Advice for Tibetans before Teaching in the West


Venerable Abbots, Lamas, Geshes and monks, I am very happy to have this opportunity to meet with you. I have been asked by His Holiness the Dalai Lama to come to the three main monasteries of Sera, Drepung and Ganden to speak about the situation of Buddhism and Buddhist centers in foreign countries. Since some of you may be invited in the future to visit foreign countries and many of you perhaps have friends who have been teaching at these centers, it may be helpful to explain a little about the situation. I don't know very much but, over the last nine years, I have visited about 150 Buddhist centers from the Gelug, Kagyu, Nyingma and Sakya traditions, as well as from the Zen and Theravadin traditions, in almost 30 countries. So I would like to give you a report, a little history, and some of my personal comments and suggestions based on my own experience.

The Rise of Buddhist Centers in the West

Tibetan Buddhism is now the most widespread and popular form of Buddhism found in foreign countries. Within Tibetan Buddhism, the Kagyus have probably the largest number of centers, next would be the Gelug, then the Nyingma and the Sakya. However, there are a large number of Zen and Theravadin centers as well. These were started before the Tibetan Buddhist ones. There are Tibetan centers found in most countries around the world: in all the countries of Western Europe, in America, Canada, Australia and New Zealand, but then also in many countries in South America, in many countries of Southeast Asia and East Asia like Singapore, Malaysia, Hong Kong and Taiwan, in South Africa, and even in the Communist countries of Russia and Eastern Europe, such as Poland and Hungary. Even in some of the Communist countries where religious centers and meetings are forbidden, people interested in Buddhism meet secretly, and people smuggle in forbidden Buddhist books to read and translate some of them into their own languages.

Interest is so great in Tibetan Buddhism around the world largely due to the travels and efforts of His Holiness the Dalai Lama, and other great Lamas. However, there was not always such interest. Buddhism first came to Europe more than 150 years ago, and first it was Theravadin Buddhism, mostly from Sri Lanka. Thus, the Theravadin texts were the first ones translated. The first people interested in Buddhism, however, were one of two types. Either they were university professors and intellectual scholars, who had no interest in Buddhist practice, but only in studying the languages, or they were the Christian missionaries who were interested in learning the languages so as to be able to translate the Bible and convert Buddhist people to Christianity.

It was not until much more recently, in the 1950s after the Second World War, that Western people became more interested in Buddhist practice, and this was first with the Zen traditions of Japan. Then in response to this interest in practice, people started Zen Dharma centers in the West. Before this, although there was some interest in Buddhist languages and texts, there were almost no Dharma centers. From this beginning with the Zen Dharma centers, people became more interested in seeing what the Buddhist practices were in the Theravadin and Tibetan traditions. Gradually, then, Theravadin and Tibetan Dharma centers were started.

Interest in Tibetan Buddhism

The first people interested in Tibet, however, starting more than a hundred and fifty years ago, were also either missionaries or scholars interested only in the language. These are the ones who made the dictionaries. However, because of the Christian missionary background of many of them, the English words they used in the dictionaries often have a Christian meaning or connotation. They are not accurate translations of especially the Buddhist Dharma words. Because of this, there has been a great deal of misunderstanding about Buddhism, which I shall talk more about later.

The next group of people interested in Tibet were people who exploited Tibet in order to make their own made-up religious teachings seem as though they had a valid source. Before 1959, and especially fifty or a hundred years ago, Tibet and Tibetan Buddhism were things that most people in the world knew almost nothing about. People knew Tibet was the land where ancient wisdom was preserved, but they did not know this was the wisdom and teachings of the Buddha, and they did not know what this wisdom was. However, it was very important for Westerners to believe that wisdom existed in Tibet. This was because the wisdom of their own religious traditions was mostly lost. The lineages of Western wisdom and teachings had been broken and almost no one remembered.

Although people had some respect for Tibet in this way, this was a dangerous situation, because underlying it was a basic ignorance of the contents of the teachings preserved in Tibet. People had many strange ideas and most people thought that Tibet was a land of magic where very strange things happened and where almost everyone had special powers to fly through the air and communicate through mental telepathy.

Confusion Because of Systems Resembling Tibetan Buddhism

Occasionally, some foreign persons would have a vision or some spirit might speak through them. Based on this, they would begin to teach a new spiritual system. Whether or not these systems were valid is another question. In Tibet, there is also a tradition of pure visions. However, sometimes, in order to make others believe that these new systems they taught had a valid source, these people would say that their teachings came from Tibet, or that some Tibetan master was sending them these teachings telepathically. Then, since there were no Tibetans in these foreign countries who could deny this, and there were no foreigners who knew what the actual Tibetan teachings were, people came to believe that Tibetans held these different beliefs. Sometimes these new spiritual systems were combinations of Hindu, Sufi Muslim, Buddhist, and Western beliefs. Sometimes they were just very strange ideas. So, on the one hand, there is the system known as theosophy, which has centers and does good works all around the world, with its main center in Madras and, from there, it goes all the way down to one English man writing under the name of Losang Rampa that Tibetans drill a hole in people's foreheads to open their third eye.

Some new people who come to Tibetan Dharma centers even these days come because they became interested in Tibet through reading the books that come from these systems that are claimed to have a Tibetan source. These people have respect for Tibet and will even be patrons. Some of the Theosophical Society's centers have even invited His Holiness the Dalai Lama to visit and speak to them, and have published some of His Holiness' books in English. It is important, then, to know a little about these other systems so as to be able to differentiate for these people what exactly are the Tibetan Buddhist teachings and what just resembles Dharma, and to do this in a skillful way. Otherwise, people get the wrong understanding of the Buddhist teachings. For instance, some New Age systems say that humans can only be reborn as humans, and animals only as animals, and that rebirth is only to a better state and never to worse one. Many of people who accept these systems believe that this is the Buddhist teachings.

Confusion Because of Insufficient Study

There are further sources for confusion about Buddhism. Some of the early books that were translated from Tibetan into English were done by pioneers who did not have the opportunity to make a very thorough study of Buddhism. This was no fault of their own. Many of these books emphasize magic, and they present the more unusual aspects, like human bone tantric implements, without any explanation or with a very strange explanation. From these books, people also have developed very strange ideas about Tibetan Buddhism.

Also, many books have been translated by Western and Indian scholars in universities who did not work with any Tibetan Lama. They had their dictionaries and Sanskrit commentaries and, with arrogance, felt that they know better than the Buddhists themselves what the texts mean. However, mostly they just guess what the meanings of the texts are. They have no interest in the practice or in the oral tradition. Their translations often have many mistakes. There are still Western university scholars translating books like this, although many of the younger scholars in the West who have had the opportunity to study with Tibetans are now more open-minded.

Confusion about Sexual Imagery

Another source of incorrect information about Tibetan Buddhism is due to the misunderstanding of the sexual imagery in tantra. Western scholars first became aware of Tibetan Buddhism during the nineteenth century through seeing paintings of tantric deities in union and reading tantric texts which have words that have meanings associated with sex. This period in European thought, especially in England, was known as the Victorian period, after Queen Victoria of England. People thought that anything concerning sex was bad and, therefore, people misunderstood tantra and the paintings. They thought that Tibetan Tantric Buddhism was a degenerate form of Buddhism, which they called Lamaism. Actually, Lamaism was the name given by the Manchu rulers of China to differentiate the Tibetan form of Buddhism from the Chinese schools. The early Western scholars thought that Tibetan monks and Lamas engage in worldly sex as a religious practice, and from reading protector texts, they thought the Lamas actually go around and kill their enemies with magic powers and drink their blood out of skull-cups.

Many books were written by these scholars about Tibetan Buddhism with these strange ideas and strong criticism. There have been two results of this. One is that many people have been influenced to believe that Tibetan Buddhism is degenerate and involves group sexual practices. They have then rejected Tibetan Buddhism, with a great deal of prejudice. Even if they are still interested in Buddhism, they have turned to what they believe to be the more pure forms, such as Theravada.

The other result is more dangerous. From reading these books, some people who have a great deal of desire for sex believe that Tibetan Buddhism teaches the path of making ordinary sex into a religious practice. They come to Tibetan Buddhism wanting to learn more about sex and how to make sex more interesting. Then they have ordinary sex with their partners, while maybe sitting in the posture of the deities, and think they are advanced religious practitioners. There are even some teachers, both foreign and Tibetan, who want to take advantage of the situation to have sex with many partners. They either teach a path of ordinary sex like this, or they push many of their students into having ordinary sex with them, giving the impression that they are advanced tantric practitioners. This really causes great harm.

Difficulties Because of Unqualified Teachers

Another source of confusion and prejudice is that there are many centers around the world from teachers, either non-Buddhist or even some claiming to be Buddhist, who are just trying to have as much power as possible over their disciples and get as much money from them as they can. They tell their students they must give up all their possessions, and so give all of them to the teacher. In the name of "Guru devotion," they tell them they must always do everything the teacher tells them, and never ask any questions. There was one famous example where a teacher in South America told everyone in his group to take poison, and many hundreds killed themselves.

People, therefore, are very suspicious of teachers who put too much emphasis on the Guru and on blind faith. And even if the students are not suspicious, their parents are very worried. Sometimes there can be problems because of this, both with the police and politically concerning visas. And if this ever happens with a Tibetan teacher, it can be very harmful for the Tibet issue and reflect badly on His Holiness, since foreigners like to write about these things a lot in their newspapers. Therefore, when teaching in foreign countries, it is important not to teach so much about Guru-devotion when first arriving there and, later on, not to new students.

Confusion Because of Inappropriate Connotations of Translation Terms

These days there are many hundreds of Tibetan Buddhist centers around the world, and many of them have Tibetan Geshes or Lamas teaching there. Still, even with qualified teachers, there is a great deal of misunderstanding. I have seen from my own experience that even if people's wrong understanding has not come from reading these strange books, they have been confused just by the language used by the translators of even the good teachers. Or, they have been misled by the language used by the Geshes and Lamas who teach directly in English or other foreign languages.

As I mentioned before, most of the dictionaries were made by either Christian missionaries or Victorian scholars from the nineteenth century. The words they have chosen have strong Christian connotations and people get the wrong idea. Reading the dictionary, a Western person sees the words "dge-ba," "mi-dge-ba," "bsod-nams" and "sdig-pa" and sees the English translations "virtue," "nonvirtue," "merit" and "sin." Naturally, he or she then thinks the Tibetan terms actually mean what these English words mean. However, these English words imply the meaning that there is a creator God who has said that certain actions are good and others are bad. If you act good, you please this God and he rewards you. However, if you act bad, he is displeased and will punish you. So the connotation here of ethics, which people understand from these English words "virtue," "sin," etc., is very different from the Buddhist idea. Likewise, when a Tibetan reads the dictionary and sees these words, he or she thinks that the English words "virtue" etc. actually mean what the Tibetan words do, which they do not. Thus although neither the Tibetan nor the Western person is at fault, a great deal of confusion and misunderstanding results because of this.

There are hundreds of examples of misleading translation terms like this. The problem becomes even worse when translating from English into other foreign languages. The English term, which is not even the correct translation to start with, gets translated into a Spanish or German word that does not even mean what the English does.

Suggestions Concerning Translation Terms

Therefore, when teaching in foreign countries, it is important to teach the definitions of the most essential Buddhist terms so that people know what Buddhism is talking about. It is not necessary that the foreigners debate, but they need to know the definitions of terms like "byams-pa" (love), "nges-'byung" (renunciation), and so forth. The Geshes, Lamas, and translators need to ask what is the meaning and connotation of the words used in English or the other foreign languages for this Tibetan word. In this way, they will understand what the misunderstanding is. If the definitions of the Tibetan and foreign words do not match, they need to try to find words in English or the foreign language that come the closest to meaning what the definitions of the Tibetan terms are talking about. This is extremely important. When there is confusion and when, from the questions of the foreign students, it is obvious that they have the wrong understanding, the best way to clear this up is to explain definitions. Then say that we are talking about what this definition means, and not about the English word that the translator is using. The translator is using it just because it is in the dictionary that the missionaries from the nineteenth century wrote, but the English word is not accurate.

Although eventually it will be good if the translation vocabulary is standardized for each foreign language, it is too early to do that now. So new translators need to not just blindly adopt the terms used by some of the more well-known foreign translators. Sometimes these foreign translators use words that, even if they are accurate, are words that are uncommon or big words that most people do not know the meaning of. Then, most ordinary people do not understand the translations, especially if the translation is into English, for instance, and the person is not a native English-speaker. This happens very often.

Also, if Tibetan words are just translated back into Sanskrit, then since most people do not know these Sanskrit words, like most people's mothers would not know them, they cannot understand the teachings. And even if they do know the Sanskrit words, often they have a wrong understanding of them, like thinking that "karma" means things happen to us by fate or God's will. Therefore, just as it took many centuries to standardize terms and translate from Sanskrit into Tibetan or Sanskrit into Chinese, it will be the same with modern foreign languages. Now is the time, then, to experiment with many different translation terms to see which communicate the best. Foreigners are often impatient and too much in a hurry, but this work of finding the best translation terms need to not be done in a rush.

Teaching or translating at foreign Dharma centers, then, is a big responsibility. There are many prejudices and misunderstandings. However, it can be very helpful not only to the foreigners, but indirectly it is of help to the issue of Tibet. The more people around the world get a good impression of Tibetans and the teachings they have available to contribute to the world, the more they feel sympathetic to the Tibetans having the right to their own culture and the conducive circumstances for following and furthering it. However, there are other considerations as well.

Not Neglecting to Teach the Young Tibetans

The future of Tibetan Buddhism lies not in the hands of the foreigners, but in the hands of the young generation of Tibetans. Very little of the tradition has been translated and very few foreigners have the leisure time to devote themselves a hundred percent to learning the Tibetan language and to receiving the traditional Dharma training in Tibetan. Because of this, it will not be the foreigners who will be capable of carrying on and transmitting the lineages and initiations, or giving the fullest teachings and trainings in the foreseeable future. It will be the young Tibetans. Therefore, the main emphasis must always remain on training the young monks at the monasteries.

If every foreign Dharma center has a resident Geshe or Lama and translator, or aims to have them, and if these are of the highest qualifications, a serious brain drain may occur in the future. As most foreigners are too busy to be able to spare more than two sessions a week at the Dharma centers, the time of the Geshes and Lamas is mostly wasted, and the monks at many of the Indian monasteries are left with inadequate teaching facilities. As a result, there is the danger that high quality Tibetan Buddhism will be lost by the next generation.

It is important, then, that the best teachers need to remain in India and Nepal. When sending teachers to foreign countries, it need be only those Geshes and Lamas who are not engaged in teaching here. Otherwise, it is a great loss to the young monks and students here if their best teachers go away, especially those who can teach them the great texts. The teachers who go, then, need not be of the best quality. However, also they need not be of a poor quality, who only want to leave the monasteries in order to lead a comfortable life in the West or to avoid their problems here. If the teachers who go to the foreign countries have a poor knowledge of Buddhism or have weak ethical self-discipline, people get a very bad impression. This reflects poorly on His Holiness the Dalai Lama and is harmful to the Tibetan cause. The teachers, then, need to be of intermediate quality.

Policies for Sending Teachers to the West

It would be very good, then, if there were more control over the sending of teachers to foreign countries and of the travel of the teachers and Lamas there in general. Perhaps it would be good if it were necessary for the teachers to have the permission of their abbots to leave, and all of this were under the supervision of the Council for Religious and Cultural Affairs.

Although it is good, if there is interest, to have centers from each of the four Tibetan Buddhist traditions in large cities, yet sometimes there are several centers in one city all from one tradition. Sometimes it even happens that there are several centers in one city, each from different teachers within the same monastery. This is very confusing for the foreigners who do not understand the Buddhist idea of a commitment to a spiritual teacher, and who would like to work and cooperate with other foreign Buddhists. When there are several Dharma centers in the same place, the tendency is often for there to be competition. Otherwise, foreigners do not understand the reason for having different centers, which on the surface seem to follow the same tradition and lineages. This confusion could perhaps also be avoided if the Religious Council had more control over the foreign centers and the teachers who are sent there.

Also, to make the best use of the Geshes' time and not to take too many teachers away from the monasteries, it would be good if the foreign Dharma centers in each geographic region formed a cluster of four to six associated centers. Each cluster could then share a Geshe or Lama and translator. These teachers could rotate residency in the centers, for instance one month at a time in each, so that they would visit any one center two or three times a year. This also helps with the centers being able to afford the expenses, since most Dharma centers are not wealthy and, except for the people of Southeast and East Asia, foreign countries do not generally have the custom of people being patrons. Also, when teachers are available constantly, they are often taken for granted and attendance can be low, since students lives are so busy with other commitments. If teachers come for only one month at a time, then since this will be a special period, students perhaps will be able to make the extra time to attend more regularly and intensively. During periods in between visits, students will have time to think about the teachings and put them into practice under the guidance of older students.

Also, Geshes and so on need to not be sent unless the centers are already well established, otherwise again their time will be wasted. If interest is there, there can be one center for a large geographic region where intensive programs are held, but these need to be limited in number.

One possibility for helping to establish some control over the situation would be for the Council for Religious and Cultural Affairs to issue certificates saying that this is an official Buddhist center and this is an official teacher of Tibetan Buddhism. This way, foreigners can have confidence in the center and the teachers, and know that their teacher is there with the approval of the Tibetan religious community. These certificates need to be issued, however, without the Council taking legal or moral responsibility. If someone misbehaves, which sometimes happens, the Council can withdraw its certificate. There need to be no expectation that the Council has to defend any misbehavior.

Also, there has sometimes been a problem when a Lama or Geshe who runs a large organization of Dharma centers invites a Geshe and translator to come to one of his centers, especially if the Geshe is not a disciple of the Lama. It is only natural that when the Geshe is in a center in a city, the foreigners will become his disciples and want to invite him to come and start other centers nearby. The disciples may feel more of a connection with the local Geshe than with the Lama who is the head of the organization. The Geshe is then in a difficult position if he feels he has to be loyal to the Lama who invited him, especially if that Lama is not one of his own teachers. If it is the Council for Religious and Cultural Affairs that sends out a Geshe, this problem can perhaps be avoided. The loyalty of all the teachers is simply to His Holiness the Dalai Lama alone, and everyone tries to serve His Holiness in whatever way is suited to the situation.

Advice Concerning Translators

When the Geshes, Lamas and translators have been chosen, invited and approved for going to foreign Buddhist centers, there are several things that can be done beforehand to help prepare. One of the most important considerations is that there be a good relationship between the Geshe and the translator. Best is if the translator is a personal disciple of the Geshe. Often the Geshe and translator will be the only Tibetans in a city, and they only have each other to speak with in Tibetan. If the Geshe expects that the translator will also be an attendant and cook for him, this can be very difficult if the translator is not his disciple. Therefore, great care needs to be taken in choosing which translator goes with which Geshe.

If the Geshe or Lama is going without a translator, he needs to have an adequate knowledge of the foreign language before departing. If he goes without knowing the language at all, and feels that he will learn the language only when he gets there, this can be very difficult. The Geshe will have no one to talk to, and the people at the center will be very frustrated because they are spending a lot of money for the Geshe's expenses and are not receiving any teachings immediately. Language training needs to be started before going to the foreign country. Also, if no Tibetans are available for translating, it needs to be up to the centers themselves to have some of their own people learn Tibetan and become the translator. There is no fault in placing some of the responsibility back on the foreigners like this.

Sometimes a Geshe or Lama who has not such a good knowledge of English will teach in English anyway. Although there are many benefits to this, there are also several problems. If they can only speak simple English, they can only teach on a simple level and can never teach more complex or difficult things. This is frustrating for both the teacher and the disciples. Although foreigners like if a teacher can teach directly in their own language, it is perhaps advisable to do as His Holiness the Dalai Lama does. When His Holiness teaches foreigners, he speaks at the start in English and uses English for topics easy to explain. However, then he uses a translator for expressing complex ideas and also, when speaking English, to supply him with words he might not know.

Another problem with a Geshe or Lama teaching in not very good English is that although his older foreign students may understand his English, the newcomers will have great difficulty. If they cannot understand what is said, they will not come back. Therefore, if no translator is available from Tibetan to English, it is helpful to have an older foreign student summarize or translate the Geshe's poor English into proper English. Furthermore, it is important for the Geshe, Lama, or translator to learn proper English. If they speak "hippie" style English, most people form a bad impression of them, and proper people will feel Buddhism is only for "hippies" and will not attend.

Most of the countries in Europe, South America and East Asia, however, do not speak English. In the past, there has often been double translation. The Tibetan translator translates from Tibetan into English, and then some local person translates from English into the foreign language. This takes a lot of time when teaching, and nobody likes it. It is important, therefore, for the Geshes, Lamas, and translators to learn not only English, but the local language of the country they are in.

Furthermore, even if the Geshe has a translator for when he teaches, it is important that he learn a little bit of the local language himself. In this way, he can speak a little with the people when he has tea with them, and can answer some of their smaller questions. Like this, there is a better and more direct connection with the people, and the foreigners like this much better. Also, the Geshe then comes to know more about the life of the people in the country he is staying in. He can then use examples from the people's own lives to explain the teachings. Traditional examples and stories from Tibet or ancient India are often difficult for foreigners to understand.

Learning the Local Culture

The different countries around the world are very different from each other. Two major divisions within Christianity are the Catholics and the Protestants, and the predominantly Catholic countries are different from the predominantly Protestant ones. In general, in Catholic countries, like Italy, Spain, and France, people have more faith and respect for religion. They have their own strong tradition of Catholic monks and nuns, and they enjoy rituals. In Protestant countries, in general, such as England and the northern part of West Germany, people are more critical and like intellectual study. However, there are many exceptions to these generalizations. Even the countries that all speak English – namely England, America, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and South Africa - are very different from each other. Each country has its own history and culture, and one must teach in accordance with it.

Communist countries are very different from capitalist ones. In communist countries, it does not matter whether someone works hard or not. He still gets the same small salary. Because of this, people do not have confidence in cause and effect. Or, they have an unrealistic hope that if they do a little bit of work with preliminary practices like prostrations, for instance, then miracles will happen and all their problems will disappear. Then when they do not disappear, they lose all confidence in the teachings. One person in Poland did 100,000 prostrations, mandala offerings, the hundred-syllable mantra, etc. Afterwards, when he saw that he still had problems and had not achieved liberation or enlightenment, he became so depressed he committed suicide. Therefore, it is important to teach in communist countries a practical approach to cause and effect and positive enthusiasm, and for people not to expect miraculous, instant results.

In South East Asia, like Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia, the Philippines, Taiwan, and Hong Kong, the people interested in Tibetan Buddhism are mostly Chinese and their culture is very different from Western ones. Japan and Korea are different again. The South East and East Asian countries are looking to Tibetan Buddhism to give explanations of Buddhism that are missing or very rare in their own Buddhist traditions. They have great faith in Buddhism, but little understanding, and they are worried about their children continuing to be Buddhists. They want their children to see the relevance of Buddhism in the modern scientific world. They are also interested in having rituals performed so that their businesses will be successful. This is not the case in countries without a native Buddhist tradition.

Thus, although there are some general characteristics that most modern foreign countries share in common, it is important for those who are going to teach and translate there to take an interest in and learn about not only these common features, but also about the culture of the specific country they are going to. This will help them to understand better the people they are teaching, and enable them to help them more.

The Dharma centers themselves must provide opportunities for learning their language and culture. In addition, when Geshes and translators who have been living in foreign countries return to the monasteries in India or Nepal to visit or to live, it would be good to ask them to lecture about the foreign countries, their customs and their ways of thinking. They need to be requested to tell about their experiences, and the difficulties they had, and what is the best way to teach foreigners. In this way, the new people going to the foreign countries will receive good advice. And especially if someone has been to the country where the new Geshe or translator specifically will be going, they need to be asked to describe about the conditions of that country.

Training Before Leaving for the West

Also, it is good if the Geshes and translators, before they leave for the foreign countries, have a period of training in dealing with foreigners. Perhaps at the new center that the Council for Religious and Cultural Affairs is building in Dharamsala there will be facilities for this, perhaps also in cooperation with the Library of Tibetan Works & Archives. The Geshes could attend some of the classes held for foreigners at the Library, for instance, and speak with the Geshes and Lamas in Dharamsala who have been teaching foreigners, in order to learn from their experience.

For new translators, there could be special classes for both developing translation skills and improving their memory. The translators could practice translating some of the tape recordings that are available of His Holiness the Dalai Lama's teachings, and also the recordings of other teachers. If these tapes already have a translation with them, this is even better. The new translator could try to translate himself, and then listen to how the old translator did.

To train their memory, the translators could train each other in the way Tsenshap Serkong Rinpoche trained me. Whenever I was with Tsenshap Rinpoche, at any time of day or night, Rinpoche would turn to me and ask me to repeat what he had just said, word for word, or to repeat what I myself had just said. Such memory skills are essential, since the translator has to be able to be alert at all times and translate anything that has just been said. He also must be able to repeat his translation if the students were not able to write it all down the first time.

The translators could also practice listening to three, five and eventually ten minutes of a taped lecture and then try to translate it, so as to expand their ability to remember. This is necessary, because some teachers do not pause so frequently for translation. The Geshes and Lamas, however, need to develop the habit of saying only one sentence or even less at a time. This not only makes it easier for the translator and makes the translation more accurate, but is also easier for the foreign students to take notes and keep their attention and interest. Furthermore, it is helpful for the translator to listen to a whole lecture and then, several hours later, try to summarize it. This is because sometimes a speech or lecture is given with no opportunity to translate at the time, and later the translator must tell the foreigners what was said.

In general, it is important for the translator to be accurate and neither add to nor leave out anything the Geshe has said. Translators could train to be able to do this by listening to a taped lecture, translating a sentence into English, for instance, and then translate their English back into Tibetan and compare it with what was originally said. When a Geshe doubts whether the translator has understood and translated correctly what he said, the Geshe needs to always ask the translator to say back in Tibetan what he just said.

Although, when translating teachings, it is necessary that the translator not edit or change what the Geshe or Lama has said, it is a different situation when translating the foreigners' questions. In general, most foreigners do not know how to ask questions clearly. They have not studied debate. They speak on and on in a vague manner. If what they asked were to be translated word for word into Tibetan, it would be mostly unintelligible. Tsenshap Serkong Rinpoche always told me to translate for him only the essence of the questions, not each word. Then in translating his answer, he would tell me to answer and explain in English what he had said in a way in which the person would understand, in accordance with the way they had asked. This is another reason why it is so important to learn the way foreigners think and ask questions. These skills could be learned by attending the foreigners' Dharma classes in Dharamsala and asking the translators there to describe their experiences.

Furthermore, in studying English or any other foreign language, it is important not to be satisfied with just what has been learned from the textbooks and dictionaries. As I already explained, the translation terms in the dictionaries are not always accurate. Also, in the case of English, many English expressions used in India are not used in other countries. Also, each of the English-speaking countries has different expressions, and some words will have different meanings in one country or another. Therefore, when arriving in a foreign country, it is very helpful to ask the people there what they understand by the important Dharma terms in their language. The translator must always be willing to revise and improve his vocabulary.

The most important thing for the translator, however, is not that he know just the two languages and have a good memory. Most important, he has to know the Dharma well. Even with the best teacher, if the translator does not know the Dharma well, or cannot express himself clearly in the foreign language, or cannot remember what the teacher has said, the teacher's explanation will not be communicated or understood. Foreigners often write down every word of the teachings they hear, so that later they can study. What they write down is the translator's words. If these do not match what the teacher has said, there can be great misunderstanding. This is often seen from the questions the foreigners ask. And the teacher and translator are put in an embarrassing situation if the teacher has to say, "I never said that."

Also, since the translator speaks the language of the country he is going to, most people will not want to bother the Geshe all the time, but will be directly asking him questions about the teachings and to explain things better. If the translator cannot do this, or if he is more interested in disrobing and leading a worldly life, this does not give a very good impression of Buddhism or the Tibetans. Those considering disrobing should do so before going to the foreign countries and not after.

Advice for Teaching Westerners

Teaching foreigners is quite different from teaching Tibetans. Although, as I have said, each country is different, there are some general features in common. Foreigners like to have explanations of everything and to know everything. They are not content with merely building up good instincts for future lives by listening to the teachings. They like to know why each thing is done, and in most countries, they like to ask many questions. Most have not been born into a Buddhist family or culture, and so everything is new for them. For instance, they may never have heard about the existence of past and future lives. They are critical in the beginning and do not come from a background of faith in the teachings. It is necessary to be patient with them and when they question something, not just think they are disrespectful or have wrong views.

It is very helpful to learn something about foreign religions, like Christianity and Judaism, and about psychology. Western philosophy is not so important to learn, since most foreigners do not study it. However, psychology is something everyone knows about, and is very important for being able to explain the Buddhist teachings on the mind to them.

Also, Judeo-Christian and psychological ways of thinking shape very much the types of questions that foreigners ask. If the Geshes and translators can understand the cultural and religious backgrounds of the foreigners, they will understand their questions better. For instance, in Christianity and Judaism there is an emphasis on there being only one God and one truth. Because of this, Westerners cannot accept that one teaching of Buddha can have many different levels of understanding and meaning. They are always insisting and asking, "But what does it really mean." They want the one truth, like in their own religions. And if the Geshe explains that in one set of textbooks it is explained one way, and in another it is taken to mean something else, this is very difficult for the Westerner. However, if the Geshe can explain that their insistence on one truth is a Western idea, and that in Buddhism the way of thinking is different, then the Westerner's doubts and problems can be eliminated more skillfully. There are many other examples like this.

It is also very important to have some understanding of science, especially about the brain, about the universe, the earth being round, and so on. Otherwise, if the learned Geshes teach that the earth is flat, either people will laugh and have no faith in the Buddha's teachings, or only strange people will like the teachings. And this will not be because they have faith in them, but because they are attracted to what seems strange from a normal Western point of view because they have had some unhappy experience with people who assert the norm. As was mentioned at the fourth nonsectarian conference of the tulkus and abbots of all the Tibetan traditions, held in Sarnath in December 1988, the essence of the Buddha's teachings is the four noble truths and the two levels of truth. However, with skillful means, the scriptures teach a physical description of the universe that was in harmony with the currently held beliefs of ancient India. Therefore, the essence of the Buddha's teachings need to be presented in harmony with modern theories of science and geography, while bearing in mind that the currently held theories may change in the future. In any case, teachings on the hells and on the description of Mount Meru, etc., need to not be given at the very beginning to new people.

When teaching about the physical description of the universe, one skillful method may be to mention that Buddha taught two descriptions: the Abhidharma and the Kalachakra ones. Because there are two, this means there is not just one definite description. Each description was given for a specific reason. The Abhidharma one is for developing wisdom. The Kalachakra one is for having a meditation practice that is in analogy with the situation of the external world. There is no contradiction, then, in accepting a third description, the one of the scientists, given for yet a different reason. The scientific description is for the purpose of sending a rocket to the moon or navigating a ship on the ocean, for instance. Buddha never claimed that a rocket could be sent to the moon on the basis of the Abhidharma or Kalachakra model. In this way, there is no contradiction in accepting both the Buddhist and scientific models, and Buddha's teachings are not harmed.

The same technique can be used for discussing Mount Meru. The shape of Mount Meru is described differently in the Abhidharma and Kalachakra systems. Therefore, it does not have one definitive shape. However, it is at the center of each universe. Modern science also accepts that the universe has a center. Although they do not call that center Mount Meru, it can perform the function of a Mount Meru. In this way, there can be a third assertion of the shape and location of Mount Meru with no contradictions.

Often the confusion between the Buddhist and the scientific explanations is due to the translation terms. One of the questions, for instance, foreigners ask most frequently is do plants, such as trees and flowers, have a mind and take rebirth. The confusion here is due to the translation of the word "sems-can." If it is translated as "sentient being," this word is not commonly used and does not mean much to most people. If, to make it easier to understand, it is translated as "living being," this is the source of the misunderstanding.

In science, one category of phenomena is phenomena with life. This includes both plants and animals since both take in nutrition, breathe, give off wastes and reproduce. The word "living being" refers, then, to both plants and animals. However, plants do not have a mind. As one scientist explained to His Holiness the Dalai Lama, the main difference between plants and animals is that plants do not have nerves. This is not exactly the same as the nerves that are part of the winds, channels and energy-drops described in Buddhism, but they are similar. Because plants have no nerves, they have no basis, then, for mind and, in particular, no basis for experiencing the feelings of happiness or suffering. If they have no such feelings, they cannot have the wish to be happy or the wish not to have suffering. If they have no such motivating wishes, they cannot build up karma from their actions. They cannot be liberated from suffering if they cannot experience suffering. Therefore, although plants are living beings, they are not "sentient beings" or "beings with limited awareness." And since Buddhism is speaking about liberating from suffering those who experience suffering, Buddhism presents animals and humans in a separate category of phenomena from plants. However, if the categories are defined differently, there is no contradiction in the scientists presenting a category of phenomena that includes animals and humans, as well as plants. Again, the confusion can become eliminated simply by giving clear definitions of the terms and categories, and the boundaries of which phenomena are included in each category. If a Geshe or Lama explains like this, the foreigners can understand and also will see there is no contradiction between Buddhism and science. This will increase their faith in Buddhism.

Advice Concerning Asking for Sponsors

Another point concerns asking foreigners for sponsors for monks and for donations of money for the monasteries. Foreigners do not like being asked for money directly, one person to one person, or to be pushed. This is not the custom. They become very uncomfortable, especially if the person asking for money is a Geshe, or a Lama, or their teacher. They feel they are being forced to give and afterwards they may have bad thoughts about the teacher and not come back again. Also, they will generally give less money than if they have the opportunity to give according to their own customs. Dharma centers usually have a special notice board on a wall near the entrance. It is much more skillful and effective, then, to put a written notice or appeal on this board. Then one can announce to a large group at the end of a teaching, for instance, that there is an appeal on the notice board for sponsors. If people are interested and could read it, that would be greatly appreciated.

Also, most foreigners are more interested in giving money for schools and for helping the monks to eat better food and buy medicines, or to improve the water or toilet facilities. Except for Southeast and East Asians, they are not so much interested in giving money for building temples or religious statues. They do not think in terms of building up merit or positive potential from their giving. They especially like to help children. Therefore, it is better to ask foreigners for money to help with the monks' conditions. And if the money they give is not used for the purpose it has been given, the foreigners become very unhappy and in the future may not give any more help.

Equal Treatment of Women

The position of women is very different in foreign countries than in Asia. In the past, they have been treated as inferiors, and they have been fighting against that very strongly. They react very negatively to any suggestion in the teachings that a female rebirth is inferior, or that one needs to always pray to be reborn a male. It can be skillfully explained that, according to the Guhyasamaja Tantra literature, one can attain Buddhahood equally on the basis of either a male or female body. However, because society causes more difficulties for women, even though this is not fair, the sutra teachings say that, as a man, one will have less obstacles for practicing the Dharma.

It is important, then, that there be equal opportunities in the Dharma centers for both men and women since, in most countries, more women come to the centers than men. Also, when describing the conditions and opportunities for study in India, it is important to mention that there are nuns and nunneries, not only monks. Otherwise, if foreigners think Tibetans are not as concerned about their women practitioners as about their men, they do not think favorably of Tibetan monks' practice of equanimity.

Sensitivity to Minorities

Also, some people who come to the centers will be blacks living in a country where they have been badly treated. Or they may be crippled, blind, or deaf. Or they may be male or female homosexuals, which is not something so unusual in some countries, and who, like women and blacks, are very defensive about having been treated badly by society. These people require great diplomacy and special skillful methods in order to be helped.

Furthermore, in some countries, especially Northern Europe and America, some people swim naked at the beach or at hot springs, either men and women together, or just all men or all women together. People wash themselves with no clothes on and many people do not feel embarrassed to be naked with other naked people. This is not considered barbaric or strange. Although it is not necessary for Tibetans to follow this custom, it is not skillful to criticize it.

Teaching Children

Among Christians and Jews, it is the custom to have religious education for their children. Often, this is one hour a week on Sunday morning. Foreigners will be happy if there can be a similar program in basic Buddhist teachings for their children. These programs could emphasize the life of the Buddha, the life stories of the great masters, explanations of the Buddhist holidays, how to develop a kind heart and simple visualization and mantra practices. Foreign children do not have the custom of memorizing and reciting texts. Simple Tibetan language study, however, may be possible if there is interest.

Also, it is important to celebrate the Buddhist holidays at the Dharma centers with pujas, parties, large meals and so forth, and to have the children participate. Since all foreign religions celebrate holidays, the children of foreign Buddhists will be more happy about their family being Buddhist if they have their own Buddhist celebrations like the Christian children have theirs. Also, foreigners would feel uncomfortable if discouraged from celebrating the traditional holidays of their foreign religions, such as Christmas. With skillful explanations, all religious and national holidays could be celebrated with no contradiction.

Westerners' Approach to Dharma

Also, foreign people, especially in the West, are very busy and do not have much time for going to teachings or doing intense practice. They want things fast. Therefore, it is important, when they come for a lecture, to explain a lot all at once, for instance to give a whole outline, so they get a general idea of what Buddhism or a specific text is all about. If they get a good impression from the first lecture, they may be motivated to come back. However, if from the very beginning everything is done slowly, the foreigners will not have time or patience and will not come back.

Furthermore, foreigners have often had some acquaintance with Zen or Theravadin Buddhist centers, as well as with some Hindu ones. In order to answer their questions, it is very helpful to know something about their teaching techniques. This needs to be based on the techniques that are currently taught by these traditions. What may be found in the Tibetan textbooks concerning the Hinayana or Hindu theories may not at all be what the modern Theravadin or Hindus teach and practice. And foreigners do not find it skillful to be told bluntly and directly that what they were doing was following a distorted view.

Foreigners, especially Westerners, have most of their energies and attention focused outward and very few take time to look within. Also, teachings at Dharma centers are mostly at night and people often come directly after a busy day at work. Therefore, at the beginning of teachings and practice, it is helpful for Westerners to focus on their breath for a short while, either with counting the breath or the nine rounds of breathing or some other similar practice. This allows them to quiet down a little and turn their attention inward, so that then they can listen to teachings or meditate further.

Choosing What to Teach

There are in general many strange people who come to the foreign Dharma centers. Many come who have been influenced by the strange books and translations I have mentioned earlier, and have many wrong ideas and preconceptions. Some are interested in gaining magic power so they can use it against people. Others are interested in exotic sexual practices. Others are just looking for anything they might consider strange. Not everyone is sincere or pure in their motivation and interest. It is important to learn to differentiate and to be skillful with them.

The type of teachings that are most helpful for the foreigners are the basic foundation ones of Lam-rim and the cleansing of attitudes (Lojong, blo-sbyong). The foreigners may be attracted by the more exotic, advanced tantric practices. However, when they have a poor foundation for them, or an improper motivation such as the ones just mentioned, it can be very damaging for everyone involved. It is important that whatever teachings are given, they be related to people's everyday life. The emphasis has to be on becoming a kind person and having a warm heart.

Westerners Becoming Monastics

Some foreigners will be interested in becoming monks and nuns. However, the experience has been that many have taken robes much too quickly without having examined their motivation and intention very well. Because of this, many have disrobed. They did not have a realistic idea of what it means to live their entire lives as a monk or nun. They did not have a clear model of how to act. It was inappropriate to act like Christian monks or nuns, but also the life style of a Tibetan monk or nun did not suit them either.

Therefore, it is important that the Geshes and Lamas never push the foreigners to take robes. The wish to take robes needs to first come from the side of the foreigner. Then the Geshe or Lama need to examine and test them well, over several years if necessary, to make sure their intention is stable and they have a good foundation. Only after a suitable period of time has passed, then, should the foreigners be sent to a great Lama to take vows. No one is pleased if most of the foreigners disrobe, and this does not set a good example for the development of the foreign Sangha community. Also, it might be helpful if there were established in the monasteries in India a special house division for the foreigners, similar to what evolved for the Mongolians.

Protector Pujas

In some centers, tantric deity and protector pujas are chanted in English or other foreign languages, in large groups open to the public. These contain expressions such as "blood-drinker" and so on, which cause a great deal of strange ideas and bad impressions for newcomers and visiting parents. Therefore, although there is no harm in the refuge, bodhichitta, seven-limb and dedication prayers being chanted in the foreign languages, it may be better for the tantric texts to be chanted in Tibetan. For instance, "Lama chopa" could be done in Tibetan and its Lam-rim section be recited in English. This is especially recommended for public gatherings. Then those who wish to learn and know the meaning of the Tibetan will be motivated to study, and those who are just casual will not get strange ideas. Full translations of tantric ritual texts, then, need to be restricted to only private use. In other words, like the customs in Mongolia and the Buryat Republic, people need to chant tantric rituals in Tibetan when in public groups.


There is still a problem of sectarianism in many foreign centers, which is extremely divisive and dangerous for the future of Buddhism and of Tibet. As His Holiness the Dalai Lama has always stressed, the most powerful antidote for closedminded sectarianism is education. Although it is important for each center to maintain the purity of its own lineage and not mix all traditions into a confusing stew, it is essential that students be educated about other lineages and traditions of Buddhism, both Tibetan and non-Tibetan such as Zen and Theravada. In this way, they will be able to see for themselves that nothing is contradictory in the Buddha's teachings.

Summary and Conclusion

In summary, it is very different teaching foreigners than it is teaching Tibetans. However, if the Geshes and translators who go to foreign countries make the effort to learn about the different ways of thinking and customs there, the major difficulties and misunderstandings can be avoided. In this way, if the Tibetans are mindful of the foreigners' needs, and the foreigners are considerate of the Tibetans' needs, especially of the needs for the best teachers remaining in the monasteries, then the relationship can be mutually very beneficial.

Although I have focused on some of the difficulties involved in teaching in foreign countries and that there are many strange people who come to the Dharma centers, nevertheless there are also many people who are very sincere and enthusiastic practitioners. In the past, Buddhism came from India to Tibet and, despite all the difficulties, many Tibetans achieved enlightenment. In the future, the same thing I am sure will occur in the process of Buddhism now going from the Tibetans to the various foreign cultures around the world.

I want to thank you for this opportunity to have spoken with you, and for all the help you have given to the foreigners. Under the guidance of His Holiness the Dalai Lama, I pray that this will continue to the benefit of all.