Being Realistic about Buddhism

When Westerners first approach the Buddhist teachings, many of the ideas and practices we encounter seem strange, or even outright nonsense. Here we take a look at approaching Buddhism realistically, through an understanding of the culture it comes from, by applying it in every day life, and with the know-how of overcoming discouragement.

Understanding Traditional Tibetan Culture

For Westerners becoming involved with Buddhism – particularly Tibetan Buddhism – it’s important to have some appreciation of the traditional culture that it’s coming from. Without understanding the context within which Buddhism arose and came to us, we open ourselves up to a tremendous amount of potential misunderstanding.

There is no need to adopt Tibetan culture or any Asian culture at all – we don’t have to be like monkeys imitating another culture. It’s certainly not necessary to change our diet or clothes or anything like that. But even a small understanding of the background will lead to less projections and confusion on our part.

In traditional Tibetan culture, like with any culture, people are born into a certain set of cultural beliefs. People take for granted things like karma, rebirth, and the existence of enlightened beings. There is appreciation of and great respect for those who choose to become monks or nuns, who devote their whole lives to studying and practicing the Buddha’s teachings.

Lay people didn’t really have an opportunity to actually study Buddhism, but would say mantras and circumambulate sacred objects. They would support the monasteries materially, perhaps receive long life initiations, ask monks to come to their house to perform rituals and so on. Everyone accepted the fact that if you really wanted to study, you had to devote yourself full-time to it and become a monk or nun.

Western Cultural Perspective

Here in the West, we don’t really have these things. Most of us don’t believe in rebirth or karma, and if we say we believe in karma, we often confuse it with fate, which isn’t right at all. And when we think of Buddha, we equate him with God, and other Buddha figures become akin to saints, being offered prayers and candles as if they were icons in a church.

Certainly most of us do not want to become a monk or nun. Generally in the West, there is not a huge amount of respect for Westerners who do so, which is a shame. As lay people, we expect that we’re going to be able to get the major focus of study, practice and teachings, whereas the reality is that we don’t have time. We have work or school, families and social lives. We come home after work, maybe after sitting in a big traffic jam, and we’re tired. So even if we want to learn, and perhaps go to a teaching in the evening, we’re so exhausted that we fall asleep. And at the most, we can spare one or two nights a week. So, this is quite a big problem.

Approaching Buddhist Practice with Realistic Expectations

A lot depends on what do we realistically expect. It’s not a pleasant pill to swallow, but Buddhist practice is hard. It involves working on our personalities to get rid of negative habits like selfishness, anger, greed – all of the nasty stuff that the Dalai Lama calls the “trouble makers.” These are the things that create the most problems for us and for others. Practicing Buddhism also involves training ourselves to develop more constructive habits, which is actually difficult to do. Selfishness and anger don’t just disappear like that, by going to a lecture once a week or sitting down for half an hour a day to meditate. For most of us, even that half an hour feels like a lot of time to spend on this. So now that Buddhism is here in the West, we need to have a realistic attitude toward it.

Initially, many people are attracted to Buddhism for reasons not very conducive to progress. There are those who think it’s fashionable, the latest fad. Of course, fashions change all the time, so this isn’t a lasting reason for coming to Buddhism. Others come because they’re into exotic things – perhaps they’ve read how Tibetans drill holes into people’s foreheads to open the third eye or something.

I once translated for Nechung Rinpoche in New York. Someone in the audience, who looked like they were on drugs, got up and said, “I understand Atlantis is underneath the earth and flying saucers are there and coming out from the center of the earth through volcanoes, so my question is whether the earth is hollow?” The Lama looked at him very, very seriously and said, “No, actually the earth is flat and square. Next question!” It was a skilful answer because it was even weirder than the question. If we’re looking for exotica, then we’ll get disappointed after a while. Although Tibetan culture is very different from ours in Europe, there’s really nothing mysterious about it.

Some people come to Buddhism because they’re desperate and are looking for some miracle cure for either a physical problem or an emotional problem. This is very dangerous because coming with that kind of expectation and hope opens an individual up to all sorts of possible abuse. There are people who say, “Lama, lama, just tell me the magic words to say, I’ll do anything!” This can lead to rather undesirable consequences.

Now, even if we come initially with these motivations, the motivation can be changed. And a lot of us just come out of curiosity, or perhaps a karmic connection that sort of drives us unconsciously.

Proper Attitude and Approach to Buddhism

If we look at the traditional texts, we find many descriptions of what the proper attitude is for someone if they want to approach and study Buddhism. Aryadeva, an ancient Indian Master, said that a potential disciple first needs to be impartial. This means without preconceptions, with an open mind. It’s not helpful to think, “Well, I’ve read a few books so I know everything; all I need is a little icing on the cake to finish it up.” It’s not good to have strange ideas about Buddhism and thinking that that’s all there is, or to be sectarian and think, “This is my religion, my sect, my tradition; everyone else is wrong.” We need to be open-minded: “I want to learn.”

Then, Aryadeva said that we need common sense. We need to be able to see what is reasonable and what is unreasonable in the teachings. The traditional example is if you read in one text where it says you need to wear warm clothing and another says you should wear very light clothing – you use common sense. You understand that in winter you wear warm clothes and in summer the lighter stuff.

Buddhism really is intended to help us think for ourselves. We don’t have the army mentality where the teacher tells us what to do and we just say, “Yes sir!” without questioning it whatsoever. This is not the Buddhist way. We can read about the qualifications of a spiritual teacher and how they’re supposed to teach and act, and if we see them going against this, we use our common sense to tell us that something’s not right. So you ask, and investigate what’s going on.

The third thing we need is that we take an interest – a sincere interest – in the Buddha’s teachings. A great Sakya master called Sonam-tsemo wrote a text called the Gateway to the Teachings, which mentions three things we need in order to get into the Buddhist teachings, basically elaborating what Aryadeva said. One of the main things is that we recognize the suffering in our lives – in other words, why are we interested in Buddhism? Is it just out of curiosity, so that you’ll have something to chat with friends about over a coffee? Or is it because you’ve been thinking about your life, and seen that there are difficulties and problems and you have negative emotions sometimes, and you have a sincere wish to get out of it, not just make do. There are many approaches in psychology that say, “Well, life is tough, your situation is difficult, but you need to learn to live with it without complaining too much,” but this isn’t what Buddhism aims for. We want to get out of it, completely!

So we recognize the suffering in our lives, have a sincere wish to get out of it, and then what we need is knowledge of the Buddha’s teachings and some conviction that they do show the way out. This is what renunciation is all about. We basically renounce – we want to get rid of – our suffering and its causes. We are totally willing to give them up, and we look to Buddhism as a way to help us out of it. This is basically what refuge is – it’s putting this direction into our lives.

Even if we Westerners aren’t able to fully devote all our time to Buddhist practice by becoming monks or nuns and even if we have to deal with the realities of work, school, family, traffic and so on, still, if we have these three points that the great Indian and Tibetan masters have mentioned, we can benefit a great deal from the Buddha’s teachings.

The amount of time we’re able to devote to Buddhist practice is also basically related to how much we understand. Practicing Buddhism doesn’t really mean taking half an hour out to sit quietly or recite something, going off into some sort of dream world. Many people might do this, but it’s just an escape. And although this stuff might help them relax, they don’t really know how to apply the Buddhist teachings to their daily lives. It becomes a bit schizophrenic – their practice is one thing and “real” life is another. A classic example given is somebody who goes to ask a question to someone who’s meditating, and the meditator gets angry, saying, “Don’t bother me! Go way! I’m meditating on love!”

Applying the Buddhist Teachings to Our Daily Lives

The more we study and understand the Buddhist teachings, the more we understand how they really do apply to our daily lives. Of course, this entails listening to the teachings first, which is a bit like a jigsaw puzzle. We get a little bit here and a little bit there and it’s our own responsibility to see how it fits together, because the pieces can fit together in many ways, not just one. Because life is complicated and varied, the Buddhist teachings and practices are also very deep, very extensive, and very complex. So we need to read quite a lot and use our common sense to put it together. And if we don’t understand something at first, then we shouldn’t just reject it, but keep thinking about it, with an open mind. One topic like this is karma. Instead of outright rejecting it, we can think, “OK, I don’t understand this now. I’ll leave it for a while and come back to it later and see what understanding I have.”

After we’ve assembled some of the pieces of this puzzle together, we have to actually think about it all, all geared toward achieving a greater understanding. That’s where we use common sense again. If something seems really crazy, really strange, then we should ask questions. If there are no teachers available to ask, there are plenty of books and, of course, the Internet. Of course, there’s also a lot of garbage out there too, so we always need to be careful. If the stuff you read makes things sound mystical or occult-like – forget it. Some of the great masters might be highly developed, but they certainly can’t levitate or perform miracles!

Asking Questions

If we do have a Buddhist teacher available and accessible, asking questions can be very helpful, but only if they’re asked at the right time. It’s good to get all the information first, as if you’re attending a lecture, you wait until the end to ask. It’s not good, as soon as you hear one sentence, to immediately jump up and ask a question without knowing what’s going to come next.

Traditionally in Tibetan Buddhism, monks don’t ask so many questions directly to the teacher. Instead they debate with each other, and sometimes with the teacher too. The learning process, then, is very active: everyone has to debate. You can’t just sit and listen passively.

The debate sessions are filled with challenging questions that make you think about your understanding. They force you to look at its implications and uncover any contradictions that it might have. This is really important because we’d never question our own understanding as much as someone else would – we’d give up very soon. At the end of the debate process we are left with a good understanding of the topic and don’t have any doubts or questions. It’s only then that we can really digest and meditate on the topic.

In a way, the way we ask questions in the West is not that helpful for personal development. We expect to just ask a question and get the answer and that’s it. This isn’t the Buddhist method, which is to leave students to figure it out for themselves so they really develop their own minds. Of course, this is difficult in a world where we want an instant answer after typing a question into a search engine – but the traditional Tibetan Buddhist style is very different.

Whether we do formal debate or not, we can have discussions about the Buddhist teachings with each other. For example, at the end of a teaching, the students can pair off and discuss with each other what they have understood from the talk. If there’s something we really don’t understand and can’t figure out, we can ask a teacher. At the same time, we need to be prepared for that teacher to question us and our understanding first, which many people in the West don’t like as it feels like an exam in school!

However, the debates are very energetic and fun. And when someone says something wrong then everyone laughs at them – it’s a great exercise for getting over a big ego. So much debate goes on that everyone ends up saying something stupid and getting laughed at, and no one minds. In the West, if everyone in the class started to laugh when we said something incorrect or stupid, it would most likely reinforce low self-esteem. It often seems that many Westerners suffer from low self-esteem, whereas it seems very rare for Tibetans. Actually it sometimes feels like they have a little bit too high self-esteem! So for Tibetans, who are a proud mountain people who always think “I’m correct,” then the debates with everyone laughing really helps to bring them down.

Leaving Our Cultural Baggage Behind

When we approach Buddhism, then, we need to be mindful of the cultural baggage we carry with us that might confuse us in our practice. Remember that Aryadeva said that the first thing a proper disciple needs to be is impartial, where we come to Buddhism without preconceptions. Often we have inappropriate attitudes toward the Buddhist teachings due to our backgrounds, whether religious or not, and this is even reflected in the translation terms with which we learn the Buddhist concepts. Virtue and non-virtue, merit and sin, good and evil – these often bring in the whole concept of guilt prevalent in many Western religions, making us think that we’re bad if we’re not practicing. This itself creates huge problems in our practice. These kinds of ideas come from religions that are based on laws given by a higher authority, with ethics based on obedience. If you obey, you get rewarded, and if you don’t, you get punished. It’s the same for atheists too – in the Soviet days, you were either a good communist party member or a bad one. It’s the same thing, the same mentality.

Whereas, in Buddhism, when we act destructively it’s not because we’re bad people and should feel guilty; instead it’s because we have this basic confusion. We don’t realize that acting in certain ways will bring untold problems. So the response to someone who does something awful is not “You’re guilty and you’re going to hell,” but compassion. Then, of course, some religions have this idea of One Truth, which means there’s only one right way and everything else is wrong. This will cause problems because the Buddha taught in a huge variety of different ways in order to help different people, which was helpful and absolutely necessary.

It’s not helpful to think it’s really difficult coming from this or that background or religion or culture. The main point is to be aware of certain ways of thinking that are just culturally limited, coming from one culture or religion, and not projecting them onto Buddhism.

An Open-Minded Approach

It’s always wise to keep our feet on the ground when approaching Buddhism. Even when some of the figures you might see when you study Tibetan Buddhism seem very alien to us, that doesn’t mean that they’re occult and weird; they’re simply different. I was once translating for Serkong Rinpoche, who was explaining how Tibetans do arithmetic, which is a bit different from the way we do it in the West. I remarked, “Wow, this is really strange,” and he scolded me, saying, “Don’t be so arrogant. It’s not strange; it’s different. To call it strange is just a sign of arrogance.”

Now when we have understood something of the teachings, then through meditation we build it up as a beneficial habit. Meditation isn’t just something we do sitting on a cushion in our room, but is something we can do everywhere, all day long. We can think about the Buddhist teachings all day long too. But if we don’t hear many teachings or spend time thinking and trying to understand them, we’ll be filled with doubt and indecisive wavering. How can we make any progress?

Overcoming Discouragement

It’s so important to remember in doing Buddhist practice that the nature of life is that it goes up and down. This is especially true in terms of our daily life and daily Buddhist practice. Some days our practice will go really well, and some days it won’t. Some days we won’t feel like practicing at all, other days we’ll feel enthusiastic. This is totally normal.

When things don’t go well, well, what do we expect? It’s never going to be paradise. There is no way that our Buddhist practice is going to be linear and just get better and better until we live happily ever after, like in a fairy tale. Even after many, many years, we still get upset about stuff. The main point here is to not get discouraged.

It doesn’t matter if you’re a layperson or a monk or a nun, the thing is that we can’t expect instant results, not even if we practiced 24 hours a day. Our selfishness and other negative habits are really strong, but we can still work on them bit by bit. As the great Indian Master Shantideva said, “The time when my disturbing emotions could defeat me is over. Now I am going to get rid of them, and I’m not going to give up.”

The Dalai Lama says that we shouldn’t look in terms of short-term practice to see whether we’ve made progress. We need to look over the last five years, if we’ve been practicing that long, to see that, yes, day to day there have been ups and downs, but after the whole amount of time has there been any progress in the way we deal with our problems and sadness and anger and so on? If you’re able to deal with life’s difficulties a little bit more calmly, then you’ve had some progress.

But this little bit of progress shouldn’t be enough. We shouldn’t be satisfied. If we think about the vast nature of the mind, we get the confidence that it is possible to get rid of the junk that causes all our problems. We have living examples of this, such as the Dalai Lama, and many others that can inspire us by their example of what is possible to achieve. Whether they’re enlightened or not – because how can we know? – we can just see the way they’re able to handle life’s difficulties. Imagine the Dalai Lama, with the millions of people in China and elsewhere that consider him the worst villain in the world, and yet it doesn’t bother him at all. But for most of us, if one person thinks we’re terrible, we get so upset we can hardly cope!

Even if we’ve never met him or seen the Dalai Lama in person, we can read about and watch videos of him. They’re very inspiring, and it is this inspiration that keeps us going when times are difficult and we’re experiencing the down phases of life’s ups and downs.

Inner Transformation without a Costume

Another important point about practicing Buddhism in the West, or in general, is something we find in the lojong or mind-training teachings. What we are told is that we need to transform ourselves inside, but on the outside remain completely normal. This means that the work we do is on our mind, attitudes and personality. We don’t go around wearing twenty red strings around our necks, dripping with rosaries, or wearing strange stuff. When people see that they will think that there’s something weird about us! There’s nothing wrong with red strings or rosaries if it’s helpful for you, but they can be kept in your purse or pocket, they don’t need to be shown to the whole world. The tantric teachings emphasize very much on keeping these things very private, because when you show this stuff outwardly, people might laugh or make fun of you. And if you need to defend it, then it takes away any sort of feeling of holiness or sacredness to it. When it’s private and personal, then it becomes special to us, and that’s all it needs to be. If on the outside we’re normal people, then the majority of other people can relate to us easily, and this is very important.

Being Humble

When we understand the culture that Buddhism comes from, we don’t make unreasonable demands and expectations on ourselves, or on the teachers either. It enables us to be more humble, because we realize we don’t have the advantage of automatically believing in karma and so on, so we need to work at understanding it. We see that we do have a Western education, which gives us the tools to think about these things quite clearly. And we acknowledge that while we might not be able to devote ourselves full time to study, because we need to lead a practical life, we can still make some progress. Ultimately we don’t become over-demanding, so instead of “I just want a magic pill to instantly make me understand everything!” we think, “I have this amount of time, so I’ll do what I can with that.”

It’s a fine line between being arrogant on the one hand and, on the other, being totally discouraged. It’s so easy to think that we don’t have time or the ability and to just give up. These two extremes are important to avoid, and just to do our best.


If we approach Buddhism without an understanding of the traditional culture from which it comes to us, it can lead to bewilderment as to what it’s all about. There’s no need for us to change our clothes or hair or jewelry; in fact, there’s nothing external that we need to change at all. With an open mind, and a determination to understand the teachings, the most important thing is for us to create an inner transformation of our own minds.

Original Audio from the Seminar