Buddhism in the West


An Interview with Lama Jigme Rinpoche by Nathalie Verburgh

Nathalie Verburgh: Rinpoche, I know you must have gained a great deal of experience in dealing with westerners from living and teaching in a French dharma center for many years. Since people have many different concepts about Buddhism, could you tell us what does Buddhism mean to you?
Generally it means the teachings of the Buddha which contain different levels of instructions. In my view, Buddhists are people who follow and practice the teachings of the Buddha in order to reach enlightenment. There are also different ways of practicing. Westerners, for example, are searching more for truthful ideas and actions which benefit sentient beings. They are more inclined to follow the Mahayana ideals which are a part of the teachings of the Buddha. One can find these ethics in other religions as well; however, Buddhism gives a precise and extensive explanation as to how the mind functions, which is why it is so popular with Westerners.

The derivation of philosophy is 'one who loves truth /wisdom'. Can one consider a Buddhist a lover of truth?
Yes, actually the whole world is searching for truth, but in the process of acquiring it, many obstacles often arise. We want to be true and loving people, and we want to engage in good activities, but we often end up pursuing our own benefit rather than the common good. Even if the intention behind a project is initially a good one, gradually it may become more and more negative by becoming attached to temporary personal gains. We might feel that our ideas are right, but the results sometimes harm others. His Holiness the Dalai Lama has said that we need a movement towards peace in the world, but this peace is largely dependent on the scientists and politicians who make world decisions. They have to start thinking with a more far reaching vision toward the future. Also, many people in the industry have good intentions to begin with, but their initial motivation is often overridden by self interest, especially as one becomes more powerful. However, the Buddha always taught to never harm beings, but instead to help them.

Normally, because we are completely immersed in our life activities, we lack the ability to reflect on our actions and are thus caught in a never ending cycle in which we go through the same situations again and again. Illusions and ignorance prevent us from going deeper and getting liberated from this cycle. Unless we look deeper, we won't be able to transcend our ordinary perspectives, and we will continue to be trapped in the same situation.

In following a Buddhist path, is there a danger of getting stuck in another kind of cycle by getting attached to the idea of attaining results through meditation practice and study, and thus be led away from the truth?
In one way everything is dangerous, in another way nothing is. You move along a path and then it depends on you and not on the path. If we are mindful nothing is dangerous because in practicing awareness, the outward circumstances simply remain the same, and yet careful attention is paid to how we act. Actually, if you are unclear, everything is unclear, and if you are clear, everything is clear and positive.

But actually most of us are unclear, aren't we?
Again, it depends. Nobody is absolutely clear, but if you are aware of your mind, clarity is there.

But is it possible for a philosophy, or a way of thinking, to lead to a direct perception of the truth?
It depends on your own understanding. The practice I'm speaking of here is first to observe and then to investigate by analyzing for yourself. Practicing awareness of mind means, for example, to observe our emotions and how they arise. First a person clings to a certain concept, and from this an emotional state arises, and finally action follows from the emotion. But if one is aware of oneself, one will not become carried away by this process.

Actually, emotions aren't the cause of disturbance in the mind. The root cause of disturbance is basic ignorance of our true nature. When strong emotions arise, this can be seen as a good opportunity to look inward and see that the fundamental causes of emotions are jealousy, attachment and pride. From these basic causes, emotional states such as happiness, wanting to cry, fight or destroy something arise. Jealousy, attachment and pride, based on the mistaken belief that the five skandhas actually constitute a self, are the concepts from which the emotions arise.

There are many different Buddhist paths, such as the Theravada, the Tibetan and Chinese systems of the Mahayana, and others. What are their origins? Are some superior to others?
They came about because of the different cultures. There are different ways and levels of understanding. Nowadays, these differences are not so big. People's minds are basically similar.

How do you see Buddhism developing in the West?
Buddhism follows the needs of the people. In the West, people are interested in Buddhism principally to solve immediate problems of daily life, and to resolve emotional confusion. Often in the West, initially people come to Buddhism because of immediate problems and then often stay and go deeper. Westerners want useful tools that they can apply to their immediate difficulties and Buddhist teachings and explanations can support them and help them to find solutions. It is viewed as an ethical system which can be used to develop a peaceful mind, and can serve as an efficient means for balancing and regulating one's outer lifestyle.

Tibetans tend to view Buddhism differently. They tend to focus on creating good karma for the next life through purifying their present karma, and in general, on spiritual development leading eventually to enlightenment. You see, that's why most Tibetans don't study (Rinpoche laughs). They just focus on a simple training in ethical practice for their whole life. But Tibetan peoples' minds seem less confused, and they don't worry about temporary problems; they look more toward the long term view.

You are presently teaching in Europe. What is your method of teaching?
Basically, I try to help people reach greater mental clarity. Many people are too involved in a materialistic lifestyle and are confused, and this starts them on spiritual search. Even so, individuals each have their own special difficulties, so I usually use the same groundwork of teachings but with a different form of explanation, depending on the individuals and their ability to understand.

Do you teach individually or in groups?
At first, I always give a general explanation on Buddhism, whether to a group or to an individual, and then slowly, depending on the individual's needs and questions, the method of teaching becomes more detailed and more individual.

I know, you also teach at seminars on inner development, where groups of people come together to discover and explore Buddhist values through personal experience, group exercises and short discussions. Can you tell us more about this?
Actually, Bernard Leblanc is the organizer of these seminars, but I join in and teach twice a day on how to discover our real natures, explore our basic emotions and develop a compassionate mind, which is also attentive and creative. Since the seminars are mainly for business people, I emphasize the notion of "materialistic" bodhicitta, which is a blend of kindness and practicality in action. When you do business, if you engage in aggressive competition in the market, then your mind will always be suffering because you grow accustomed to seeing everybody as your enemy, as if they were ferocious animals trying to eat you. Nobody is really going to eat you, but you still feel you will be eaten. Therefore, you need to separate your work from yourself. Then your understanding becomes different. The mind becomes more peaceful, work is more efficient and one's speech is more appropriate.

In our discussions we explore ancient and modern European history and discover trends in society's development. Every system for social change begins with an excellent motivation, such as social benefits for the sick and aged, but somehow the initial aim becomes distorted. Eventually, out of a wish for self preservation, policies are instituted which are cruel and even destructive. For example, people focus on the need for powerful weaponry to defend their homeland or, on a smaller scale, inhumane business practices are followed. Last year in France, due to the faltering economy, many companies gave up their policy of training their employees to be more efficient, and simply decided to fire people. It winds up being destructive to everyone involved, and creates a feeling of ill will and mistrust among the employees.

Another angle we explore is more personal. People specializing in technical fields can slowly become machine- like. If they don't use their own intelligence and creativity, they may know how to use machines, but nothing more. So their minds become very narrow. Technical knowledge is important but you also have to use your creative mind. It is comparable with the Buddhist practice of visualizing yidam. When you visualize Chenrezig in meditation, you slowly become like Chenrezig. In our world, we take a job to survive; it is something temporary. Aside from this, you may also be a nice man or woman, and you can develop yourself in many ways. You have to separate yourself from your job, or otherwise you may become like a robot.

Sometimes, when you see a veteran of the military, even if he is seventy years old, his mind is still in the army. You can be in the army, but when you go home at the end of the day, you should just be a nice man again. Being aware of this distinction can also help a person to be more sincere and honest in the work place. Out of practical necessity some people may feel a need to use strategy and act aggressively due to the demands of their occupation, but they can still maintain an inner mind of bodhicitta by being centered in the wish to help others.

Also, we sometimes pass judgment on other people based on outer appearance. For example, if somebody is a soldier, some people automatically think he is a bad person, and if someone else is a religious leader or holy person, they will instinctively think that he is good. Why should it be like this? Through Buddhism you can learn to separate what you do and who you are. You can separate your prejudices from reality.

We are used to identifying ourselves with what we do and Buddhism can help us to look beyond this. Is this correct?
Individuals need to have an explanation as to how they can develop both spiritually and practically. Of course you can develop through your career, but if you go completely in that direction, you become more and more strange; you get a different personality. You don't have a natural mind any more.

Young boys and girls, for example, have very fresh minds which are very fragile and easily excited. Therefore, they need to discover themselves without relying on external support. Normally, young people always look for a crutch to rely on. For example, they put make-up on their faces and consequently rely on the make-up and not on their real faces. They smoke cigarettes, take drugs and drink alcohol, because their minds are not satisfied. They need to be taught how to explore their inner minds because they don't have much personal experience of life.

But young people are not alone. Every group of people needs instruction in the meaning of inner mental training (dharma) to show them how they can improve themselves.

How can Buddhism improve daily life in the modern West?
Buddhism can make life easier. Every day you have to do certain things. If you keep awareness in your mind, you won't have so many emotional disturbances and will therefore become more alive. Exhaustion is caused by stress. In the afternoon, people sometimes seem very tired, but there is no real physical or mental cause. Some people can work the whole day, having only a little bit of food, and still do not feel exhausted. After work, they are ready to do more things.

You know, when you are on holiday, no matter how strenuous one's activities are, it doesn't seem to matter, but at work, if your motivation is not so clear or strong, it is easy to become exhausted. Even minor difficulties create a feeling of stress. Mental fatigue is mostly emotional in origin. It all depends on one's approach. People are tired because they have no personal freedom. They just use machines and mostly do automatic work. They don't live a proper human life. Everything is difficult for these people and they suffer due to their mental tendencies and work habits. Buddhism can help them understand these problems and offer solutions.

Are these 'remedies' sufficient to bring about enlightenment?
No, for this, you have to do more. But ordinarily people first like to have a good understanding of their situation. Even though the results of self analysis will be beneficial, for those people who want to go deeper there is no limit...

Nathalie Verburgh was a student at the Karmapa International Buddhist Institute in New Delhi. She lives in Belgium.

BUDDHISM TODAY, Vol.1, 1996. Copyright ©1996 Diamond Way Buddhist Centers USA