Starting a Website to Reach a Larger Audience Than with Books
Now in 2004, it is about two and a half years since I started a website, www.berzinarchives.com. The idea behind this came from the fact that I had devoted my whole life – now 42 years of it – to studying and practicing the Dharma, and not doing anything else. I had written several books – and books take a very, very long time to prepare – and worked with editors, but the distribution was poor and my books sold poorly. They don't reach a very large audience. It seemed to me that the best way to reach a larger audience was with a website and to take advantage of the new media that we have now as a learning tool.
Like going from handwritten material to the printed books, now we have a different way of learning, going to the Internet. Although my website doesn’t take full advantage of the interactive aspects of the Internet, but with a website what you can do many things that you cannot do with long books. You can write and put online short articles dealing with specific topics. Then, with a search engine or links, people can pursue individual points, make all the connections and try to see how things fit together. This is a new way of learning.
This new way of learning fits totally into what we need in order to understand the Dharma. There are so many pieces of the Dharma puzzle, which fit together in so many different ways. The Internet media is perfect for that, because there you can easily find and go to any other piece of the puzzle and try to fit it together with the piece you are reading.
It is very important to deal with the reality of what is certainly coming in the future, which is developing more and more in this direction of the Internet. If we want Dharma to survive in future generations, we need to present it through this type of media. This means not just using the Internet as a library, like putting books on a shelf. There is much more that can be done with the Dharma material.
Moving Back to the West from India with a Large Amount of Material
After living in India for 29 years, I had moved back to the West in 1998 to enable me to have better facilities for doing things like making this website; India was very difficult for that. So I returned to the West, coming back with a very large amount of material from my life work. I gave it a name, Berzin Archives.
While in India I had taken detailed notes of every teaching that I had received. I had done rough translations of all the texts that I had studied, and had either transcripts of the various teachings that I had translated for Serkong Rinpoche and His Holiness the Dalai Lama or taped recordings of them. There were various other texts that I had translated, and tapes of my own lectures, and so on. All of that came to about 30,000 written pages – that´s quite big – and that’s not counting the tapes; and the tapes keep accumulating more and more and more.
A great deal of this material is handwritten, which doesn’t make it easy for transcription. I also had prepared glossaries, huge vocabulary lists, and the algorithms for computer programs to convert Tibetan and Western dates into each other and to calculating a Tibetan astrological chart. There was material I had written on the four traditions of Tibetan Buddhism and various aspects of Tibetan culture: not only concerning Buddhism, but also history, astrology, and medicine. I had read and took extremely detailed notes on 1,200 English, French, German and Russian books and articles – someone else did the Russian for me, I don’t read Russian – on Central Asian political history and on Buddhist history in Tibet, Central Asia and Mongolia, as well as material on other central Asian religions that interacted with Buddhism. That took me a great deal of effort to find these texts during my travels to libraries and universities all over the world. I also had transcripts of interviews that I had made with scholars in Turkey, Jordan, Egypt, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan and the other countries of Central Asia. If something is not done with this unique material, then when I die it will all instantly turn into garbage and be thrown away. I did not want that to happen.
I had had the incredible opportunity and privilege to study with the best of the best teachers: not your ordinary Geshes, but the best of the best: His Holiness the Dalai Lama and His Holiness’s teachers. So, the material that I have gathered is very precious, like transcripts of the personal question and answer sessions on advanced Dharma points that I had with His Holiness.
I would like to preserve all of this and make it available. Obviously I cannot possibly finish this monumental task in this lifetime, but I would like to get through as much as is possible and set up the mechanism for it to continue after I’m gone. And I certainly don´t want to be Anglo-centric about this, so I’d like to make it available as much as possible in other languages: Russian, Polish, Mongolian, Chinese and so on. I envision a very huge project. To make it worse, I have a terrible tendency of not really liking to go back and working on the old material, but always writing new things, since my understanding is always improving, changing, growing.
Historical Perspective on the Evolution of Presenting the Buddhist Teachings
If we look in terms of the entire historical development of Buddhism, I think that one of the major contributions that Western thinking, the Western mind, can contribute to this is the further development of commentarial literature, but a different sort from what has come before.
The sutras are very disorganized. Basically, they were talks that Buddha gave either publicly or frequently to different people in their homes, where he and his monks had been invited for lunch. In these talks, Buddha explained a wide array of topics in completely different levels of complexity and from completely different point of views, aimed specifically to meet the needs of the people who had invited him and were there at lunch.
The Indian commentaries put these all together in a manner that addressed specific topics, such as compassion, impermanence, voidness, the stages of development along the spiritual path, and so on. The Tibetans then added detailed outlines, so that it would be easier to deal with the Indian commentaries and to learn from them. Each successive generation of Tibetan and Mongolian scholars tried to explain more clearly the words of these Indian commentaries, since they are very cryptic and can be understood from many different points of view.
A Possible Western Contribution to This Evolution
Now Buddhism is coming to the West and so what can we contribute? Just to contribute different offering substances and different musical instruments for the pujas and stuff like that would be a superficial development – necessary, but superficial. Or adding yet another group of worldly protectors in addition to all the Tibetan local spirits of the mountains and trees, like you have here in Mexico or Brazil – that’s not very profound. Of course, you could add these local deities from the local shamanic traditions as well, but this is also a very superficial contribution.
But I think one of the real contributions that we can make is from our Western training to find patterns and trace the historical development of themes in a comparative manner. For instance, we are good at putting many different systems together to trace, for instance, how a certain theme like mental labeling developed through the schools of Indian Buddhist tenets. The Western mind is uniquely trained to do that. Tibetans don’t train their minds to think that way. Tibetans are trained with debating very specific, individualized points. In terms of the five types of deep awareness, Tibetans specialize in training their individualizing deep awareness to pick out specific details, while we Westerners train our equalizing deep awareness to find the patterns.
The only Tibetan that I know personally who approaches this Western way of thinking is His Holiness the Dalai Lama. His Holiness has been trying to come up with a grand unifying theory to see how the four Tibetan traditions fit together, rather than just describing each system separately. But, His Holiness is unique in a very large number of ways. So the way that His Holiness approaches this problem is also not like that of a Western mind; it’s different.
In the West, with the Information Age, we are faced with all the varieties of Buddhism from every Asian country that it ever developed in. All of that is easily available now. So how do we make sense of that? This is a challenge that the Western mind is uniquely trained to be able to handle: discovering the general patterns.
To make sense of all this material is absolutely necessary for the future, because increasingly more information will become available. How can anybody really approach and practice Buddhism when there is all this conflicting information available? How do you put it together? Where do you start? So this is a very important contribution that the Western mind is best suited to make in the historical development of Buddhism. This is something that I would like to make a little bit of a contribution to, and so a web site is a good media for doing that.
Preparing Material to Be Able to Access in Our Next Lives
When approaching our Buddhist study and practice, I think it’s very helpful if we try to really have some sort of Mahayana motivation and Mahayana scope, and not just do it for our own personal development because we are so messed up and have so many samsaric problems. We shouldn’t just leave at “I’m doing this for all sentient beings,” which is meaningless for most of us. The way I look at this work on the website is that here is an opportunity to actually try to reach a lot of people and benefit not just people now, but also benefit future generations.
From that way of thinking, we can go further and think of benefiting future lives within the context of the initial scope lam-rim motivation. If we put enough force into this work with the motivation to improve our future lifetimes, we build up a karmic connection with the website so that, if we are fortunate enough to have a precious human rebirth next time, we will easily find this website and it will serve as a back door for re-entering the Dharma. This can also be our motivation for working on the website – at least this is the way I personally think about it.
How seriously are we preparing for our next rebirth? If we’re really into the Dharma, what concrete measures are we taking to reconnect with it? That’s something I think a lot about. I try to take the initial scope of motivation seriously. So please don´t trivialize or belittle the initial scope motivation. We need to examine how seriously do we take it and how seriously do we feel it, such that we actually act on it?
Of course there are many other ways to prepare for our future lives besides working on this website, obviously. But it’s important to do something. For instance, it is wonderful to put a lot of work into a Dharma center and make situations available for others to study, especially if you think, “for the benefit of all sentient beings,” but include this initial scope motivation as part of the prayer. “May I be able to connect, and continue to connect over and again, with the Dharma in all future lives with a precious human rebirth and continue to study with really qualified teachers.”
Think of Atisha undertaking this unbelievable journey to Sumatra in his day, to find really qualified teachers. So work with similar effort and determination to make situations available, like here at this Dharma center, for others to gain access to authentic teachings. And be willing to endure all the difficulties that are involved with doing that. They are nothing compared to what Atisha endured after this incredible sea journey to Sumatra, and then, already as an old man, going to Tibet on foot and by pack animal, and working to make the authentic teachings available there where the situation was really much more difficult than here, but without being a missionary. And look at the result of his effort! What he did continues to benefit people even up to today and even in places like here in Mexico, far away from India and Tibet.