Comments on “"Westerners can't hack Vajrayana"”
Comments are for the page: "Westerners can't hack Vajrayana"
It's about the person, not the group
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!
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?
My Vajrayana Initiation
nice description of my vajrayana Initiation. It was not exactly planned however I was immediately attracted to the Tea Chings.
Dharma is available in any moment
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.
The obstacles are potentially conceptual?
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!
Two main flavors
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…
Eternalism in the karma justification
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).
Practice like your hair is on fire
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.
A response to the different objections
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.
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.
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.
Westerners are arrogant: Well, I can be an arrogant bastard occasionally. Perhaps my practice is indeed doomed to failure. ^_^
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.