“Westerners can’t hack Vajrayana”

Some Western Vajrayana practitioners have told me they think Vajrayana is too difficult for Westerners. Is this a Buddhist Paradox?

It's complicated
It’s complicated

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.

Karmic connection:

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?

17 thoughts on ““Westerners can’t hack Vajrayana””

  1. Let’s see what I can get out of this.

    1.Westerners can’t commit: I think this is not the case. Westerners are just as able to commit as anybody else *if the reason for commitment is there*. It this was not the case, there would not be many serious scientists in the western world. Science requires a lot of commitment: in many cases the pay is not good enough and there are a lot of frustration and anxiety in the whole business. Without actual motivated commitment, most people in science would give up. So, if westerners can have such focused commitment as becoming scientist requires, they can have commitment to Vajrayana practice, if that is what an individual wants to pursue.

    2. Westerners don’t have time: this is a bit tricky. The lack of time offers many challenges. I think this depends much on the person. Some people are better at managing time that others. Also, allocation of one’s time is partially a matter of commitment. You will find time for things you actually see important.

    3. Western values are at odds with Vajrayana: not really. I think that a significant portion of young westerners are seriously disillusioned of materialist consumerism. Because of climate change and depletion of natural resources, consumerism is perceived as a dead end. I addition, there is a lot of practical compassion on the western culture. There are many humanitarian organizations, such as the Red Cross, that do a lot of work to help unfortunate people.

    4. Westerners are arrogant: Well, I can be an arrogant bastard occasionally. Perhaps my practice is indeed doomed to failure. ^_^

    5. There’s no karmic connection: this make a lot of implicit assumptions. One of them is that rebirth, if it exists, works in a linear fashion. If karmic connections really exist, it should not be assumed that they can only manifest within people born in certain geographical coordinates.

  2. Hi Rin’dzin,

    Yes that sounds like (at least one), kind of Buddhist paradox; when a Western Vajrayana practitioner tells you that Vajrayana is too difficult for Westerners.

    These justifications seem broad and general; life’s just not this simple.

    “Westerners can’t commit”. “Westerners don’t have time”.
    Well some can and some can’t. Some do and some don’t. Some can sometimes, and find it harder other times, etc.
    It varies, depending on one’s (real) priorities and agenda. This is true of people all over the world, it’s human nature.
    It seems possible that some Westerners may find it harder to commit, and make time. There are lots of options in the West, lots of potential distractions and consuming choices.
    The same is becoming true elsewhere, boundaries between East and West are no longer entirely geographic or seemingly static. As global economics shift, peoples’ aspirations shift. People travel, or meet travellers and other possibilities become plausible and then their attention shifts. According to these justifications, so does their propensity for commitment and time management; they become “Westernized”, and want to be, good luck to them.

    “Western values are at odds with Vajrayana”.
    Appreciation of Vajrayana by Westerners with apparently opposite values seems entirely feasible; if only from the slightly flakey perspective of “the grass being always greener on the other side”.
    Maybe the selflessness that this justification suggests is prerequisite for Vajrayana can be accumulated and acquired. Any kind of realisation is often a gradual process, and could include shedding selfishness and shallowness.

    “Westerners are arrogant”
    Wanting to skip the preliminaries and get straight to the advanced stuff, and having a mind set to ‘superior’, are attitudes that people from lots of cultures, places and backgrounds enjoy.
    Anyone could try anything with this approach, including Westerners trying Vajrayana, and fail. There’s nothing wrong with that, it might lead to a more informed outlook and another attempt, another time, another place.

    ”There’s no Karmic connection”.
    This justification seems a little contradictory. If, by coming into contact with Vajrayana in Tibet, a Westerner were to have planted in them, the seed of connection for some future life, wouldn’t that be a karmic connection? So where is the “you either have it or you don’t”? If you get it (the karmic connection), for the first time, you have to die and be reborn (as a human) to ‘have it’? Well that seems possible.
    It also seems possible that karma, like a lot of other issues in these justifications, is not limited by geography or demographics. Rebirth may be a choice we make that is broader in it’s possibilities than is implied here.
    Superficial interest does matter, as do passing interest and academic interest, and no adaption is required, or sensible. They matter because they are the seeds being sown, amongst all the possibilities of rebirth.

    There may well be other justifications Rin’dzin, but I don’t know what they are. I think a lot of justifications in general have partial truths in them, the above being no exception, I think that’s what makes them seem credible.
    As ultimate truths I think they’re wrong, but I think one could insist they were right if one had a slightly argumentative disposition.

    Very Best Wishes to you.

  3. Hi Mikael and Remo,

    Thanks for visiting and for your good points. It may be a problem with this page that I’ve stereotyped the justifications somewhat. I wanted them to be quite clear and differentiated. These are the ‘essentialized’ versions. This does make the generalization seem glaringly obvious. But, as you point out generalization is a real problem. My next post focuses on that.

    Remo, The contradiction you point out in the ‘karma’ section is more my sloppy presentation than a contradiction in the view itself. I’ve slightly changed the wording so that it’s less contradictory. Seamus Sims expressed this view articulately in a comment on my previous post.

  4. Great discussion point but I think the question fails as a generalization. It’s about the person, not the group. One could ask, “Can people from Kentucky play the cello as well as Yo Yo Ma?”, and the question doesn’t really make sense.It would be about the time they put in, the teachers they have, and the motivation and dedication they have for the work. If all of those causes and conditions come together with the right motivation, of course it could happen. Same for vajrayana practice: certain Westerners have had the proper training, put in the practice – we’re talking about years, not days or months, and it can and has worked for them. Alan Wallace comes to mind – in a conversation he had in a Buddhist Geeks podcast, he talked about “professional meditators” – people who put in “full-time work” on their practice; clearly they’ll get benefits commensurate with their investment.

    Let’s also remember that many of the practices taught and disseminated in books, teachings and empowerments throughout the West by Tibetan teachers, were once (I’m told) much more closely guarded, hard to access without much preparation. I think the belief is that rather than plant a few seeds in ideal conditions to grow a few wonderful plants, they’ve been kind of “aerial-seeding” huge swaths of population – those who attend are exposed to it and the seed is planted, whether it takes or not in this particular lifetime depends on many factors, but better to have been exposed than not at all. If it were felt to be a useless enterprise, i don’t think these teachers would waste their time doing it.

    Coming back to the music analogy, as a musician I often wonder why americans are so easily good at rock, jazz, blues and such – it’s in our culture, we’re raised in a certain way with exposure, music lessons, bands in the garage etc. So maybe it’s easier for us… but that doesn’t prevent some kid in Sweden or South Africa or Istanbul from becoming a truly great exponent of any of those musical genres.

    A Buddhist teacher’s words recently struck me, saying something to the effect that if you don’t think you can attain enlightenment, you’re actually committing the gravest act of laziness, because the ability to attain enlightenment is already there inside us. it seems that Westerners are particularly good at intellectually understanding difficult topics quickly, it’s turning intellectual understanding into realization that’s the real challenge, at least for me.

    When I first read your headline, I thought you meant “hack” in the newer, code-busting sense of the word. Hacking Vajrayana, in the sense of trying to separate what is truly the diamond essence of the practice, separate from Tibetan and Bon idioms we may have trouble relating to, is definitely part of the challenge, perhaps another topic of dicussion.

    I love your blog – keep up the great thinking!

  5. Hi Jack, thanks for visiting and your thoughtful response. Glad you are enjoying the blog!

    I’m going to riff on the hack pun in my next post. Actually, I’m wondering whether I should post the next one sooner than I had intended. I’d wanted to give people a chance to think through these ‘generalizations’ without dumping my opinion first.

    Such generalizations are made, even though I have caricatured them somewhat. I hope that making their sweeping nature obvious will help people use language more carefully. I do think there’s a bit of a stereotypical ‘Westerner vs Tibetan’ thing going on in some Buddhist circles, even though most proponents of such views qualify them well in conversation.

    I loved the music analogy, by the way. You made me think about that point in a slightly different way. I can see what you mean. Thanks.

  6. I don’t find this form of argument very convincing. If a Catholic Nun moves to Cambodia and evangelizes in such a way to maintain the native customs and culture of the local Bikkhu Sangha – but is so persistent and skillful she replaces their Buddhist convictions with Christian versions, we might easily complain that they are not Christian because they still shave their heads and wear saffron robes and so on and so forth but where will we look to find the alleged cognitive and psychological barriers to transforming from Buddhist to Christian? fMRI and all these other instruments are unlikely ever to be able to observe the substance and extent of the manifestations within the mind of a meditating monk to enable an independent scrutineer to either vouch for or against the meditators own report as to their own practice? Of course, the authenticity of outward appearances of ones beliefs and cultural biases can (and are) contested but beyond that, it seems churlish and well… racist even? I have seen no robust evidence to suggest the place where you are born, or the culture you grow up in, the name you are given or the costume you wear or the food you eat will alter your prospects in terms of the quality of opportunities for spiritual growth – but they may well affect the quality of the experience we believe we are having, our perception and so on – and also the way we might set about describing it and even teaching it to others – but again what is being taught in a particular tradition doesn’t seem to be anywhere near as important as what is being learned (and who’s to say what a learning outcome might look like for something like ‘enlightenment’?) How can anyone really argue that these agents are significant enough to warrant such an attitude? More likely it is a failure on the part of the pedagogue to adapt their vision to their audience but rather than admit defeat, it is more convenient to blame all the stupid westerners for ‘not getting it’. But in the other direction, if Angry Asian Buddhist drops in on a meditation group in Nashville and finds a load of well-off white guys goofing off about Punk Rock and Vajrayana he is likely to get angry at all the stuff at that focal point and an analysis at a level of abstraction equating to something like sociology or psychology – but would one of those Protestant Buddhists necessarily be in a better position to give us a clearer analysis?

  7. nice description of my vajrayana Initiation.It was not exactly
    planed however I was immediately attracted to the Tea Ching’s.

  8. I think, personally, that Dharma (of any flavour) is available to anyone in any moment, regardless of their ethnic or socio-economic background. The knee-jerk reaction in me would also point out that any generalisation involving ‘westerners’ is non-sensical at best, as the term is so vague – in fact, you can’t even generalise about the capabilities of identical twins. However, that aside, there are two great points that I feel are missed here; the first is that we practice Dharma in order to allow change. So even if we are ‘arrogant’, ‘materialist’, ‘inconsistent’, ‘karmically unprimed’ or any of those things when we start practicing Dharma, the teachings have the potential to change that. If they didn’t, they simply wouldn’t be the teachings. The second is that the above arguments miss out the role of the teacher (lama or otherwise, tsaiwai or otherwise) and the potential of transformation within that relationship too. The point of devotion to a lama (and to the teachings in general) is to undo the conditioning that would make approaching Dharma impossible, unlikely, or too uncomfortable to bear. By definition, this has to also, obviously, include any approach to Chö. Is it naive to state that all study of Dharma, Vajrayana or otherwise, require a change in approach and characteristics in the practitioner that are fundamental? Dharma is an undoing, or even the undoing, so to say that the problem of the western character is too knotty for Dharma to undo seems a little contradictory?

    Two other thoughts come to mind. 1) Could one flip this on its head and say that because the nature of Vajrayana is so contrary to that which is comfortable for westerners (whilst noting that this assumption is just an assumption, and that westerners don’t as previously pointed out, exist), this being hurled from the comfort zone could be *more* useful than other ‘easier’ forms of practice? and 2) … nope it’s totally disappeared.

  9. AH yes, point 2) might have been something to with the fact that all the above stated obstacles to Dharma by riding the Vajrayana skateboard are conceptual, potentially? Vajrayana ‘works’. We know it works. Why shouldn’t it work for ‘us’? The only reason would be that our conceptualising mind gets in the way. Of course, by ‘works’ I mean ‘works’ then ‘doesn’t work’ then ‘works’ then ‘doesn’t work’. Flicker flicker. Flicker in flicker out. Likewise, cultural conditioning is conceptual. If the western value system is contrary to compassion (I would need a serious cosh of reasoning to accept this – all I see around me is love and kindness, buggered up admittedly a lot by fear a lot of the time), why would we assuming that Vajrayana is unable to counter it? To unpick it? Vajrayana has to counter ALL cultural conditioning, including pre-invasion Tibetan cultural conditioning cos that is conceptual too!

  10. I think the “not being able to hack it” idea are of two main flavors: either 1) vajrayana practice is too mythic and ritualistic in practice that westerns can’t do it because it is a regression of their more objective/rational level of social consciousness, or 2) vajrayana is so advanced, so above the objective/rational that they cannot possibly make the leap into a more celestial/mystic (and hence unintelligible) level of practice. There’s just enough truth to both of those.

    It’s interesting that both of these are a feeling of condescension… I suspect that is influenced a bit by the hierarchical nature of the teacher-student relationship, and the pros and cons of that.

    But in terms of “hack”ing it, it seems like westernized teachers like Trungpa and Ngak’chang and especially Ken McLeod have successfully hacked the mythic code and spelled out why a rational/objective mind could adopt vajrayana practices.

    Well, obviously all of these comments could be long discussions, but I thought I’d put it out there as grist for the mill…

  11. I would just observe that the “karmic connection” justification is a brazen instance of eternalist reasoning that reads just as well as if you replace vajrayana with . Let me demonstrate:

    Attraction to is the result of karma from previous lives. Either you already have it, or you don’t. If you have it, when you find in this life, you will love and will stay with naturally; as though you’ve found you lost.

    As the keen movie ‘500 Days of Summer’ points out in the narration: “This misunderstanding stemmed from a love of sad british pop music, and a complete mis-reading of the movie ‘The Graduate’.”

    But then . . . vajrayana is transformational, and it does not depend on the banishment of every philosophical extreme to function. Those “sacred projections” are more wood for the fire of tantra (wood possibly but not necessarily strung together with multi-colored strings).

  12. [Unfortunately, WordPress didn’t like the angle-brackets in my just posted response and summarily removed them from the text, and as WordPress does not provide for editing of posts, I must repost, thusly]

    I would just observe that the “karmic connection” justification is a brazen instance of eternalist reasoning that reads just as well as if you replace vajrayana with “(the one you are in love with)” . Let me demonstrate:

    “Attraction to (the one you are in love with) is the result of karma from previous lives. Either you already have it, or you don’t. If you have it, when you find (the one you are in love with) in this life, you will love (the one you are in love with) and will stay with (the one you are in love with) naturally; as though you’ve found (someone) you lost.”

    As the keen movie ’500 Days of Summer’ points out in the narration: “This misunderstanding stemmed from a love of sad british pop music, and a complete mis-reading of the movie ‘The Graduate’.”

    But then . . . vajrayana is transformational, and it does not depend on the banishment of every philosophical extreme to function. Those “sacred projections” are more wood for the fire of tantra (wood possibly but not necessarily strung together with multi-colored strings).

  13. Nice to see your comments on my return, thank you.

    so to say that the problem of the western character is too knotty for Dharma to undo seems a little contradictory?

    I like your two points, Seng-gé, about the potential for anyone to change and the rôle and function of the teacher in Vajrayana.

    Jamie:

    But in terms of “hack”ing it, it seems like westernized teachers like Trungpa and Ngak’chang and especially Ken McLeod have successfully hacked the mythic code and spelled out why a rational/objective mind could adopt vajrayana practices.

    Interesting that the three examples you choose are notably different (to each other). I make the point in my next post that, because ‘Western’ culture is so diverse, greater diversity in presentation might be important.

  14. Hi Sengchen,

    I’ll save a longer analysis of the ‘karma’ justification for a later post, but the connection that you make with eternalism is interesting in light of different approaches to karma within Vajrayana. There’s some sense in which Dzogchen was, historically, a response to the eternalist tendency in Tantra.

    But then . . . vajrayana is transformational, and it does not depend on the banishment of every philosophical extreme to function. Those “sacred projections” are more wood for the fire of tantra (wood possibly but not necessarily strung together with multi-colored strings).

    Yes, quite so. Eternalism’s not entirely wrong – the main problem is in trying to eternalise it 🙂

  15. I never reply. But, somehow I had to write these words.
    Anybody can hack the Vajrayana. If their personal karma is ripe. Otherwise, don’t bother.
    Westerners, Easterners (asian?), In-betweeners…is not relevant.

    Personally, so to speak, all of the points you mention are not the qualities of having a “precious human rebirth” which means that one is drawn to the dharma, no matter what societal or familial background that one has. And one needs to be lucky enough to bump into a valid teacher (guru or whatever) that you have a karmic connection. Then, most likely, the student will be able to develop or advance. I speak from experience, my own as well as many students of CTR. I had a job, relationships, credit, bought stuff, had passion towards many things, etc…I also studied, practiced, taught and followed my teachers guidance…oh hmmmmm: I still study, practice, teach and follow my teachers guidance, even though I am a gnarled up older bodied crippled dude of a yogi. Intention is paramount. Meditation experience melts all the societal urgings, and all of the ego driven tendencies mentioned at the top. In time.

    Ok, I apopogize for this part…this is my parting shot I suppose. If someone like me, who sort of had many of those tendencies mentioned at the top, luckily meets a teacher, becomes totally tired of feeling SUFFERING, meditates using the three yana approach for 40 years (sitting every day, annual month long in-house retreats for something like 30,000 hours of practice) and progress on the path…anyone on the earth can. (lastly, I added up the hours a month ago, just curious I suppose. Only 30,000. What a slacker. Practice like your hair is on fire.

  16. I just discovered your blog. I think you have to recognize in writing this blog that you are a teacher. I wish you the best. Have you considered joining Patheos — or another more high profile platform?

    In terms of the topic of this thread, there is an undercurrent of pride or arrogance in Tibetan culture that subtly or not so subtly looks down on Western practitioners — although this is not true for the greatest teachers. I think that this prejudice transfers somewhat to the way we think about ourselves and our own practice.

    Personally, however, I think that there is no better place to practice than in the West. Many wonderful teachers have brought the full transmission of the Vajrayana to the West — and many devoted students have carried on that tradition. Plus we have the advantage that we are, to date, largely invisible in Western culture. There is no particular “credential” available for a Western practitioner. Even if a practitioner were to complete a three year retreat, his or her family and friends might view this as an eccentricity — but not an accomplishment. The practice here starts from a purer place in that sense — it comes from a heart that resonates with the view transmitted from a true teacher. With that, anything is possible.

  17. Thank you Jim,

    I like the point about the ripeness of the West for practice. I think you’re right, and that the lack of credential could be a valuable deselection filter.

    I also sense that we’re still in a phase of transition in which Vajrayana potential is prevalent and energetic: it’s ripe ground for new forms to arise.

    With regards teaching, yes, if I were still posting to this blog regularly, I might look in to Patheos. In fact the reason I’m not blogging these days is that I felt I was spreading myself too thin. I’m focusing more on practice, and teaching individuals and small groups in the Aro gTér. Though, just to be clear, I’m not a Lama – so not a teacher as described in traditional Vajrayana, with ‘Vajra students’ (personal apprentices, in the Aro tradition).

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