Tea-time reflections

Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche, View Magazine, issue 8, 1997

In the quietly elegant lounge of the Hampshire Hotel, on London’s Leicester Square, Dzongsar Khyentse Kinpoche shared afternoon tea with friends and students during a brief visit to England in November.

Seated on floral upholstery and drinking Darjeeling from a fine porcelain cup, he concluded an advice to Western practitioners of Dharma which he had begun to develop during the Rigpa summer retreat in Lerab Ling, France.

When Buddhism travelled to Tibet from India in the 8th Century CE, the pandits or scholar-saints of that time faced tremendous difficulties in trying to establish Dharma in a new country. We can read their stories in the histories and biographies of the period. Now something similar is happening here in the West. Buddhism is travelling from East to West, and has begun to flourish here for the first time.

I feel that the initial stage in the process of establishing Buddhism in the West is now almost over. In Tibet it took much longer, of course, because of the historical and geographical situation. They had no such things as fax machines and E-mail. It is thanks to modern technology that the Buddhist teachings have taken root so fast in the West. But this brings its dangers, too.

The 11th century founder of the Sakya School of Tibetan Buddhism, Sakya Pandita, told the story of a butcher in Tibet who was very poor. The main assistant he had to help him in his work was a donkey, who would carry carcasses on his back ali the way to the butcher’s shop. One day the butcher’s donkey died. He was distraught about this, fearing that without him he would be unable to make as good a living as before. He therefore decided, somewhat reluctantly, to make some quick income out of the donkey’s meat.

In Tibet, however, donkey meat was considered unfit for human consumption. In order to get round this problem, the butcher cut the tail off a deer carcass, and displayed it in his shop right next to the donkey meat which, of course, he had carefully skinned. When his customers came into the shop, their eyes were drawn to the fresh chunks of meat on the counter. They asked him what kind of meat it was, and he feigned ignorance. “I don’t know,” he said, vaguely. “It’s an animal that seems to have this kind of tail,” and he pointed to the deer’s tail. People assumed that the poor butcher was simply very stupid. “You don’t even know that this is deer’s meat!” they exclaimed. Deer meat was a delicacy in Tibet, and highly valued for its medicinal properties. So, of course, many people bought the meat.

What Sakya Pandita is trying to say through this story is that when the Dharma flourishes in a new country, the authentic teaching of the Buddha can actually disappear. In the midst of all the materialistic spiritual practices we now find in the market place, true Dharma may remain unrecognized. I think this situation is somehow beginning to happen in the West, and will get worse if we are not careful.

So many of the teachings we can come across are very impressive. They may seem to make perfect sense and be very logical, like the argument about the deer’s tail. After all, the deer’s tail itself was genuine, the problem was that the rest of the meat was not deer meat. In the same way we have to be very alert, because one part of a teaching might be quite genuine, while the rest of what you are being offered is not.

In some ways, the demand for a spiritual path, and for a spiritual alternative to contemporary values and lifestyles, is becoming greater and greater because people’s insecurity has increased. Along with this insecurity comes a lot of suspicion and distrust — but also the other extreme, a sort of blind trust. Therefore, since the demand for spiritual teachings is so great, if people like myself are looking to profit from the situation, now seems to be the perfect time to launch our marketing campaign!

I don’t know much about business, but I think what a successful businessman does first is to point out to people what they don’t have. When finally the person asks, “where can I get what I don’t have?” he tells him, “this is precisely what I can offer you”. This marketing approach is happening in the spiritual world, too.

Teachers who are still bound by worldly concerns, such as desire for fame and wealth, and who are still more interested in themselves than others, will do almost anything in order to achieve material gain. And there is no doubt that when you meet very insecure and confused people, it is quite easy to sell the idea of Dharma to them. We could almost say that as long as there is a fundamental insecurity in people, such ‘Dharma business’ will not collapse.

This danger is very real. We could end up with a situation in which all so-called spiritual teachers are only interested in their own careers. It makes me very sad to see that things have already slipped in this direction. If you go into a bookshop these days, for example, you often find books on Bud- dhism tucked away in sections full of books which, in my view, are com- pletely groundless, pathless and viewless. Nobody seems able to make a distinction between them.

I have another concern, too, and that is that in the West, Buddhism is developing in a very limited way. It is treated by some as a particular kind of therapy, and by others as some kind of method for relaxation. That is very sad. Buddhism is so vast. It is a study of everything. Maybe the reason behind this misunderstanding of the true scope of Buddha’s teaching is the way paintings, robes, chants and so on somehow obscure what Buddhism really is. People interpret it as something very limited — simply as another religion, for instance — and actually it is much more than this. In fact, it is beyond religion altogether.

The main point I would like to make here is that I believe it is time for those who really want to find the path to enlightenment to study Buddhism seriously and systematically.

Trust in the Path

If you have a trust in the path, then no matter what happens on the way, you will not collapse in the middle.

Let us take a simple example. We know that Paris lies, say to the east, but we don’t know how to get there. A guide comes up to us and says helpfully, “Look, I know how to get to Paris”. You don’t have much choice, so you follow him. The guide takes you in an eastwardly direction, as you expected, but somewhere en route he fumbles with his bag and takes out a map to check his next step. Earlier. of course, he had claimed that he knew the way! But as you already know that Paris is to the east, no matter what your guide does — even if he reads the map upside down — provided he leads you in a generally eastward direction you know you are on the right track. You might have to negotiate some difficult parts, like rocks, cliffs or whatever, yet even though it may not be an easy journey you know you will reach your destination.

But these days it happens differently. We don’t really care about the direction we need to take to get to Paris. We are more inspired by our guide — how he looks, how he talks. and how impressive he is. Moved by a limited sort of inspirational disease you might follow him, without knowing for sure that he knows where he is going. He might not even check the map. But in any case, as you have no idea of the right direction to take, you are completely in his hands. He may be leading you south, and you would suspect nothing.

Of course, if you have a certain merit from your past lives, even though your guide leads you in the wrong direction you just might end up in Paris anyway! But it may take a long time, and to have accidental success of this kind is very rare indeed. I would not put too much trust in this kind of accidental success. I would rather that you know the general direction to take and then, no matter what happens, and no matter how your guide acts, nothing will shake your trust in the knowledge that you must go eastward.

This is what the West needs. We need to study Buddhism. We need to learn the Dharma because even a little understanding of it can help.

Then, if you are interested in practising, you need one other indispensable thing: a good, genuine, renunciation mind. Being genuine and having renunciation are so important! The great master Jamyang Khyentse Wangpo said that as long as a person has a hang-up, he or she is qualified to practise Dharma. This is because hang-ups can be the ground for all enlightened qualities. There are certain people, like existentialists, who don’t believe in religion, in reincarnation, in marriage, in virtuous conduct and so on, and who say they only believe in what they have in front of them, like coffee or tea. But actually that’s not true. Everybody has a belief. If we ask such a person to take off their clothes in public, they will refuse because they will be embarrassed. Yet if someone doesn’t have any belief whatsoever, why should they feel embarrassed? They should just do it. If you have really gone beyond beliefs of any kind, that is enlightenment; but as long as you have a hang-up, that means you have a belief, and this can be used as a ground for your practice. I do not mean, of course, that ali you need to be a Dharma practitioner is a hang-up. Everybody has hang-ups anyway. The point here is that you need to admit you have such hang-ups, and that becomes genuineness.

So this is my advice: study, develop renunciation mind, and be genuine; in everything be genuine. That is all. You don’t need anything other than these three.