Practicing Buddhism in the West

We often like to think that we’re busier and more stressed than our ancestors ever were; in the West we also seem to think that the arrival of Buddhism poses particular problems for us, due to cultural differences. Here, we’ll look at what’s changed, what’s the same, how we can deal with these issues, and the ageless practices that suit all times and cultures.

Are There Specific Difficulties in the Modern West for Practicing Buddhists?

Is there anything special about the practice of Buddhism in the West that is different from the practice of Buddhism anywhere else, at any time? Is there anything special about us? Why would we even be interested in knowing if there’s something special about us?

There could be several reasons. Some people might face some difficulties they think are specific to our time, and want to know how to overcome them. Others might be looking for an excuse not to have to practice as hard as people have done at other times; they’re looking for a bargain, they want enlightenment at a cheap price. Putting that motivation aside, let’s look more seriously at whether there are any specific difficulties that we face.

If we’re involved in the Buddhist path, one of the most basic things we have to try and develop is the awareness that there’s nothing particularly special about is. We can’t really say that at present in the West people have more anger, greed or selfishness than people have elsewhere in the world, or have had in the past. Throughout the universe and throughout time, people have been working with the same disturbing emotions, so there’s nothing special about “now.”

How Much Has Changed?

Some people argue that the circumstances are now different. We have, for instance, very stressful lives. And we’re always really busy. Well, was a struggling farmer in the Middle Ages or ancient India, working the fields for sixteen plus hours a day, less busy than we are, working in an office? The activity may have been different, but they were certainly as busy. What about cave people? They must have had quite a lot of stress and worries, about wild animals, finding food and so forth. They also had a lot of fear, of things like lightning and thunder, and other stuff they didn’t understand. People have always lived with fear and stress, haven’t they?

What about the bubonic plague? We think we have stress and fear now, but can you imagine living then? So, I don’t think we can say that what is special about us is that our lives are so busy and stressful. It might be a different flavor of stressful, a different flavor of busy in terms of the activities we’re involved in. But stress, worry, no time? This has been going on all the time, everywhere.

Then you could say that our society and culture don’t share any, or most of the fundamental assumptions that you have in Buddhism. So, Buddhism is really alien to our culture. But we can look at Buddhism’s transmission into China as an example, as the Chinese didn’t believe in rebirth. They thought in terms of people dying and becoming a sort of spirit or soul, and then you would worship these ancestors. That’s very different from rebirth, which would say that ancestors are no longer around. So it took quite a while for the Chinese to understand a lot of these fundamental, basic Buddhist concepts. When we now face a similar challenge, it’s nothing new.

Realizing this, that we’re not “special,” can be very helpful. Think of teenagers or people who have a certain problem, be it their parents are alcoholics or whatever. They often think that they are the only one with that problem, and then it becomes really huge to them. If they learned that there are many others who have the same types of problem, then they are not alone. They don’t feel alone and the problem fits into a larger context. It provides a different perspective that optimally would lead to developing compassion for others with a similar problem rather than thinking of it in just a “me, me, me” type of way.

So, in terms of crafting a daily practice of Buddhism, everybody’s problem is the same: How do we apply the Buddhism teachings to help us deal with the trials of life? That’s not “my” special problem, but an issue for all of those interested in practicing Buddhist methods in the West.

Having Too Many Choices

We cannot deny, however, that there are some unique challenges living in the West in the modern age. In the past, most people faced the problems of too little food and too little information. Before the invention of the printing press, to copy out by hand a Buddhist text was an incredibly positive generous act. You were making one more rare and precious copy available for others to read and study. Even procuring the paper and ink was a monumental accomplishment. Nowadays, we can just post a text or a link on our Facebook page!

Our unique challenge is having too much food and too much information available. How to choose what is right for us? How do we discriminate when there are three hundred different “brands” of Buddhism? This is a big problem, but there is no magic answer. Just because something comes up number one in a Google search, it doesn’t mean that it’s the best or that it suits everyone’s needs. We need to use our intelligence, discrimination and patience to see what is best for us. To decide what suits us, we need to try things out to see for ourselves.

Fashionable Buddhism

Suppose, however, after a period of testing, we choose a Buddhist tradition, center and teacher to study with. Then we face another issue: There are so many different levels of practicing Buddhism, and a huge number of ways in which we could go about applying it to our daily life. How do we start? There’s the very superficial level, which doesn’t do much to change us internally. Then there’s the deeper level, in which we actually work on ourselves, with the minimal aim of improving the quality of our lives and avoiding making it worse. Whether we will go on to aim for liberation and enlightenment depends on how we develop. We can’t possibly aim for those lofty goals from the very start. Most of us don't have the slightest idea, even, of what liberation and enlightenment mean.

In the beginning, many people are attracted to the superficial level, and so they deal with the externals. By this I mean that they’ll get a red string to put around their neck or wrist, or both! They’ll wear a mala, a rosary of beads, and sometimes use it while mumbling something. They have a good supply of incense and candles, and all the proper meditation cushions, Tibetan paintings and pictures, and eventually perhaps, they’ll even start to wear some sort of Tibetan clothing. They sit very solemnly in this almost Hollywood setting, but have no idea what to do.

I remember when I first went to India in 1969. It was the height of the hippie era and there were very few Westerners there at the time. But many of those that were there dressed fully in exotic Tibetan robes and costumes, which I remember being rather judgmental of. I thought it was a bit offensive to the Tibetans: these Westerners were just mimicking and copying them. Then I asked the Tibetan monk I was living with, what he thought of these Westerners going around dressed in Tibetan clothes. He replied, with a very helpful answer, “We think that they like Tibetan clothes.” There was no judgment there whatsoever.

Whether we’re judgmental of that or not, just changing our clothes or wearing a rosary and many blessing cords, doesn’t really change us very much, does it? Internally it doesn’t really do anything. It doesn’t bring more “blessings.” Our Buddhist practice needs to be internal.

Personal Transformation

Whether in the West or in a traditional Buddhist society, what Buddhist practice requires is working on ourselves. We have to transform ourselves, which is not something done through rituals. It’s easy to learn to do a ritual and recite mumbo-jumbo in a foreign language that we don’t understand at all. But this doesn’t transform us. We’ll still get angry, we’ll still get attached, and we’ll still not get on with our parents. His Holiness the Dalai Lama always says that practicing these rituals when you have no idea of what you’re doing is not going to get you far at all.

Nagarjuna, Aryadeva, and all the great Indian masters have said that the practice of Buddhism comes down to taming your mind. This means first of all learning the teachings, the methods of how to deal with disturbing emotions and problematic situations, and how to analyze the various experiences we have. We keep mindful, so that we remember the teachings and apply them as and when we need. In this way, they will help us to overcome at least the ordinary problems of life, like anger, worry, and nervousness, sickness, old age, relationship problems – all of this stuff, and more.

So we need to work on and improve our personalities and basic attitudes toward life to transform ourselves. This requires a tremendous amount of work and is not easy to do. We need patience, courage, and perseverance. Our tendency in the West is to want things cheaply, easily and above all, quickly. We want all the teachings instantly. We want to gain all the wonderful things we read about, that a Buddha attains and so on, with the least amount of work as possible.

Valuing the Teachings

To bring about internal transformation, however, requires getting teachings, and getting teachings in the West requires money. This is one of the difficult points that is fairly unique in Buddhist history. Usually, you would never pay to get teachings. You voluntarily made a donation if you wanted, but it was never required that you pay at the door to get in.

In the West, however, if we want teachers and facilities, they need to be supported either voluntarily or through paying an admission. This is on the practical level. The deeper level is that if you want to receive something that is precious, namely the teachings, you have to put a great deal of effort and work into getting them; otherwise you don’t really appreciate and value them.

Historically, in order to invite teachers to Tibet, not only did the Tibetans need to walk to India to invite them, but they also had to gather all sorts of resources for the journey and as offerings. They put an incredible, tremendous amount of effort into getting the teachings. People had to make huge sacrifices to get them. Look at what Marpa made Milarepa go through in order to access the teachings. So in a sense, if we really want the teachings, then we need to make some effort, for example to get some money together, or travel to India or to a place where they are available.

Now it’s easier. Here in Latvia, you lived under the Soviet Union and couldn’t travel far or go anywhere really. Now teachings are available and as a member of the EU, you are quite free to travel. So you need to take advantage of this and not just whine, “There’s nothing available where I live.” This isn’t meant to sound harsh, but if we are serious about transforming ourselves, it takes commitment. It has to have priority in our lives. We need courage and bravery and energy to make whatever moves, or do whatever is necessary, to get the optimum circumstances for study and practice.

Being Honest and Realistic with Ourselves about Our Commitment to Dharma Practice

If we’re not as serious as that, it’s fine. But we can acknowledge this: “I’d like to learn a bit about Buddhism. Maybe it can help me in my life, but I’m not willing to relocate if the circumstances aren’t fine where I am. It doesn’t have top priority in my life, there are other more important things for me.” If that is our situation, then it’s absolutely fine. But we can’t expect to get the results we might get if we put full time and full effort into it. Be realistic. A little bit of effort gets a little bit of result. Lots of effort and time, get’s a larger result.

In the West, most people seem to prefer to practice as laypeople, not as monks and nuns, which is a bit different from traditional Buddhism. Because of this, rather than having monasteries and nunneries, we have Dharma centers. There was no such thing before Buddhism started to develop in the West.

What do we expect to achieve from going to a Dharma center? If we go once a week after work, and we’re really tired half the time, sing a song in Tibetan but don’t really know what’s going on, what result can we expect from that? Not much. What is really sad is that most Dharma centers are not even a social club like when you go to church. Whether it's Christianity, Judaism or Islam, there seems to be a sense of a congregation, of community. If someone is sick or doesn’t turn up, people will ask and call and bring food. This seems to be missing in the Dharma centers. People come, do a bit of meditation, maybe a puja ritual, and that’s it. I’ve heard complaints from people who say, “What is Buddhism all about? I’ve been sick and in hospital, and no one called or visited; nobody cared.”

If our daily practice of Buddhism means we go by ourselves to the center to do a puja or meditate, and then go home, but we don’t even care about the other people who are part of the center, what is that? We sit there and say, “I’m doing this for all sentient beings; May all sentient beings be happy…” but then someone is sick and we don’t care or make time to visit them. This isn’t proper. If our practice of Buddhism is like that, then something’s wrong. We can become too narrow or focused on our own practice of doing puja and meditation, without thinking socially about helping those in our group. Engaged Buddhism, which started in Thailand, is something we really need more in the West. Already some Buddhist centers have prison programs, for example. A few people volunteer to go to prison to give Dharma lessons to the prisoners, which is great. But it’s actually not enough to just do this, and not visit someone who’s sick.

Showing Basic Human Kindness

Being Buddhist, however, doesn’t mean just being a kind person, but of course we have to be a kind person, that is the basis, and it’s not at all exclusive to the Buddha’s teachings. You don’t even need to be religious to know that it’s important to be a kind person. So of course, in our daily life we should try to be of help to others. If we can’t help them, then the least we can do is to not hurt others; that’s the basic minimum. If we want to say that this is our Buddhist practice, that’s fine. But we have to understand that it’s a very light version of Buddhism.

Although it’s a light version, it is absolutely necessary. We try not to get angry with others and if we do, apologize as quickly as possible. We try to be less selfish and more sensitive to other people’s needs and to the effect of our behavior on others. If we do business, we try to be honest. If we deal with customers, we try to remember that they are human beings just like I am and they like to be treated nicely, not hurriedly or rudely. The last customer of the day deserves as much attention, care and pleasantness as the first.

All of this is what His Holiness the Dalai Lama refers to as “basic human values,” values that are not based on any particular philosophy or religion. We need to apply them not just with strangers, where it's a bit easier because we just see them for a few minutes and don’t need to deal with them afterwards. The real challenge is to apply these values when we’re with the members of our families or the people we live with and the people at work. We don’t ignore those who are closest to us.

Let me share an example from my own experience. When my mother was still alive and I would visit, she would like me to watch television with her in the evening. She especially liked quiz shows and would encourage me to try to answer the questions, like, “How much does this refrigerator cost?” In these types of situations, we need to be patient and generous, and not just sit, looking bored, mumbling mantras under our breath and snapping back, “What a stupid question! Who cares how much it costs?” Try to answer the question, no matter how silly it might seem. Trying to answer questions like these was a way for her to keep her mind active in old age, and showing support for what she was doing was, in fact, an act of basic human kindness and generosity.

How to Make Buddhism a Way of Life

If we wish to practice Buddhism in the West, then, we need to go deeper than just working on ourselves to be a kinder person. For this, Buddhism offers a huge array of practices suited for a wide variety of mentalities and abilities. These include both study and meditation. There is nothing uniquely Asian or Western about that. The main point, however, is that we need to integrate into our daily lives whatever we study and meditate upon. We need to make our Buddhist practice our way of life.

We start by setting the intention for the day when we wake up. What is our motivation? We remember what our goal is and what we’re doing with our life, and then create the intention to actually pursue that. When we wake up, ideally that should be, “Thank goodness I didn’t die during my sleep, and how wonderful that I now have a whole day ahead in which I can work further along the Buddhist path.” Having these kinds of thoughts upon waking are much better than, “Oh no, not another day!”

We do the same thing when we go to bed at night. Instead of thinking, “Thank goodness the day is finished. I can’t wait to drop into unconsciousness,” we think “I can’t wait to wake up tomorrow to continue.” What this really boils down to is “refuge.” I don’t use that word much because I think what it really talks about is having a direction in our lives. This is the direction shown by the Buddhas, their teachings and personal accomplishments, and the spiritual community that has followed them. This is a direction that is safe and protects us from suffering.

If we have a direction in our lives that has meaning and purpose, it helps us enormously. We are working to rid ourselves of all our confusion and disturbing states of mind and to realize all our positive potentials. Putting this direction in our lives means that we are trying to follow in the footsteps of the Buddhas and their spiritual community. Even just making a small step in this direction, we will find is very worthwhile. But we need to confirm this by our own careful analysis and experimentation. Buddha said not to accept anything he said merely on faith. As Westerners, perhaps we can appreciate more easily this scientific approach that Buddha taught. We must always maintain a critical attitude.

This direction in our life is something that needs to be very deeply internalized. Doing so is what actually what makes us Buddhist. Just being a nice person doesn’t make you Buddhist. It requires total conviction that it’s possible to achieve what we’re looking to achieve. If we don’t think it’s possible to overcome our shortcomings and realize our positive potentials, then what’s the point in trying to achieve a fantasy?

In the beginning, we’re not going to believe for sure that it’s possible to achieve any of the Buddhist spiritual goals. We might have faith based on some charismatic teacher or even wishful thinking. It takes work to become convinced that it’s really possible to achieve them, step by step, and once you do, you’ll really put your full heart and energy into it.

As a Buddhist this is part of our work. They’re very important and help the direction we’re going in to become stable. So we start the day off reaffirming this intention. We end the day with a dedication and a review of what we’ve done during the day, how we’ve acted. If we’ve gotten angry or whatever, we admit it, we regret it, and we purify it. Whatever positive things we’ve done, we dedicate them toward achieving the positive goals we have. The great Tibetan Master Tsongkhapa said that our intention needs to be carried out throughout the whole day, not just at the beginning and end. This means we need to remind ourselves of it during the day.

The modern Vietnamese Master Thich Nhat Hanh has a lovely method for this. He has a “mindfulness bell” that rings at random times during the day. Everyone stops for a few moments to regain their mindfulness of their intention. One of my students has programmed his cell phone so it beeps at various times throughout the day. So there are various methods we can use to help us remember our motivation, if it’s not something that comes to us automatically.

His Holiness the Dalai Lama always stresses that what we need most is what’s called “analytical meditation,” which at our stage is thinking over the teachings, relating them to our personal lives and experience. An example would be to analyze why we’re having problems with that person at work. How can we deal with it? We need to develop patience. What are the teachings on patience? What is the method? So we sit quietly and practice being patient while we think of that person. This is Buddhist practice – that is exactly the word “practice.” We are practicing to be able to be patient in actual real life situations.

At the end of the day, we review what we’ve done. There’s no point in feeling guilt if we’ve failed to live up to our good intention, because we remember that the basic feature of life is that it goes up and down. Progress is never linear. No matter how hard we try, some days will be good and some will be bad. So when we’ve made some mistake and done something hurtful, we acknowledge it and make a resolution to try our best to avoid repeating it.

All of this up and down is going to happen until we become a liberated being. That’s a long way away. Until then, we’re going to have greed and anger and all of that. This is quite sobering! The attitude that is most helpful with all of this is “equanimity.” When we’re tired, we take a break. That’s fine, no problem. When we want to get going, we do it. That’s also fine, no problem. We have to avoid the two extremes of being really hard on ourselves or treating ourselves like a baby. We just go ahead, no matter what. We call this “armor-like perseverance.” It protects you in any situation.

A Practical Example: Giving the Victory to Others

Let me give an example of how to avoid becoming discouraged by applying a Buddhist guideline. I live on a busy corner in Berlin. A couple of years ago they built, underneath me on the ground floor, a very, very popular cafe. It’s open from 7 o’clock in the morning until 3 o’clock in the morning, seven days a week. In the summer, there are people outside drinking beer, talking loudly, and laughing every single night. After a short period of lying in my bed at night trying to sleep with all the noise, imagining visions of medieval vats of boiling tar to pour over them, I remember the teaching: “Give the victory to others, accept the defeat on yourself.”

My kitchen is the only room in the house that doesn’t face the street, so I moved my mattress there. I sleep on the kitchen floor the whole summer. It’s quiet and comfortable and I’m very happy, and I give the victory to others. This is a practical application of this teaching. There’s actually no big deal about sleeping in the kitchen.

Like this, we need to be inventive and creative with the teachings. Then we need to actually apply them. Of course to do this we need to know the teachings and so it’s helpful if every day, we can refresh our memories by reading, for instance, one of the classic texts of guidelines of how to deal with difficult situations. A Bodhisattva’s Garland of Gems, 37 Bodhisattva Practices, and Eight Verses of Mind Training, for example, are full of extremely practical advice. If you read them frequently, then not only does it help you be mindful of them, but it can show you appropriate responses to situations you’re experiencing, as you read through the text.

These are some of the daily practices of Buddhists in the West. As I said, to get any result we need to put in a lot of hard work, and it won’t come cheaply.

Is Making the Buddhist Teachings Easily Available Defeating the Purpose?

Nowadays, teachings are quite readily available. We also saw before that many Dharma centers or events charge fees to get in, but still there is a huge amount of Dharma material available for free (like this website!). If you have a computer and Internet access, you don’t really need to travel much or pay anything. The amount of material will also no doubt increase in the future.

We could make an argument that it would be worthwhile hiding the teachings in libraries so they’re hard to access, or make sure that you have to pay to access them, because then you would need to put in the extra effort to access them. On the other hand, even if the teachings are freely available everywhere, you still need to put in effort to read and study them, and a lot of work to actually practice them.

Regardless of how many benefits we have in the modern time, in terms of easy access to the teachings, we still need to put in that hard work ourselves. It takes time to understand and internalize the teachings; this is something that will never change. There is no cheap or quick way around it and in this respect, there’s nothing special about us, practicing in the West. So we really need to take advantage of all the opportunities we have, with the basis of being a kind person, but to really work to attain the Buddhist goals: gaining liberation from all our shortcomings and difficulties and attaining enlightenment with the full realization of all our positive potentials.

How to Relate to Buddhism’s Highest Goals

We can only work realistically to attain liberation and enlightenment, however, once we’re truly convinced they’re possible to achieve. But how to become convinced? Conviction comes from understanding what we mean by “mind,” the mental continuum. What are the basic characteristics of this mental activity? It goes on moment by moment, with a different object each moment. The defining characteristic stays the same though, and confusion, anger and other emotions are fleeting, like a cloud. These clouds can be removed as they are not an integral part of the mind.

This doesn’t just require a deep study of the nature of the mind, of what appearances are and how they arise, but also actual experience of observing what’s actually going on in our own minds, from moment to moment. Then of course we need to study and know what being liberated or enlightened actually means. If they are just words for us, that’s too vague.

Even knowing what enlightenment actually is isn’t easy, because the points are extremely subtle. At the start we give “the benefit of the doubt.” We aren’t sure, but assume that it is possible. We study and meditate further, so that we can become convinced of it. This is a good working basis to start with.

One of my friends says, “I don’t know for sure if liberation or enlightenment is possible. I don’t know if His Holiness the Dalai Lama is actually an enlightened being. But if I could become like him, like the Dalai Lama, in the way that he acts and deals with huge problems, that would be enough.”

Summary

From the cave, to the field, to the office, our basic problems haven’t changed that much; while the environment might have changed, people have always been stressed and busy. Realizing this, we can see that Buddhist methods from more than a millennium ago are still very much relevant.

In the past, people put incredible effort into obtaining Buddhist teachings, so we are really fortunate that today we have access to a huge range of teachings not only on the Internet, but in many cities all over the world. We must make use of these advantages, while keeping in mind that the amount of effort we ourselves have to put in has not changed, and never will.