Buddhism In The West
Author: Ole Nydahl (Denmark)

Topic: Buddhism in Russia: the border between East and West

"Vajrayana Buddhism in Russia: History and Modernity".
St. petersburg: Unlimited Space, 2009. — 576 p.

Pages: 21-26
What I would like to share with you is actually a history of success. A success in a less important but necessary area of spreading the Buddha’s teachings in the world, as well as in a really important area of human growth. One could say that the West met Buddhism three times. At first it happened about 300 years ago when our European ships had become so good that we were able to take over the rest of the world.

It was in those days when you in Russia continued moving into the East and Siberia to get away from the dangerous tsars. And it was then that we encountered the form of Buddhism known today as Theravada or Hinayana. The word Theravada means «the words of the ancients of the order», whereas Hinayana stands for «Narrow Way», or «Small Way». Those teachings are mainly about reaching a level on which a person stops being vulnerable. There we dissolve the illusion of a separate ego, or «self». Our second encounter, about 150 years ago, was with the form of Buddhism called Mahayana, i.e. «Great Way».

This happened, for instance in vietnam, but primarily in Japan and China, from whom we annexed large pieces of land, such as Shanghai, in order to be able to develop an opportunity for trade. To be honest, however, the larger portion of that trade was opium-related, which is especially true in respect of the East India Company. It was not a very positive trade and that triggered off, for example, the Boxer Rebellion.

Here people were treated very brutally, often executed by being put in front of cannons and blown to pieces. But it was then that we encountered Mahayana Buddhism where the goal is to understand not just that there is no real existing ego, or «self», but also that the outer world, which we experience through our senses as being real and existent, appears from constantly changing conditions and has no absolute or true existence in itself.

Recently, the Buddhists such as us have been gratified by a number of scientific discoveries, specifically the experiments they had carried out in CERN, Geneva, which were able to prove that space is information. The exchange of information between two photons on the 18 km log stretch of a cyclotron happens at least ten thousand times faster than the speed of light, it may even be instantaneous. This means that space is information, which is, indeed, extremely important. The other aspect of the Great Way is compassion.

We understand that there are countless numbers of beings out there, whereas, as far as we are concerned, there is just one. And as each and every being looks for happiness, then trying to help them is actually more important than doing things for ourselves or thinking of our own welfare. This is a very nice motivation. Besides, the energy that we send out comes back to us, which, for instance, the Chinese have understood very well. They say: «Buddha is the best bank».

Consequently, some of the Chinese are very generous and they always get more money back. Besides, on any level, including that of emotions, if we think of ourselves we have problems, if we think of others we have interesting things to do. So, the Great Way, or Mahayana of the Northern Buddhism which had spread to the east of the Himalayas and in vietnam brings a lot of emotional satisfaction because everything which is done on this path is done for the benefit of all. And it is in this way that we become a part of the totality.
However, considering the majority of Buddhist groups which now have proliferated in the West and where one observes a lot of serious growth, they should be understood as belonging to Vajrayana, sometimes known as Mantrayana or Tantrayana. And these teachings are the ones that have come from the three old schools of Tibet, known as the «Red Hats Schools», while the governing school of Tibet, the spiritual tradition of the state, or the «Yellow Hats School», refers to itself as Mahayana.
The three Red Hats Schools give very interesting methods allowing the practitioner to directly experience things and to use body, speech, and mind together to get really convincing results. They also focus mainly on lay people, not on monastics, and, as many people who have energy and power today are not inclined to observe vows of celibacy, these schools have opened up Buddhism to a whole new field of interesting and powerful individuals. Buddhism came to Tibet in two big waves, of which the first began 1250 ago when Guru Rinpoche, also known as padmasambhawa, arrived in the land of Snows. After he left, he entrusted his tradition to one of his major consorts, the lady Yeshe Tsogyal, but adherents of resurgent shamanism under king langdarma were able to destroy the transmission almost entirely, leaving untouched only the hidden teachings, the so called termas. The second wave occurred around 950 years ago when Marpa brought into Tibet the content of Buddhism, its psychological knowledge, and Atisha re-established the monastic tradition. Marpa, historically the first Tibetan leader of our Karma Kagyu tradition, was a total layman. He liked his beer, he liked his women, he liked to meditate and he was the one who brought Buddhism back into Tibet.

Marpa painting Holy isle.
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.
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.
There were two Buddhist doctors looking after her, they were checking and she was clinically dead 15 times but kept coming back again and again as if to see what use could yet be made of this body. It was not pleasant for her, so the sixteenth time I sent her off with phowa to the Pure Lands. We shared the work. Hanna took more intellectual part, the Tibetan part, the cultural part and the learned part. And actually the last half year of her life she should have been running the Karmapa International Buddhist Institute in New Deli (KIBI), a centre for really deep Buddhist studies. Now other friends are taking over this aspect of the teaching, and it is an important point. In this respect the most significant and the deepest work today happens in Spain in the Institute for Tibetan and Asian Studies (ITAS), where several professors from Canterbury and other universities of England and Germany, as well as scholars from other countries, are leading advanced research into the profound meanings of the texts.

They are Burkhard Scherer, Jim Rheingans, Vladislav Ermolin and others. So, philosophy is one aspect of Tibetan Buddhism. And the other one is actually working with mind, in a direct way through the Diamond Way meditations. And there I have asked 200 close personal friends with whom I have been together for 10 years or more to work as travelling teachers and that is what they do, criss-crossing the world, visiting all of our 600 centres. Amongst the travelling teachers Russia is represented very well. For example, there is Lena Leontieva, who goes all over the world giving Russia a very good name and many others.

So there is free giving and taking across all the borders. In this audience there are probably a dozen of those teachers, but without getting into names, I would like to reiterate that Russia is well represented. When Hannah and I came back from the Himalayas in 1972 and started establishing meditation centres, after three years of learning from the lamas and doing the Nöndro (preliminary practices) and a few other things, I sometimes wrote 70 postcards a day to make sure to get the information out everywhere, and on Sundays when it was cheap and there was a family tariff I also used the telephone. But we would never have managed to keep things together like that, were it not for several factors. The first reason we are growing so well is that there are more educated idealistic people today than ever before. And the second reason is the new technologies. The Internet is an incredible thing. We use both audio and video streaming quite a lot.

One year after my wife’s death, when I gave a talk about her in our Europe Centre, 1400 computers were attached to that channel, and nowadays every evening three or four hundred computers from around the world get connected to streamed lectures and courses. So, there is the idealism of the upcoming educated generation, modern technology and the teachings based on the highest view. This three things came together and I think we are benefiting a few people.
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