Buddhism for the Modern Tibetan

Buddhism for the Modern Tibetan
Bhuchung K. Tsering
Tibetan World magazine, June 2007

Let me indulge in some rambling thoughts about religion.  One of the
challenges before young Tibetans of today is how to approach their
religious heritage. This is because of the change in the environment
in which many Tibetans are living today. There may be some Tibetans
who are able to adopt an appropriate approach and thereby get the
benefit of spiritualism. Others may have not really tried finding an
approach and also may not care much for they may not see the relevance
of religion in their day-to-day lives. There may be others who may not
even have made an attempt at understanding but use the superficial
knowledge they have about religion and pass negative judgments against
it.

Given this situation and the fact that the social conditions for the
Tibetans have changed since the days of free Tibet when Tibetan
Buddhism flourished in a purely Tibetan surrounding, it is my
contention that young Tibetans today need to do some introspection
about their religion and change their mindset. In short, the lay
Tibetans of today need to approach the religion similar to the way
many of the new Western Buddhists approach it; read, study and practice.

When I am asked to point out one clear difference between the old
generation and the new in the Tibetan community, I respond that it may
be in their approach towards Tibet and the Tibetan issue. The old
generation has an emotional connection to Tibet whereas the younger
generation has a strong feeling of identity. If we probe this issue of
Tibetan identity further then we come face to face with Tibetan
Buddhist culture and Tibetan Buddhism.

I am no expert on Tibetan Buddhism, but it could be said that an
average lay Tibetan has more awareness about the ritual aspect of our
religion than about the more important spiritual philosophy. This
situation worked well in the past in Tibet when we had a different
kind of life style, including working hours, and our people were
living in a homogenous society. The clergy took care of spiritual
pursuits while, with the exception of a few, the lay community became
benefactors and merely undertook ritual exercises. Today, in addition
to the overall changing times, the Tibetans, both inside Tibet and
outside, live in changed societies. The Tibetan people?s life style is
changing. In addition to being exposed to outside culture, more and
more of our people are adopting a five or six-day work culture with
nuclear family becoming the tradition, at least in the Indian
subcontinent and in the West.

I would assume that the average reader of the Tibetan World is a young
Tibetan who has either finished schooling some years back or studying
in some colleges on the Indian subcontinent.  I would also think that
the majority of the readers have finished their high schools in the
Tibetan schools, whether Central Schools for Tibetans, Tibetan
Children?s Villages, or Tibetan Homs Foundation.  This would mean that
they have had some basic grounding in Tibetan Buddhism.

Given that, unless you have been a conscientious student during your
school days you may not have absorbed much about the philosophical
aspect of our religion.  Of course, we come out of school being able
to recite some of the prayers, which we may be continuing to recite
wherever we are or whatever work we do.  But even there, do we really
know what these prayers mean and how they relate to our day-to-day work?

More importantly, what does being a Buddhist mean? It is not enough to
feel that one is a Buddhist by merely doing the daily recitation or
being able to attend the occasional teachings by His Holiness the
Dalai Lama or some lamas. I have heard of a tradition among the older
Tibetans that says that if one has attended the Kalachakra teachings
seven times one is assured of a better rebirth the next life.  This is
of course no where near the truth.  It may even inspire young Tibetans
to read what other fellow Buddhists of similar ages are thinking about
their religion. There are at least two books, Blue Jean Buddha and The
Buddha’s Apprentices, which reflect  the voices of young Buddhists.
The latter actually has contributions by two young Tibetans, Tenzin
Youdon Takshamtsang and Tenzin Dorjee, who reside in the United States.

There is a verse in the Bible that says, “The fear of the Lord is the
beginning of wisdom,” which is being interpreted as saying, ?standing
in awe of God puts us in a position where we can begin to see and
understand things in their proper perspective.? Similarly, young
Tibetan Buddhists may or have realized the fact that mere faith is not
enough to sustain our belief. The faith needs to be supported by
knowledge for us to get a proper perspective of Buddhism.

One way the modern Tibetan can approach Buddhism is by learning about
it in the language one is most familiar with it, whether Tibetan,
English, German, French, or even Chinese. Certainly, there are young
Tibetans today who find it easier to understand Buddhism when they
hear the translation of the teachings in English or read about it in
English. For those Tibetans reading in English I would recommend two
publications that can help us in our Buddhist practice. The first is
the last few chapters from His Holiness the Dalai Lama?s first memoir,
My Land & My People. They deal with Buddhism of Tibet and how it is
relevant in this life and the next.  It has been published separately
as Buddhism of Tibet & the Key to the Middle Way, initially by the
Library of Tibetan Works & Archives, and updated as The Buddhism of
Tibet by Snow Lion Publications.  It gives one a summary of what
Buddhism means and provides the necessary background for the practice.
The other book that I would recommend is Paths and Aspirations of
the Enlightened Ones by the Library of Tibetan Works & Archives.  It
is a translation into English of the prayers that many of us may be
reciting. I have had a better understanding of my own aspirations
after following these translations and bearing them in mind as I
recite some of the prayers.

These are just the preliminary steps that could lead us to the
understanding of the major Buddhist texts that are taken up at the
various teachings.

The extraordinary three-day teaching given by His Holiness the Dalai
Lama to young Tibetans in Dharamsala in June, I felt, was an effort by
him to lead them to adopt a different mindset. I listened to the
recording of the sessions and could see how His Holiness laid the
basic foundation on the first day by projecting the relevance of
Buddhism in a modern scientific world. In the next two days he took
time to explain the major Buddhist concepts. The manner in which His
Holiness encouraged the people to ask him questions following a
session was an attempt by him to change the people?s mindset.  This is
something that does not usually happen in a Tibetan cultural
environment and is more familiar in a Western surrounding. But to
their credit many of the questions were thought provoking revealing
the thirst for knowledge.

In short a modern Tibetan needs to find the right approach towards
modern Buddhism.

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