Buddhist Training for Modern Life

A discussion with Segyu Rinpoche and Lawrence Levy of the Juniper School

In "Buddhist Training for Modern Life" (Interview, Spring 2012), Segyu Rinpoche, the founder of the Juniper School, discusses how Juniper is extending the lineage of Buddhist transmission in a way that is suited to a Western understanding. In this community discussion we will be exploring culturally appropriate ways to transmit Buddhist teachings to Westerners. How do we avoid, on one side, the danger of mimicking cultural artifacts that have little meaning in a new place and, on the other side, losing the potency of the tradition? What is the benefit of holding a lineage for ourselves and others, and how do we meet the responsibility of doing so?

Please share your thoughts and questions on this topic or any other topic in the interview. The discussion leaders are Segyu Rinpoche and Lawrence Levy of the Juniper School.

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Dominic Gomez's picture

Good point. Reminds us that Shakyamuni himself rejected the "spiritual magic", et al. prevalent then.

d2275766's picture

I was born into a christian family and became christian more by defalt than choice. After many years of questioning I decided to switch to Buddhism. What I thought of as Buddhism was what I read about the original teachings of the Buddha and the example set by the Dalai Lama. Then I started to hear about all the types of Buddhism. It became almost overwhelming when asked "well what type of Buddhist are you". At that time I had to ask myself if I even wanted to be called Buddist. It was the that I went back to the basics. The answer was yes. This is a philosophy that I can follow. It encourages me to ask why. For now it's the basic that still draw me.

Bernay's picture

I started in Buddhism in the Gelupa Tibetan tradition some 19 years ago (www.tibetanbuddhistsociety.com.au/) and stayed with it for 10 years.
I am very grateful to my Australian teacher who introduces me to Buddhism.
Meanwhile I was frustrated with several aspects:
- the Tibetan (I do love the Tibetan art and culture but it's not useful in the context of Buddhism in the West)
- the religious aspects and
- the Buddha being depicted almost as a god.

For me Buddhism is a practice and the Buddha just another human being.

After 10 years I discovered the Theravada tradition (www.bswa.org.au/) and suddenly the Buddha appeared as the simple human being he was.
He was like we all are and he was just looking for freedom from suffering as I am.

I also discovered that the message of the Buddha was readily available in the Pali Suttas and I'm pleased not to have to rely on someone else commentary (being Theravada and/or Mahayana).

With Metta to all.

markkemark's picture

Bernay...your frustrations are mine also...navigating through Tibetan Buddhism was hard for me to accept but finding Theravada has kept me going on my path. Thank you for your input, this whole discussion has been great learning.

ss485's picture

Great response Bernay. I too agree with your 3 aspects of frustrations and I am also involved in the Theravada tradition. It makes the most sense to me as someone who does not believe in a deity, especially an all powerful deity...

Dominic Gomez's picture

The Law has been successfully transmitted beyond its culture of origin due to the universality of the 4 sufferings: birth, aging, illness and death. Handled differently by the various belief systems, the practice of Buddhism manages these 4 aspects of life most directly and realistically.

d2275766's picture

Impermanence, a state of constant change. Why should it be any different coming west. How easy it is to be stuck in old ideas and not accept change. Everywhere buddhism has traveled it has adapted to fit the enviroment. The basic tenents remain the same.

Lawrence Levy's picture

Agreed. The problem of adapting to new circumstances is shared by traditions of all shapes and sizes, spiritual and otherwise. Fear of change is a strong deterrent, and the tentacles of dogma have a long reach. It takes courage to yield to impermanence and to keep growing and moving with the flow. Buddhist methods have much to offer in this domain, but we have to embrace them in our own way, plant them in our culture, and see them flourish.

danbarnes80's picture

Lol, It was meant to be amusing, but also a compliment! In the end it is important, as I understand it as a novice, not to reinforce dualistic thinking. But also I think it's important to have a way in, to be accesible to newcomers (and ones of all ages), some of whom will find it understandably difficult to absorb a new culture, much less "realize emptiness". Otherwise, what do you tell Joe Schmoe, the middle-class, middle-aged regular guy who's looking for a path? Just send him to the Presbyterians up the street?

soulsistashakti's picture

a compliment how delightful! now i'm laughing even more :) i love it!

Lawrence Levy's picture

We tell Joe to relax, and not become overwhelmed by the philosophical musing about dualism, emptiness, and the like. Yes, Buddhist ideas are a rich - very rich - source of ideas and insight, but just like a new skier, we don't have to navigate the double black diamonds in order to enjoy the crisp air and beautiful scenery. Just buy a season pass and keep on skiing!

danbarnes80's picture

I like your approach! It's really interesting to see this happening within the Tibetan tradition. Seems like there are a lot of skillful means to be found that folks like me might overlook just because we can't countenance a literal view of rebirth or are uncomfortable with certain cultural accretions. Tantra, for instance. I'd love to get Stephen Batchelor's take on this.

soulsistashakti's picture

arrogant wasn't needed nor was mercilous ego-killers :) lol...

thank you...i've just seen where lightness along with my directness will be beneficial to me when i get uptight on a position :) your lines made me laugh and i certainly feel lighter.

the soul sista nyc

danbarnes80's picture

Irish, Where/when do you draw this line,the moment Buddhism came west? Should the Tibetans be faulted for the things in their practice that are different from the original Indian forms? What about Pure Land, a pretty radical departure from early Buddhism? Why are evolved Asian forms acceptable but not evolving western forms? Should Asian practitioners be looking for something "harder" than prostration, something to make them uncomfortable? Westerners who are uncomfortable with prostration are not necessarily "arrogant", they're just uncomfortable. I think the dharma is for everyone, regular people, not just mercilous ego-killers like yourself. The path starts where you are, and not everything about it should be difficult right from the beginning.

That said, bowing as is done in martial arts dojos is something we're all quite familiar with, and shows respect but isn't taken for worship. Perhaps it could be argued that we should replace the prostration with a bow, rather than no gesture at all.

irishzorro's picture

Thank you for sharing your thoughts everyone! There may be some cultural trappings in Buddhism, but for the most part I dont think there is much...I feel the contrary is true. As far as prostrations go, it is only off-putting to the egoic mind, so if people are truly prepared to engage in Dharma practice I feel prostrations would be even more effective and a potent form of practice in cultures where it is not customary. Where it is a cultural norm it is more likely to just be a "going through the motions" kind of practice that everyone does, where as if it truly highlights where we are getting stuck then it has great potential to transform and purify our minds. If people oppose it and are put off by it, then it is essential that one examines ones intentions for engaging in Dharma practice, otherwise it will only turn into a self-serving and ego-boosting hobby with no true depth and purity to ones practice, as it more than likely is for those who arrogantly oppose such a practice. We must look to the essence of practices, and not get hooked by our prideful thoughts that project our opinions of something being merely cultural, and thus ignoring the authentic practice embodied by what our negative minds repel. Any thoughts?

Segyu Rinpoche's picture

We are not against prostration by any means. However, we also feel it is not a condition for engaging the path of Buddhist training. Rather than impose a practice that might be off-putting, we would rather accomplish the same path of inner training in a way that is more inviting and culturally appropriate. When we elevate Buddhist methods to the status of inviolable doctrine, we run the risk of running afoul of its own insight teachings that direct us not to hold onto conventions as dogma. This includes Buddhist conventions. In this way, Buddhist thought continually challenges us to go beyond dogma and forge a path of growth, clarity and insight that works for all.

fairway Linda's picture

Very interesting! I too wonder where the line can be drawn between baby and bathwater. How do we keep from just leaving in what we like or what palettable? Thank you so much for your courageous ideas, Rinpoche, you seem like a far-seeing man!

Lawrence Levy's picture

Thanks for the kind thoughts. You ask the right question. We have to put our trust somewhere. In Juniper's case that is in Segyu Rinpoche. Rinpoche is a lineage holder of a renowned Tibetan Buddhist lineage (called the "Segyu") and trained for over twenty-five years with his teacher, Kyabje Lati Rinpoche (1922-2010), one of Tibetan Buddhism’s most acclaimed masters of recent times and the former abbot of Gaden Shartse Monastery. Whenever we come close to throwing out the baby, or doing merely what we feel is palatable, he pulls us right back!