Tibetan Buddhism in the West: Is It Working?

An interview with B. Alan WallaceBrian Hodel

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B. Alan Wallace trained for ten years in Buddhist monasteries in India and Switzerland. He has taught Buddhist theory and practice in Europe and America since 1976 and served as interpreter for numerous Tibetan teachers, including His Holiness the Dalai Lama. Author of the forthcoming Buddhism with an Attitude (Snow Lion Publications), Wallace has contributed to more than thirty books on Tibetan Buddhism, medicine, language, and culture. He presenty teaches in the Department of Religious Studies at the University of California at Santa Barbara. This interview, conducted by Brian Hodel, is an expanded version of an interview that first appeared in Snow Lion, the newsletter of Snow Lion Publications.

An excerpt of his new book appear here.

© Rikka Zimmerman

Have Tibetan teachers of Buddhism had to make changes to accommodate a growing community of Western students?

In Asia—India, Nepal, Sikkim, and Bhutan, for example—since the late 1960s or early ’70s, lamas have given public teachings that have been primarily directed to the Tibetan community, but Westerners have always been welcome to attend. Unless the teachings were of a very high level of, let’s say, tantric teachings. Even then, if Westerners qualified, had the appropriate initiations, or were encouraged to attend by their own lamas, then they were welcome to attend those as well. There are a number of Tibetan monasteries in the south of India where training is quite open to Westerners.

And in the West?

In the West, when Tibetan lamas offer teachings the format is altered because these lamas are usually on tour. It’s common for them to give weekend workshops or one-night lectures. Or they may stay in a place for a longer time and give a one-week or a two-week retreat. But, for the most part, that’s as long as it ever gets. Then some are resident lamas with their own centers where more sustained training is given.

In the monastic setting, teachings follow a coherent order. What’s the effect of teaching outside this format?

In the West, it is very common that a lama will pass through a city and give a tantric Buddhist initiation and a weekend of esoteric teachings on visualization practices or ways of experiencing a state of pure awareness. What’s missing here in the vast majority of cases is the profound context: the theoretical context, the context of faith, the context of a mature spiritual community. The teachings themselves, though perfectly traditional, are being introduced in a radically nontraditional context. And this, I think, has on numerous occasions led to terrible misunderstandings and a great deal of unnecessary conflict, unrest, confusion, and suffering.

Such as?

Back in the late 1970s some very fine lamas came to this country and gave a number of advanced teachings.

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