"Westerners can't hack Vajrayana"

A man working at an electrical machine
”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.

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.

The Western Mindset is an obstacle

Vajrayana requires a ‘leap of faith’:

This view says that Vajrayana is incompatible with a 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 necessary and is the only way to experience the personal transformation that is characteristic of the path.

Westerners can’t commit:

This view says that because Westerners have been raised to expect instant gratification, we are like spiritual babies, without a developed capacity for patience and 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:

This is the view that individualism, consumer-based capitalism, and materialism lead to social circumstances that mean Westerners are not yet ready for Vajrayana practice, which requires devotion, compassion, and selflessness.

Traditionally, entering into a relationship with a teacher in Vajrayana is an act of devotion, requiring willingness to disregard one’s personal views and intuitions in favor of suggestions from the teacher. This is so alien to most Westerners that they would not consider it.

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.

This view says that 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!

This view says that 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, the implication is that there is 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?