A powerful man, he spent sixteen and a half years in India gathering teachings together at a time when the Muslims had already began their destruction of the high culture of India, which was the reason why it was possible to obtain a lot of teachings very quickly, as teachers tried to save their transmissions by passing them on. In classical India one just took one initiation and practiced one teaching, while in Tibet hundreds of initiations were given «in bundles» ensuring preservation of the teachings, as nothing should have been lost.
Today the Nyingma school mainly focuses on the older transmission, the one established by Guru Rinpoche and what has been left of the original teachings. The Gelugpas, the religious government of Tibet, only accept the teachings that today can also be found in India, which, however, is not many simply because libraries are vulnerable to fires, as well as to infestations by rats and mice, so there are not so many teachings left. There are also two more schools in the middle: the Sakyapas — the writers of the best commentaries, exceedingly clear and learned, and us, Kagyus, who are much wilder, but like the Sakyapas, we accept both the older and the later transmissions of the teachings in Tibet.
Tibetan Buddhism is spreading fast in the West. Here I mean not the Buryats and the Kalmyks, but generally the population of Europe. Regarding the former, we have recently met the Hambo lama of Buryatia and the president of Kalmykia, both meetings having been very inspiring. As to the West, however, it must be said that the first push of Buddhism there occurred in the universities. The Dalai lama with his great view and understanding sent Buddhist lamas and learned khenpos into various universities who taught there one of the central Buddhist teachings on emptiness known as rangtong, where «tong» means «empty» and «rang» means «in itself», or «in its own essence». One could perhaps best illustrate this view using the example of «a cup». We say: «a cup». But what is «a cup»? Is it this part, or that part? Apparently, «a cup» is just a word. Then we look at molecules, we take them apart and get atoms, we examine those and get protons, positrons, neutrons and electrons. Beyond those there are some major quarks, and then some very small quarks, gluons, leptons and so on. We bash those together and there is space. Form became emptiness, exactly like the Buddha said.
But then if you were to set up a small box which is empty of all particles, particles would spontaneously appear, so it is not that something disappears, it is that form and emptiness are two sides of the same totality. We see that this is of course a very logical, very understandable definition but it does not really satisfy people’s hearts. This kind of emptiness makes people think of a black hole: there is nothing there. That is why another understanding of emptiness became more popular in the «older» schools.
And here we do not say rangtong which means «empty in itself», we say shentong which means «empty and something more». And what do proponents of shentong say? They say: «That is true, it is empty, but there is something which is aware that it is empty, there is a consciousness knowing what is going on». Against this a claim on the part of rangtong proponents would be that it amounts to materialism, establishing something as existent. And in response to that a holder of shentong view would offer a conciliatory remark, saying: «Sorry, no claim. It’s just we are aware of this, are we not?» One should not enrage true believers.
So the shengtong school is sometimes attacked but it is actually much more satisfactory to people who live in the modern world. There is, however, a third approach represented by practitioners of «Diamond Way», most of my students. We say detong. And «de» comes from Tibetan «dewa», which means «bliss». The meaning intended here is that what is between the thoughts, behind the thoughts, what knows the thoughts is in its essence blissful. Buddhism in the West has been going through these three levels of understanding since 1961, when the first professors came to the West and taught rangtong, after which two Mahayana groups appeared, in France and in Italy. With time many other groups flourished, especially in the Karma Kagyu Diamond Way, which we started round the world.
Our approach is focused on the full experience of emptiness, experience of space in itself as bliss. When that which looks through our eyes and listens through our ears recognises itself, it becomes an experience of intense bliss and happiness, and deep meaning. With that the universe becomes a gift. If there is nothing, it is mind’s space, its potential. If something appears, no matter what it is, it is mind’s free play, its experience of its richness, and the fact that both can be there, both space and what happens in space, is mind’s full development as actuality. That is what is being spread in the centres I am responsible for, the 600 Western Karma Kagyu centres worldwide. We used to do it together with my wife Hannah, until she died about a year and a half ago. She went in the best yogi style, sitting in my arms.