In discussing Vajrayana Buddhism, I’m referring mainly to the traditions of Himalayan origin: Tibet, Bhutan, Nepal, and India. These include all of Buddha’s teachings, encompassing Sutra and Tantra, but it is the Tantric methods which make their character unique. These practices involve identification with one’s Buddha nature: the immanent qualities of wisdom, compassion and power present as our deepest essence. In the Tantras, these qualities are represented by wisdom aspects, or “deities”, relied on as methods to train one’s inner awareness. Also, included are the practices known as Mahamudra (the Great Seal) and Dzogchen (the Great Perfection) which introduce one directly to the experience of the mind’s innermost nature.
Thanks to the cooperation between accomplished lineage masters and their Western disciples, Vajrayana is taking root in the West. There have been challenges, misunderstandings and even crises, but the foundations exist for a stable future. Texts and teachings have been translated into Western languages, centres of learning and meditation established, and communities of practitioners provide bridges to qualified masters of these traditions. While there is still a way to go before Western masters of Vajrayana are commonplace, there are some outstanding examples.
Buddhist compassion and wisdom are implemented in both the inner and the outer spheres.
1) The inner sphere
The Buddha’s teaching is summarised as: “Do no non-virtue whatsoever, practice virtue thoroughly, and completely tame your own mind”. So implementing compassion and wisdom must start with one’s own immediate situation.
In the Sutra system, wisdom refers to realizing emptiness, and method to the practice of the Six Paramitas, whose basis is compassion. Wisdom and method are distinct and complimentary factors. In Vajrayana, method or “skilful means” as the counterpart of wisdom, relates to the practices of Tantra, Mahamudra or Dzogchen. They are transmitted via lineages whereby those receiving initiation share in the realisation of a particular skilful means of the master. When meditating on peaceful or protective wisdom aspects, one is aware simultaneously of the form and its empty nature: wisdom and method are practiced inseparably.
According to Vajrayana, beings are trapped in Samsara because of impure perception: clinging to experience as solid, ordinary, and limited. The antidote is to develop pure perception, taking the environment as a pure land and beings as Buddhas. This optimistic view is to see the perfect qualities of beings and one’s environment and develop these within oneself. Rather than focusing on the defects of Samsara, one recognises the inherent purity of phenomena. Understanding that mind and its manifestations are inseparable like the sun and its rays, disturbing emotions are self-liberated and transformed into corresponding aspects of wisdom.
Implementing compassion and wisdom thus relates to directly to one’s view. Transforming experience into primordial purity, colloquially described as “behaving like a Buddha until one becomes a Buddha” brings powerful results and inspires others to recognise their own potential.
2) The outer sphere
What distinguishes Buddhist compassion from humanistic good wishes? Firstly, it is impartial, recognising all beings possess Buddha nature. Secondly, it brings lasting results not temporary remedies. Giving somebody money may help them for a day, giving an education may help them for a lifetime, but giving the confidence that mind’s nature is indestructible clear light helps them in this life, and in all future lives. Enlightened compassion is both far-reaching and intelligent, benefiting the greatest number of people the furthest into the future.
Unfortunately, it is possible to fall into a trap of believing that one already possesses such enlightened compassion and wisdom when it is in fact conceit. This is caused by the pernicious belief that Dharma is identical to one’s own undigested assumptions and prejudices. It is represented by the syllogism: “My opinions are wise and compassionate. Dharma is wise and compassionate. Therefore, Dharma and my opinions must be identical”. Intentions proceeding from such beliefs, especially if broadcast to signal virtue to others, merely pave the road to hell for ourselves and our societies.
It is said that only on the first Bhumi can one truly benefit others, because the belief in the illusion of a self has dissolved. The closer one draws to Buddhahood, the less one is hindered by the false dualism of subject and object and one acts spontaneously for the benefit of others.
For somebody still only aspiring to such qualities of non-conceptual compassion and wisdom, what possibility is there of implementing them in society? Fortunately, such aspirants may encounter the opportunity to support the activity of those who do possess them. The establishment and maintenance of centres of Buddhist learning and practice rooted in authentic Eastern traditions carrying the blessing of lineage masters, is a great gift for people in Western societies, who can encounter the methods to discover ultimate freedom.
What seems to be working?
There are many successful institutions of Vajrayana Buddhism in the West that manage to uphold an authentic tradition and present a meaningful system of practice and study according to the needs of various kinds of people. One example is the network of 680 Karma Kagyu Diamond Way Centres established by Lama Ole Nydahl and his late wife Hannah in the name of the 16th Karmapa and his successor the 17th Karmapa Trinley Thaye Dorje.
These draw inspiration from the 11th Century Tibetan master, Marpa. He was a lay practitioner with a family and business, who heroically brought his Dharma lineage into a new environment, from India to Tibet. He was a controversial and stubborn character, but effective in integrating Vajrayana practice into daily life and guiding his students. Marpa’s own teacher Naropa predicted:
“In the view of some impure ordinary men, you will appear to gratify yourself in this life with sense pleasures. Your desires will seem unchanging, like a carving in rock, so solid and so great. On the other hand, since you yourself have seen Dharmata, samsara will be self-liberated, like a snake uncoiling. All the future students of the lineage will be like the children of lions and garudas, and each generation will be better than the last.”
Lama Ole and Hannah Nydahl have been successful in not only establishing but also maintaining this large network of Buddhist centres. There are numerous reasons for this, concerning both the content and the packaging.
The practice curriculum comprises the fundamental elements of the Karma Kagyu tradition. Students mainly practice Ngöndro, the “Four Foundational Practices”. Additionally, the Guru Yoga meditation of the 16th Karmapa is regularly practiced in groups.
The Tibetan word jinlab (adhisthana in Sanskrit) refers to spiritual blessings. Literally, jin refers to power, magnificence or splendour, and lab to waves. Jinlab is thus the waves of power and magnificence emanating from a holy agent such as a person, object or event, and affect others who encounter them.
The Buddhas and spiritual masters bless others through physical forms, verbal expressions and mental connections. The Buddha blessed people through his miraculous display of multiple emanations and supernatural feats. He also blessed his disciples by connecting with their minds through the power of meditation, such as the case of blessing Sariputra to ask the question in the Heart Sutra. However, the most important mode of jinlab by the Buddha is through his words and teachings, influencing his audience through the waves of his powerful speech.
Jinlab becomes effective when it leaves an impact. As the meaning suggests, the recipient must be touched by the waves of power and qualities of the source of blessing. The specialty of the Karma Kagyu tradition is the jinlab or blessing of the Karmapas. The 16th Karmapa Guru Yoga conveys the blessing of the Karmapa’s enlightened form, speech and mind, connected with the body’s three main energy centres.
Strict Vajrayana methods are very technical. If the technique isn’t respected, they will not function and won’t bring results. As explained by Jigme Rinpoche, the 16th Karmapa Guru Yoga itself is between Mahayana and Vajrayana. It is a simple, yet profound and effective tool. The 16th Karmapa encouraged it as particularly appropriate for Westerners. The method is to ask for Karmapa’s blessing for support on one’s path, and to remain united with his essence: the inseparability of compassion and wisdom. As it is simplified and suitable for general people, it is easy to work with and follow. Hence, it has proven to be a popular practice with Westerners who are interested to learn and connect with the Vajrayana methods, without jumping head first into commitments and technical practices.
Lama Ole says “it is the job of a scholar to make simple things sound complicated and the job of a yogi to make complicated things sound simple”. He is not advocating a watering down of the teachings, but rather focusing on what is easily grasped by Westerners with busy lives and responsibilities who aren’t necessarily able to go intensively into study or retreat. The Diamond Way Centres have opened the door to Vajrayana Buddhism to countless people.
These centres are not abstract institutions, but vibrant and fun places, with people from many walks of life. Operating on a voluntary basis, they contain no “professional Buddhists”. Those involved in the centres’ daily functioning have day jobs and participate from a position of inner surplus. Friendship is the oil that keeps the motor running, so there is a strong social element. The centres attract people of all ages, including a lot of young people who in the absence of such a community might be wasting time in hedonism or nihilism. Shared practice and participating in the activity of the centres for the benefit of others is an opportunity to accumulate merit and wisdom.
As well as counteracting jealousy, rejoicing in the positive actions and merit of others brings the same psychological impact as if one had performed the act oneself. Communication – within and between – Buddhist organisations of initiatives, projects and accomplishments for the benefit of all is the key to a mutually reinforcing upward spiral of merit and insight.
Thoughts on the future prospects for Buddhism in Europe
The basis for Dharma practice is the “Precious Human Existence”, defined by various freedoms and advantages, some personal and others reliant on outer conditions. In the latter category, one must inhabit a “central land”, a place where there are accessible holy beings and where Dharma can be encountered.
Returning to the principle that the scope of Buddhist compassion includes the greatest number of people the furthest into the future, it is important to maintain a wide and historic worldview. Observing world events, as well as the values held by different cultures, one may consider what freedoms and human development they promise for our children and future societies.
Europe is a “central land” where currently favourable circumstances to practice Dharma exist. This is largely due to the bedrock values on which Western civilisation has developed. Yesterday much gratitude arose hearing the speeches of the representatives of the Spanish Government, emphasising that freedom of religion is enshrined in law. But not only this, democracy, equal rights for men and women, equal justice for all under the law, and most importantly freedom of speech should never be taken for granted. If we are to talk about implementing Buddhist wisdom and compassion in Western societies, then fundamentally this means protecting these circumstances, ensuring Europe remains a central land in future.
I rejoice in the merit we all accumulate in spreading Buddhist principles in the West. I conclude with the wish for the manifestation of enlightened compassion and wisdom in our societies through the Four Buddha Activities: for negativity and obstacles to be pacified; for merit, wisdom, strength, and prosperity to increase; for experience and realization to be magnetised; and for influences harmful to the Buddha’s teachings to be liberated into emptiness.