”. However, Buddhism doesn’t recognize a creator god, and neither Buddha nor Guru Rinpoche is a god, but are awakened beings. In this respect, referring to them as gods is not only totally incorrect, but distorts our relationship with Buddha and Guru Rinpoche. Basically, we can only worship a god and petition him or her for help, but we always remain in a subservient position. In contrast, the mind of the Buddha and Guru Rinpoche and ours is identical and our aim is to become Buddha. As a teacher, we obviously respect and esteem the enlightened figures in Buddhism, but, in terms of mind, we are the same. This is why at the end of any visualization practice, the being who we have visualized above our head, such Guru Rinpoche or Dorje Sempa, dissolves into us and our minds merge. Never does the being remain above our heads as a separate and superior entity. If this were the case, then the entire philosophy of Buddhism would be shattered and all the practices and rituals we undertake to uncover our Buddha nature and recognize the truth are rendered useless. 

As for heaven, well, many people nowadays mistakenly believe that the aim of Buddhism to be reborn in a heavenly realm or to gain some sort of peaceful mind. This is totally wrong. Instead, the aim of practice is to uncover our Buddha nature, and so permanently exit the wheel of samsara, of which the heaven realms and peaceful mental states are a part. To explain it in another way, heaven merely exists as an illusion that is created by the joining together of certain causes and conditions, and so will disappear once these factors dissipate. In contrast, our Buddha nature is not created but uncovered, and so awakening to the truth is a permanent reality, and this is the goal of Buddhist practice. As Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche stated: “Enlightenment is permanent because we have not produced it. We have merely discovered it.”     

As your question raises important issues, I’ll continue with the answers next week.