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Sustainable Development
of Western Buddhist Traditions

Alexander Berzin
Address to Conference of European Buddhist Teachers
Zurich, Switzerland, 13 August 2005

I would like to address my remarks today to the topic of protecting the endangered Tibetan Buddhist cultural heritage. The main facet of this heritage is the Dharma. To protect the heritage of the Dharma in the West, we need to look at the historical precedent of how the Dharma from India was preserved in Tibet.

Many great masters and translators, both Indian and Tibetan, were involved in bringing the Dharma to Tibet. They translated and transmitted the lineages of both the sutra and tantra texts, as well as the initiation lineages of many tantric deities. Many of these masters also founded monasteries in Tibet. Although there were so many separate lineages and individual monasteries, eventually a few great Tibetan learned practitioners gathered many lineages together and mastered them. Through their teachings and inspiration, their followers in many monasteries joined together and, from this, the various Tibetan schools arose – Nyingma, Kadam, Sakya, Kagyu, and eventually Gelug. Although several of these Tibetan schools had subdivisions, such as within Kagyu, nevertheless the number of schools remained small.

Many of the lineages of the texts and initiations were shared in common by several Tibetan schools, such as the Guhyasamaja lineage from Marpa. Other lineages were transmitted exclusively within one tradition, such as the Lamdray lineage of Virupa. Aspects from Tibetan culture were mixed with the Indian tradition, such as the use of prayer flags and tormas. Many Tibetan masters wrote extensive commentaries to the texts, illuminating the intended meanings. Although there were no Nyingma, Sakya, Kagyu, or Gelug schools in India, it was in this way that these Tibetan schools preserved the cultural heritage of Indian Buddhism. One of the main reasons for the survival of the Dharma, then, was that the numerous Indian transmission lineages and the numerous monasteries founded in Tibet became combined into a small number of traditions.

We face a similar situation today with the transmission of the Dharma from Tibet to the West. Many masters and translators, both Tibetan and Western, are translating and transmitting teachings and lineages. Many are founding Dharma organizations that include Dharma centers, retreat centers, and monasteries in several cities and countries. Some are combining traditional Tibetan styles with Western cultural elements. At present, however, there are so many separate Dharma organizations, from so many Lamas, Geshes, and Western teachers, that Western students find it very confusing. Which center should they go to? Which Lama should they follow? Tibetan Buddhism has become overly fragmented. If there are, roughly speaking, three hundred or more different kinds of Tibetan Buddhism in the West, it will be very difficult to sustain all of them over the next centuries.

If we look from the viewpoint of history, these Dharma organizations and lineages will have to come together and consolidate into a reasonably small number of Western schools of Buddhism in order to survive. Rather than each new Tibetan and Western teacher starting new Dharma organizations, it is time that we try to think of ways to reduce and avoid the problem of fragmentation.

There seem to be at least two main reasons for the ever-increasing number of Dharma organizations. One is that, from the side of the Tibetan teachers, they have the pressure of raising money to rebuild their monasteries and to feed their monks. The other reason, on the side of the Western students, is their misunderstanding of Guru-devotion. Because they think they must regard their teacher literally as a Buddha, then when their teacher dies, they think they must look for his or her tulku, even if the teacher was just a Geshe. If they don't do that, they think that this means they did not really believe their teacher was a Buddha. Having a new tulku, they feel that they then must continue the Dharma organization of the tulku's predecessor, in order for the new tulku eventually to lead it.

To solve these problems, we need to find different ways to finance the monasteries in India, Nepal, and Tibet, and we need to clarify the teachings on Guru-devotion. We then need to think about how to consolidate the styles and lineages of the various masters who have come to the West. There needs to arise just a small number of Western schools of Buddhism. Similar to what developed in Tibet, this will require, of course, qualified Western teachers who master many lineages and teachings. There may not yet be such masters among the Western teachers now, but some will surely come in the future.

In short, we need to take responsibility for the future of Buddhism and think carefully. We need to ensure that the Tibetan Buddhist cultural heritage will not die out because of becoming too fragmented, but will survive the centuries to continue benefiting all beings.