Wanted: More Buddhist Professionals
By Karl Brunnhölzl
“The transmission of Indo-Tibetan Buddhism to the West only began about fifty years ago. So it is too early to draw a final comparison between this process and the transmission of Buddhism from India to Tibet, which took place over many centuries. Still, it seems timely to ask ourselves where we stand now.
In the past, Indian and Tibetan masters devoted their entire lives to transmitting the vast body of Indian Buddhist teachings and practices. Most were monastics, and it was their sole job to study and practice the Dharma. Usually they were supported by sponsors. Yet even with these favorable conditions, it took some five hundred years to accomplish the full transmission of three-yana Buddhism to Tibet.
The complete transmission on a Tibetan lineage includes the full curriculum of a monastic college, all the practices that are cultivated in long-term retreats, and a wealth of liturgical and ritual details. This is a difficult and highly demanding task, even in the East, with its great number of monastic full-time teachers. In the West, it is much more difficult.
Most Western Buddhists, including teachers and translators, are not monastics and have a regular day job. Many have studied with excellent Tibetan teachers, but only a few have had the opportunity to immerse themselves in a Tibetan lineage with a depth that is even close to what many Tibetan teachers do.
So it is no understatement to say that most of us are “hobby Buddhists” or “amateur Buddhists” who try to cram some Dharma into our already more than busy lives. Of course many people are quite content with that kind of engagement, and that’s fine. But if our goal is a full transmission of the three-yana lineages transmitted in Tibetan Buddhism, then what we need are more “Buddhist professionals.” These are Westerners, who, like their Asian counterparts, have the ability, time, interest, and support to make the study and practice of an entire Buddhist tradition that main focus of their lives.
Despite the efforts of dedicated Westerners who have studied and practiced for many years with Tibetan masters, the best we can say is that so far only bits and pieces of some Tibetan schools have been transmitted to Western Buddhists. And even this foundation is not very stable because of what seems to be the lack of a new generation of Western translators and teachers.
Why do we find ourselves in this situation?
(1) First, many Western Buddhists are ignorant of haw vast the teachings and practices of even a single lineage are and therefore believe that what they now know and practice as Tibetan Buddhism is pretty much all there is to it. For example, Tibetan Buddhism is typically understood as just Vajrayana Buddhism, but Tibetan lineages include extensive and very significant parts of what is taught in the Nikaya traditions and the sutra-based Mahayana tradition. Of course, not all students have to know and practice everything. But Western teachers, potentially even lineage holders, need to have a complete overview of what is available in a given tradition, and at least some experience of it, in order to properly guide students in accordance with their individual mind-sets and abilities.
(2) Second, there are hardly any institutions in the West where aspiring teachers and translators can receive systematic and comprehensive training. This training process—be it in study or practice—takes many years to complete, sometimes even decades, and it can require learning a foreign language, and at times, highly technical language.
(3) Third, even if someone is willing to put in the time and effort needed for such an endeavor, there is virtually no financial support available for it. I have seen a significant number of young and talented translators, scholars, and teachers stop their training in order to focus on making a living. The common Asian tradition of funding promising sangha members so they can eventually become teachers is far from being adopted in the West. Unlike Asian lay practitioners, it appears Westerners primarily want to use their financial resources to study and practice themselves rather than sponsor someone else who could receive a more full-fledged training and be able to benefit many people in return.
(4) Fourth, there is a lack of emotional support for Western teachers. Even though most Westerners say they want some Western form of Buddhism, there is a widespread (though often unspoken) bias in favor of Tibetan teachers over Western ones. To gain at least some recognition, Western teachers usually have to work harder, deliver better teachings, and have better conduct than Tibetan teachers. The unlimited authority of Tibetan teachers is often accepted without question by Western students, regardless of their actual qualifications. In contrast, even Western teachers with higher qualifications than some Tibetans are not readily accepted. When it comes to Western teachers, it’s not uncommon for students to think, “I know at least as much—or more—than this person.”
I urge practitioners to consider the necessity, role, and benefit of Western Buddhist professionals, and to understand what it takes for such people to manifest and flourish. Without them, the emergence of a self-sufficient and comprehensive three-yana Buddhist lineage in the West seems quite unlikely.”
Buddhadharma: The Practitioner’s Quarterly