Western Versus Traditional Tibetan Spiritual Students

Cultures play a large role in shaping the form of the personal interactions of their members. Just as the child-parent relation differs from one society and time to another, so does the relationship between spiritual seeker and spiritual teacher. It is only natural, then, that the relationship will differ according to whether the parties are both Tibetan, or both Western, or one of each. Trouble occurs when one or both sides think that they need to mimic an alien culture or expect the other to adopt foreign ways. For example, Western students may think that they need to act like Tibetans, or that Tibetan teachers should behave more like Westerners. Alternatively, Tibetan teachers may expect that Western students will act as Tibetan disciples would. When each side understands and respects the other's cultural background, however, flexibility and adjustment become possible. This often eliminates some of the problems. To understand a few of the differences, let us profile the average spiritual seeker from each of these cultures.

The Typical Spiritual Seeker in Traditional Tibet

Traditionally, most Tibetan spiritual seekers, as well as their teachers, were celibate monks or nuns with limited knowledge of family life, gained primarily from their childhood. Most had limited knowledge also of secular matters. Nearly everyone entered monasteries or nunneries as illiterate children. Premodern Tibet never developed a public education system and, in fact, had hardly any secular education at all. The major exceptions were in the capital, Lhasa, which had a government school to train civil servants and a medical and astrological college. Admission was normally limited to children of the nobility. Further, monastic education covered only subjects directly related to spiritual matters. Even in monasteries that also taught medicine and astrology, these topics were strongly interlaced with Buddhist theory and ritual.

Few opportunities existed for spiritual study for laypeople. Nearly the only possibility was to study with a ngagpa (sngags-pa), a married tantric yogi devoted to meditation and to performing rituals in people's homes. Ngagpas, however, normally taught only children from their own families and a few local youths who would live with them. While staying for several months in a patron's home in a distant region, they might also instruct the adolescents in the house and several other teenagers from prominent families in the area. The number of ngagpas in Tibet, however, hardly compared with the number of monastics. Lay spiritual seekers were the exception and not the rule.

Some ngagpas were also tulkus (sprul-sku, reincarnate lamas) and were usually the lay throne holders of one or more monastic institutions, responsible for giving empowerments and for leading major rituals. Discovered as children to be the reincarnations of previous tantric masters, tulkus stand at the peak of Tibetan society. Monasteries and nunneries normally did not admit lay students. Nevertheless, if ngagpa tulkus were associated with monastic institutions, they often received much of their education there. Similarly, their younger family members and later their children might also take classes in the monasteries or nunneries. Thus, lay spiritual seekers such as these often had close contact with monks and nuns.

Joining a Tibetan Monastery or Nunnery in Traditional Tibet

Traditionally, Tibetans joined monasteries or nunneries at a young age. The prerequisite was to be healthy and old enough to chase away a crow. This ability indicated that the children had enough self-assuredness to live away from home. Most who joined were about seven or eight years old, although tulkus were sometimes as young as four.

The decision to enter a monastery or nunnery always came through mutual agreement between parents and child. The initiative could come from either side. Becoming a monk or a nun was not only prestigious in Tibet, it was a commonplace occurrence. Over one-sixth of the population were monastics. Moreover, because sending some of the family's children to monastic institutions helped to prevent the over-fragmentation of inherited property, almost every household subscribed to the custom.

Although child monks and nuns shaved their heads and wore robes, they normally did not take novice vows before early or middle adolescence or full vows until age twenty-one. Unlike their Christian counterparts, they normally maintained contact with their families. If they lived in local monasteries or nunneries during adolescence, they frequently spent summer holidays at home helping with the fields or the herds.

One could argue that children hardly qualified as sincere spiritual seekers. Many, of course, wished to join monasteries or nunneries to enjoy the camaraderie of living with other children their age. Others, who yearned for knowledge, were keen to go to monastic institutions since studying Buddhism was the route to receiving an education. Spiritual interest often manifested first in playfully imitating the older monastics meditating and performing rituals. Sincere spiritual interest came mostly with education and maturity. Many monks and nuns, however, never actually developed that interest, but remained in monastic institutions for a secure way of life.

The young monks and nuns traditionally lived in the homes of their teachers. If they entered great monasteries or nunneries outside their native regions, the students and teachers from one area lived in the same compounds, forming subunits within the larger institutions. They had their own temples for communal prayers and, like most mountain people, bonded strongly with each other through regional loyalty and common dialects.

During both childhood and teenage years, the young monks and nuns performed household chores and joined the adult attendants in serving their teachers. They received strict discipline from both their teachers and the monastic authorities. Scolding and beatings were normal fare, even for tulkus. Nevertheless, children also received a certain amount of physical affection from the older members of the household, who served as substitute parents. The teachers fulfilled the parental functions of being the authority figures and role models.

Joining a Monastery or Nunnery Nowadays in Exile

The Tibetan refugee community has reestablished many of its major monasteries and nunneries in India and Nepal. The new institutions maintain most of the traditional customs, although those in South India require communal agricultural work of most of their able-bodied members. Joining a monastery or nunnery is less widespread than it was before. Mostly poor families and new arrivals send a few of their children to become monks or nuns, primarily because of financial pressure. Often, novice candidates receive at least some secular education before entering monastic institutions, and many wait until adolescence. Tulkus, however, still join at a tender age. Since the early 1980s, modern schooling forms a part of the monastic education, but only at the major institutions.

The households of tulkus and senior teachers in exile still have young disciples living in them. Many monks and nuns, however, now live either in dormitories with communal kitchens or with a few others in small houses. The larger monasteries and nunneries still have regional divisions. Although the re-established institutions lack many of the modern conveniences of the West, they have far more than their original institutions did in traditional Tibet. Consequently, maintaining a household requires far less menial work than before. Thus, serving the teacher plays a less dominant role in the disciple-mentor relationship than it did previously. Some service, however, is still standard fare.

As in traditional Tibet, child monks and nuns do not receive special treatment. On the other hand, child tulkus have always had, and continue to have, better food and clothing than everyone else. Their person and everything around them are kept scrupulously clean. Waited on by special attendants, they have almost no contact with ordinary child monastics, who are considered too rough and filthy for them to play with.

Strict discipline has traditionally prevented most tulkus from becoming spoiled. Nowadays, however, young tulkus having considerable contact with Western people, culture, and electronic entertainment face greater disciplinary problems. This especially happens when visits to the West disrupt the stability of their home lives, interrupt their education, and introduce cultural conflict.

Traditional Tibetan Monastic Training

The spiritual education of both ordinary and tulku monks and nuns still retains its traditional form. The only difference is that formerly only tulkus and the most promising youngsters learned to write. Tulkus receive private tuition when they are young; the other children study in groups. In traditional Tibet, the position of nuns was inferior to that of their male counterparts. Only in recent times have steps been taken to bring their education and meditation training up to the standard of monks. There is still a long way left to go.

Up until the age of thirteen, education consists, for the most part, of learning to read and write, memorizing prayers and texts, and attending rituals. Buddhist prayers and texts are in the classical language, which is as intelligible to the average Tibetan as is Latin or Hebrew to the average Westerner. In almost all cases, the children receive no explanations and do no meditation. They are better able to advance in these areas at an older age, whereas in childhood their powers of memorization are at their peak.

The role of the teacher during the initial phase of education is to supervise by enforcing discipline and testing students each day. The children's youthful energy is channeled into screaming at the top of their lungs the texts they have memorized. All of them shout at the same time, with each one yelling something different. This helps them to develop the ability to concentrate despite any distraction. It also keeps them awake during study sessions that many find boring.

Teenage monks and nuns, including tulkus, study by means of debate. The debates are also extremely loud, punctuated by strong ritual gestures, and with several different debates taking place simultaneously, next to each other. Through them, the teenagers learn to think logically for themselves, to question everything, and to withstand defeat. Adolescents build their character on the debate grounds.

Despite the universal advice that tantra practice is not for beginners and the long list of prerequisites for becoming a disciple of a tantric master, almost all Tibetan monks and nuns receive tantric empowerments at a tender age. If the students do any meditation, then, it consists of reciting sadhanas – ritual texts of tantra visualization. Because they lack the qualifications to study tantra, most have only vague ideas of what to do with their minds while reciting the texts. Similarly, many learn the tantra rituals and perform prostrations, but few are aware of their deeper significance. Most focus, instead, on building self-discipline from the practices, honoring their pledges to their teachers to repeat them each day, removing obstacles by the power of the rituals, and planting good instincts for future lives.

The Traditional Spiritual Life of Lay Tibetans

In ancient India, the main spiritual activity of lay Buddhist adults was to offer food to the monks and nuns who came to their homes on daily rounds for alms. Twice a month, the monasteries and nunneries would open their gates to laypeople, who would come to hear lectures in the form of moral stories. Both at home and at the monastic institutions, laypeople would also engage in devotional practices, such as lighting incense and making other offerings. Moreover, wealthy families would occasionally invite groups of monks or nuns to their homes. After serving a meal, the family would receive a short discourse from the senior monastic. Rarely, however, did the lay patrons learn the more profound teachings or receive detailed instructions on meditation, unless they were perhaps members of the royal family.

As in Tibet, a few laypeople studied with Buddhist tantric yogis, but they constituted a small minority. The custom of widely teaching meditation to Buddhist laypeople began only in the nineteenth century in Sri Lanka and then spread to Burma. Influenced by the Protestant model of lay congregations receiving religious instruction, it arose in these countries with the revival of Buddhism after missionary suppression under British colonial rule. The custom of teaching meditation to the general lay Buddhist public never spread to Tibet.

Tibetan monks and nuns never went to people's homes on alms rounds, perhaps because of the remoteness of the monastic institutions and the severe climatic conditions. Instead, laypeople occasionally went to the monasteries and nunneries to make offerings of butter and grain and to perform devotional practices such as circumambulating and making prostration. This custom still prevails in exile. The main spiritual practice at home for the vast majority of Tibetans was lighting butter lamps and incense, offering bowls of water, and reciting mantras. A mantra is a set of words or syllables to recite repeatedly in association with a Buddha-figure. In premodern Tibet, after all, most laypeople were illiterate and therefore unable to read Dharma texts. Whatever knowledge they gained was through listening, watching, and repeating.

Neither in Tibet nor in exile do lay Tibetans have Dharma centers where they may learn Buddhism. Schools run by the Tibetan Government-in-Exile normally employ a monk to lead the children in daily prayers. They have not yet started to hire nuns. The monk, however, gives only rudimentary Buddhist teachings. Systematic study materials on Buddhism are unavailable in the colloquial Tibetan language. Only recently have a few Dharma talks by His Holiness the Dalai Lama appeared in print in Tibetan. Although Buddhist values permeate the society, much like Christian ones pervade the West, laypeople who know something deeper about Buddhism and who meditate are mostly former monks and nuns.

Great masters in premodern Tibet occasionally lectured to large audiences on the classic texts and gave tantric empowerments. Most of these took place in monasteries or nunneries, and few, if any laypeople attended. Occasionally, however, masters conducted long-life ceremonies, gave empowerments, and explained basic teachings to the lay public. Most who attended did not even attempt to understand what was happening and did not subsequently engage in meditation. The prevalent attitude was that they were planting seeds of instinct for future lives, hopefully as monks.

Nowadays in exile, the reestablished monasteries and nunneries are no longer located in isolated areas as they were in Tibet. They are within or close to the lay communities. Consequently, most laypeople have daily contact with monastics, but still do not receive spiritual guidance from them. Tibetan Buddhist monks and nuns never developed the custom of engaging in community service such as teaching school or running orphanages, hospitals, or nursing homes. A few, however, serve in government. As in premodern Tibet, the major spiritual contact that laypeople have with monastics consists of inviting monks or nuns to perform rituals in their homes or commissioning them to be done at the monasteries or nunneries. The rituals are mostly for removing obstacles and bringing success to the sponsors' worldly affairs.

Great teachers occasionally explain texts and give empowerments to large crowds of both ordained and laypeople. They make a special effort to give general Dharma advice to the laypeople who attend, but the attitude of the public remains mostly as before. They go to receive "blessings" and to lay instincts for future lives. Tibetans do not have the custom of asking questions, particularly in public.

The Contrast with Western Spiritual Seekers

The situation is totally different with Westerners attracted to Tibetan Buddhism. Few start their Buddhist education as children, other than those who attend the equivalent of Sunday school arranged by their Buddhist-convert parents. Almost all Westerners, then, come to Buddhism after having received a modern education and after having read some books on the subject. Because the books are in colloquial modern languages, Westerners can learn from them without a teacher. However, they are usually weak in absorbing the material, since they neither memorize the texts nor debate every point.

Westerners go to Dharma centers, not monasteries or nunneries, and, as laypeople, they wish to learn the most profound teachings and to gain meditation experience now, in this lifetime. Although, like Tibetans, they receive tantric empowerments long before they are qualified to practice tantra, many want to receive the full instructions and to engage in the practices immediately, without waiting to gain the prerequisite skills. The attention span of most Westerners is short and, without periodic external stimulus, they quickly lose interest. Almost no one thinks of future lives or is satisfied with planting seeds of good instinct. Some Westerners, in fact, entertain the romantic fantasies that they are Milarepas – the famous Tibetan yogi who meditated in a cave and attained enlightenment in his lifetime. They forget, of course, the hardships that Milarepa underwent to receive any teachings. Tibetans would never be so presumptuous.

With certain exceptions, the few Westerners who eventually become monks or nuns take robes only after much study and meditation practice. To gain access to the teachings, however, Westerners do not need to renounce family life or life as a single, nor do they need to take robes. Hardly any Western Buddhists live with their spiritual teachers as part of the household. Some, however, live at Dharma centers where their teachers may also reside, but separately from the students.

Coming mostly from egalitarian backgrounds, Western laypeople expect the same opportunities as monks or nuns receive. Further, they have no tolerance for sexual or any other form of discrimination. They wish to have all the texts available in their colloquial languages and not in a classical tongue. Even if they chant rituals in Tibetan, most will do so only if they know what they are reciting. Very few are willing to chant the scriptures, let alone to memorize them.

Unlike Tibetans, most Westerners are impatient with learning slowly. This derives from their leading busy lives. Few can spare more than one or two nights a week and an occasional weekend to go to Dharma centers. Many have little free time during the day to meditate. Accustomed to the speed of modern conveniences, they want instant, complete access to the teachings and quick results, especially when they need to pay for Dharma instruction. Tibetans would hardly share these expectations.

With these vast cultural differences between Westerners and Tibetans, no wonder that misunderstandings often arise when spiritual seekers and spiritual teachers come from different societies. Persons with deep understanding and full appreciation of the two cultures are very rare.