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Come on America! Get it together! Why is it that nearly every Tibetan I meet and nearly every Buddhist monk or nun I meet think that out of all the countries in the world, Americans are the most likely to be “crazy.” I have crazy in quotations as I will explain below. In fact, one lineage – the Drukpa (Kagyu) lineage – have not invested much in the way of teachers or other resources in America because of how difficult it is to tame our minds here. They have strong showings in Europe and other countries, but don’t mess with them Americans, we crazy! Doh! Not good! We can change though – at least there is that silver lining.
And I will let you in on a little secret here. If you are white (like me) and you start wearing Tibetan or Asian-styled clothing to Dharma Centers and teachings, then the Tibetans and Tibetan Lamas will immediately question your mental stability. Why? Because either one of two things is going to be true, and they want to know which it is for obvious reasons: 1) You are wearing Tibetan style clothing because you have studied a lot of Tibetology and you know the religion inside and out and you have a very stable, calm mind OR 2) you are basically a mental gypsy – you do not fit in with your culture and are exploring others – or you detest your culture’s clothing enough to choose a very foreign and possibly stigmatizing style or you have absolutely no clue what you are doing but you want to look good while you are doing it. If any of number 2’s items are accurate, then your mind stream is not stable and congratulations, your clothing just made it so there is a big red flag sticking up above your head (in their eyes).
What do I recommend then? Unless you have studied Tibetan culture and language and religion (these three really cannot be divorced from each other), then go with clothes from cultures that you know. Go with the culture that you were born into, even if it is more of a grunge style of rebellion. At least you won’t be labeled as another “crazy American.”
So what do I mean by crazy above? Well I think it primarily has to do with American’s desire for instant results, or we go directly after the highest most advanced practices as soon as possible, without having the slightest understanding or foundation upon which to receive those teachings. Here are some examples:
I am completely guilty of this myself, so don’t think I am trying to hide while standing on my soapbox. I will freely admit it – I was ignorant of Tibetan Buddhist practices eight or nine years ago. I did not know what Bodhicitta meant. I did not understand cause and effect as well as I do today. Yes I believed in reincarnation and karma, but now my understanding of these areas has deepened as well. But in my first retreat, I thought Tibetan Lamas were mystical magicians capable of flying and other supernatural abilities (many of them do have unusual skills and talents, but they keep these hidden for their student’s benefit – see some other posts in the Dharma category or my Dharma page as examples). Now, after attending hundreds of teachings, retreats and various teachers, I have yet to see anyone fly. And while I had such ignorantly juvenile knowledge about Tibetan Buddhism, I still asked the main teacher if he could teach me Dream Yoga. Dream Yoga is an extremely advanced practice. I did not know this at the time.
Let me put this in perspective: this might be similar to a 10 month old baby who cannot walk trying to ask a hang glider if she can take his wings for a lift (the baby would be lucky to speak eloquently enough to start with!). Seriously. What did my teacher say? He told me to go ask someone else (Drupon la – who I would learn much later was my Root Lama). Now in the main teacher’s case, he knew that Drupon would tell me an emphatic “NO!!” I have heard stories though of Khenchen Rinpoche telling ambitious students that first they should cultivate Bodhicitta (the mind desiring enlightenment for all beings) before he would teach them Tummo or Illusory Body. So of course, Drupon told me that first I needed to finish my 100,000 prostrations before he would consider teaching me such an advanced practice. Guess what my response was to that? “Why do I have to do so many prostrations?”
Yeah, I was quite naive. He went on to explain that maybe first I should learn the Four Thoughts That Turn the Mind Toward Enlightenment. I had to ask him what those were – so he sent me to one of his senior students to explain it. In other words, before I could learn Dream Yoga (which, after eight years I still have not received), I had to finish the first section of Ngondro (preliminary practices) and learn the ordinary Ngondro practices (the 4 Thoughts). Needless to say, I had A LOT to learn and I still do. Before I could learn to ride a bike, I had to learn how to crawl!
I wonder as to all the social, psychological and familial ingredients which go into making a culture as arrogant, ignorant and aggressive as we can be. (Writing as an American that is.) We are arrogant if we first read about secret-for-1000-years-but-now-moderately-available Tantric Buddhist practices and we believe that we can learn them within weeks or months. We are ignorant if we believe that just by visualizing some secret remedy – the White Triangle has to enter the Blue Circle first before expanding outward to infinity – (HOGWASH!) we can cure everything that ails us overnight. And of course there are some who are aggressive enough to ask *multiple Lamas* for these teachings when they get turned away by the first one. Unfortunately this can lead directly to spiritual materialism – some Lamas will start giving teachings if they are getting big donation money, even if the students are not ready. (Not good for anyone – the teacher incurs negative karma for teaching an improper vessel and the students may develop wrong views because mysteriously the practices don’t work – go figure!)
So now do you wonder why some authentic and highly successful lineages of Tibetan Buddhism spurn the opportunity to start Dharma Centers in the USA? If you still wonder, I would suggest developing a wholesome friendship with a Tibetan Lama who has been in the US for at least five to ten years. Then, about twelve months into that friendship, ask that Lama to tell some stories about the crazy questions he has gotten from wild Westerners (read “Americans”). You will likely here about someone who has major anger problems asking for a wrathful practice – and goodness knows for what motivation. Or you might hear about someone who has bounced around from practice to practice – Shamanism to Quigong to Tibetan Buddhism to Taoism to Non-Duality Teachings, etc but then they come back and want to restart their Buddhist practice with advanced Six Yogas of Naropa teachings. Nope! Not good – that is when you might get a wrathful response from a Lama, or at least expect to hear, “You must first learn to generate compassion for all beings.” And don’t forget that this statement includes generating compassion for yourself! For some of us here in the States, generating kindness and compassion for ourselves is the most difficult part!
So America, make me proud. Go out today and if you have any wild and crazy questions for your Lamas, hold your tongue. Instead ask, “what is the most basic and most beneficial practice that I can do? And how long do you recommend I do this practice for?” And guess what, when you start putting their advice into practice, you will encounter some difficulty and discomfort. That is how you know it is working! This is because your ego-clinging is very slowly getting ground away. But don’t forget to practice some self-care (read “kindness to self”) in the midst of this practice or else you will not relax your mind in the least. And most Buddhist practices exist as a method for relaxing and letting go of monkey-like, distractible, afflicted mental states.
So who am I to state these suggestions so brashly? Well another good question! I am nobody. I am just an ordinary human being. But I would love for Tibetans and Lamas to have a better picture in their minds of our American mental states.
Thank you for reading!
2 thoughts on “Being grounded in Tibetan Buddhism”
Wow, Kirby! You certainly are right in relation to our arrogance and ignorance. It’s amazing that we even have access to these teachings at all!
Hey Kim! Exactly – we are so fortunate here in being able to just read about these teachings. Who knows, maybe we can even practice them soon? 🙂