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Tibet: Features Arts and Culture The Influence of Tibetan Buddhist Culture in the Western World

The Influence of Tibetan Buddhist Culture in the Western World

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shedra_groupDharamshala: It is one of those tragic historical paradoxes: the Chinese invade Tibet in the 1950’s and  ‘liberate’ the people, spread economic modernism and quash an ancient ‘backward’ religious culture, instead, or indeed in spite of this, Tibetan Buddhist culture travels to all corners of the globe.

Or, to put it more poetically, and prophetically, quoting Padmasambhava, the Indian Buddhist Guru who helped to spread Buddhism in Tibet originally:  “When the iron bird flies, and horses run on wheels, the Tibetan people will be scattered like ants across the world, and the Dharma will come to the land of the red faced people”.

On the 13th of May this year, 2012, I visited Dzogchen Beara, a Buddhist monastery and retreat centre on the south-west coast of Ireland, under the spiritual direction of Sogyal Rinpoche, author of The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying.

The centre is one of many Tibetan Buddhist temples and monasteries scattered across Europe and North America propagating, and practicing, the different strands of Tibetan Buddhism to Westerners. While there I interviewed Matt Padwick, director of the centre, and we talked about the influence of Tibetan Buddhism on Ireland, and on the West in general.

Matthew told me that the centre was originally the idea of Peter and Harriet Cornish-who could kindly be described as an archetypal English hippie couple on the run from western materialist culture in the early 1970’s, and perhaps in search of something more meaningful and spiritually rewarding.

In 1973 they bought some land in Co Cork, Ireland with a wish to create a space that would accommodate people from all of the world’s spiritual traditions: Catholicism, Hinduism, Judaism etc, and also however for people on their own individual journey.

In 1992 they offered the land and buildings to Sogyal Rinpoche and he named it Dzogchen Beara; Dzogchen or ‘Great Perfection’ in Tibetan is the path of Self-Liberation. Dzogchen is regarded as the highest teaching in Tibetan Buddhism and the teaching is ultimately about realizing the ‘’innermost nature of [our] mind[s]’’

They wanted to create a healing environment, some place where people could retreat to- a beautiful natural place, Matthew said.

‘’A number of things have helped to [spread Tibetan Buddhism] one, is the popularity of His Holiness the Dalai Lama-who embodies the teachings-and also the mainstreaming of meditation itself [into Western life], and its benefits.’’ In addition, Matthew added, ‘’we live in a complex, speedy world’’ and the practices of Tibetan Buddhism have ‘’struck a chord’’.

Tibetan Buddhism is ‘’a gift to the West, and at no time has it been more needed’’.

In particular we talked about Ireland, were Buddhist meditation (of all Asian traditions) has been growing in popularity since the 1990’s. Is it fulfilling a need, a desire, a void or even a hunger?

We agreed that Ireland, perhaps because of its recent social and economic history, is now at a place where the integrity of many Buddhist practices is perhaps more trusted than the older religious, social, economic and even political shibboleths. Moreover, the same could be said of the whole of the Western world in general.

‘’We are having our illusions pulled out from under us…everything we believed in, everything that gave us a kind of worth or value [has] proven to be empty or hollow…things are shaky now.’’

However Matthew added, whatever about any upheavals that may be taking place in Western society, it is the authentic transmission of Tibetan Buddhist traditions (to the West) that is of vital importance as lineage is important in all the Tibetan Buddhist schools, a lineage, from master to master, that actually goes right back to the historical Buddha’s teachings, ‘’it’s an unbroken line’’, Matthew said.

In essence, before Buddhism can truly take root in Ireland and the West, it is this that must be communicated and transplanted for it really to be embedded within the culture.

Perhaps Buddhism is now popular in the West because it is more than a religion, a custom, a thing to be ‘done’ unquestionably, it is also, Matthew added,’’ a philosophy, an attitude, a way of life, you could almost say it’s a tool box [which tells us] how to be’’.

Matthew concluded the interview by asking me to thank the Tibetan people-while I am here in Dharamshala- for both bringing and teaching the different schools of Buddhism to the West, ‘’it’s a gift’’…’’and it’s a gift we’re grateful for.’’

The possibility, or perhaps even probability, given the historical precedence of Buddhism travelling to other societies and cultures, is that Western Buddhism will take many forms (American, French, traditional, progressive) and that the cultural trappings, and politics, of Tibetan Buddhism will be firstly discarded, and then eventually replaced. What is left will hopefully be the essence of the teachings, its purity.

What form Buddhism eventually takes in the West-which is a profoundly non-contemplative and egocentric place-, is possibly anybody’s guess. However, one thing is surely certain; the West will owe a profound gratitude to the teachings and spiritual transmissions of Tibetan Buddhism.
Last Updated ( Thursday, 12 July 2012 13:15 )  


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