Some Western Vajrayana practitioners have told me they think Vajrayana is too difficult for Westerners. Is this a Buddhist Paradox?
The idea that Westerners can’t hack Vajrayana is common in Tibetan Buddhist circles. Some previous commenters expressed this view eloquently and made good points. This post is partly in response to them.
Related questions are:
- Is Vajrayana necessarily harder than other Buddhisms?
- Is Vajrayana a worse fit than other Buddhisms for people living in contemporary Westernized cultures?
I won’t address those questions in this post. Here, I categorize the reasons I’ve heard justifying the view that Westerners can’t hack Vajrayana. In later posts, I’ll explain why I think they are only partially true, or mistaken.
This page has been revised to include a better and broader set of categories since I first published it.
The Western Mindset is an obstacle
Vajrayana requires a ‘leap of faith’:
Vajrayana is incompatible with a modern Western mindset that typically wants reassurance, certainty and clearly defined answers. Practitioners should not expect to know what to expect: they must be prepared to ‘jump in at the deep end,’ rest in a state of ‘not knowing what it’s all about,’ and cope with confusion, bewilderment and groundless experience.
The Vajrayana learning curve is steep, long and dramatic. It requires full immersion into practices that seem complicated and alien. This is the only way to experience the personal transformation characteristic of the path.
Westerners can’t commit:
Westerners have been raised to expect instant gratification. We are like spiritual babies, without a developed capacity for discipline. We will not put in the time and effort without seeing instant results. Vajrayana requires a depth of practice, but we are incapable of sustained attention over many years. We are spiritual shoppers, grasping for the good stuff from every next tradition we find, picking and choosing according to individual preference, always moving between spiritual options, never settling, incapable of taking the challenge of a long-term commitment seriously.
Western values are incompatible with Vajrayana:
Individualism, consumer-based capitalism and materialism breed selfishness.
Western values are so contrary to the values of kindness, devotion and compassionate activity, that selfish, superficial Westerners can’t get their heads around the selfless commitment required to go deep into Vajrayana.
This objection is related to, but not the same as the view that the Vajrayana teacher-student relationship is inappropriate for egalitarian society. This page is about the view that Westerners are not suited to Vajrayana practice, not about whether Vajrayana is appropriate for contemporary society. I intend to write about that later.
Contemporary circumstances are an obstacle
Not enough time:
We are well-intentioned but don’t have enough time for serious practice. Contemporary lives are too full and fast for anything much more than work and family commitments. Social survival is a full-time job for most people. The only way to spend the time that Vajrayana requires, ultimately, is to give up the contemporary lifestyle.
Preparation for Buddhist Tantric practice requires years of commitment. With little time available, the best we can hope is to make some headway with preparatory practices. But Westerners often seem to want to skip the preliminaries and get straight to the advanced practices. This makes them seem unrealistic and arrogant.
A common view within Vajrayana circles is that attraction to, and capacity for Vajrayana is the result of karma from previous lives. Either you have it, or you don’t. It’s easy to see those who have it: they fit perfectly with our group!
If you have the necessary karma, when you find Vajrayana in this life, you will love it and will stay with it naturally; as though you found something you lost. But if you don’t yet have the requisite karma, Vajrayana will seem alien, and the best possible is that brief contact will sow the seed of connection for some future life.
Either way, there’s no point in re-presenting Vajrayana, or adapting it for Westerners: it is out of our hands. The minority of Westerners with a past-lives connection will find their way there. Interest is irrelevant and may be superficial. What matters is karma.
Questions for readers
These are the justifications that I’ve heard. Are there others? Let me know if I have missed some.
Which of these justifications do you think are right or wrong, and why?