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The Buddhist Archives of Dr. Alexander Berzin

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Why I Began the Berzin Archives

Alexander Berzin
Morelia, Mexico, April 2004

Unedited Transcript
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About two and a half years ago I think it is now already, I started a website www.berzinarchives.com. And the idea behind this was that I devoted my whole life – now it is 42 years – to studying and practicing the Dharma, not doing anything else. And I had been writing books – and books take a very, very long time to prepare – and working with editors and all that stuff. And they sell very, very – the distribution is poor – and they sell poorly; so it doesn’t reach a very large audience. And it seemed to me that the best way to reach a larger audience was with a web site and with the… take advantage of the new media that we have now as a learning tool.

I mean, it’s like going from handwritten stuff to the printed books; and now we have a different way, to the Internet. And with this – I haven’t taken full advantage of the interactive aspects of it – but what you can do rather than writing long books, you can write little things dealing with specific topics and then, with a search engine or link, people can pursue and make all the connections and try to see how things fit together. This is the new way of learning.

And it fits it totally into what we need in order to understand the Dharma, because there are so many pieces of the Dharma puzzle and they fit together in so many different ways that the Internet media is perfect for that, because then you can go to any other piece of the puzzle easily and find it and try to fit it together. So it is very important to deal with the reality of what is certainly coming in the future, which is more and more in this direction. And if we want Dharma to survive future generations, to present it in this type of media and not just use the Internet as a library – like putting books on a shelf – there is much more that can be done with it.

And I had, coming back to the West, which was to enable me to have better facilities for doing things like this – India was very difficult for that – then I came back with a very large amount of material from my life work: Berzin Archives – give it a name.

I took detailed notes of every teaching that I received; and all the texts that I studied, I did rough translations of, and transcripts of the various teachings that I translated for Serkong Rinpoche, for His Holiness the Dalai Lama – all of that transcribed – or the tapes and all the various other things that I translated, and tapes of my teachings and so on. And that came to about 30,000 pages – that´s quite big – and that’s not counting the tapes; and the tapes keep accumulating more and more and more.

And a great deal of it is handwritten, which doesn’t make it easy for transcription. And glossaries, huge vocabulary lists, then computer programs for converting Tibetan and Western dates – I mean lots and lots of stuff – the Western and Tibetan dates, making a Tibetan astrological chart – all these things – the four traditions of Tibetan Buddhism and various aspects of Tibetan culture: not only Buddhism, but history and astrology, meditation, medicine. I read and took extremely detailed notes of 1,200 books and articles on Central Asian history and Buddhist history in Tibet and Central Asia, Mongolia, from English, French, German and Russian – someone else did the Russian for me, I don’t read Russian – English, French, German and Russian. That took me a great deal of effort all over the world to find the texts. Or interviews that I had with scholars in Turkey or Jordan or Egypt, these sorts of things – Central Asia, Uzbekistan, and so on. And if something is not done with this material, when I die, it will all instantly turn into garbage and be thrown away. And I did not want that to happen.

And I had the incredible opportunity and privilege to study with the best of the best teachers – I mean not your ordinary Geshes, or like that – the best of the best: His Holiness, His Holiness’s teachers. So, the material that I have gathered is very precious – you know, personal questions and answers sessions with His Holiness and so on.

I would like to preserve this and make it available. And obviously I cannot possibly finish this in this lifetime, but as least as much as it is possible and set up the mechanism for it to continue. And I certainly don´t want to be Anglo-centric about this and so I’d like to make it as much as possible available in other languages, and in Russian and Polish and Mongolian and Chinese – and so a huge project.

And unfortunately 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. Because I think that one of the major developments and contributions that Western thinking, the Western mind, can contribute to – I mean, if we look in terms of the entire historical development of Buddhism and how it can contribute to further – is in terms of further development of commentarial literature.

The sutras are very, very disorganized. They were just basically talks that Buddha gave to different people at their houses – at (which) he was invited for lunch – or some public talks: completely different levels, and explaining from completely different point of views for different people who were there at lunch.

So the Indian commentaries put this together and spoke about specific types of things, themes like voidness, the stages of the development of the path as you go through the path, and so on. And then the Tibetans added to this the detailed outlines, so that it would become easier to deal with the Indian commentaries and to learn them. And each of the generations tried to explain, you know, the original words. Particularly, the Indian commentaries are very cryptic, and they can be filled in from many different points of view.

So now Buddhism is coming to the West and so what can we contribute? And just to contribute different offering substances and different musical instruments for the pujas and stuff like that is, what to say, a superficial development. Necessary, but it’s superficial. Or rather, adding yet another group of worldly protectors in addition to all the Tibetan spirits and the mountains and the trees and stuff like that. So I mean, you can see places like here in Mexico or in Brazil. OK, you are adding these local deities from the local religions as well, that’s no… that also is a superficial thing that can be added, right, the shamanic addition – superficial.

But I think a real contribution, one of the real contributions that we can make is the Western training of being able to find the patterns, and understand theory and derive a theory, so putting many different systems together to see like: how does a certain theme like mental labeling develop through the schools of Indian Buddhist tenets? This, a Western mind is uniquely trained to do that. Tibetans don’t, their minds aren´t trained that way; they don´t think that way. Tibetans are trained with debating very very specific, very very individualized points.

The only one that I know personally who approaches this (Western) way of thinking is His Holiness the Dalai Lama in trying to come up with a grand unifying theory to see how the four Tibetan traditions fit together – he is very, very unique in a very large number of ways – rather than just describing each system separately. So… and the way His Holiness’s mind works is also not like a Western mind; so it´s different, the way that His Holiness approaches this problem.

And 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 available. So how in the world do we make sense of that? And this, a Western mind is uniquely trained to be able to do, to see the general pattern.

And this is absolutely necessary for the future because more information will become available. And how can anybody really approach and practice Buddhism when there is all this conflicting information available? How do you put it together? So this is a very important contribution that the Western mind has to make. Or the historical development, looking over centuries and centuries, the historical development of Buddhism. And this is something that I would like to make a little bit of a contribution in this area, and so a web site is a good media.

And I am sure you can appreciate the problem from what’s developing here in Mexico. I mean it is much, much stronger in other countries but – and now it’s starting, the many – now there are many Dharma centers from many different traditions and many different teachers starting to be available in some of your major cities. Berlin has forty of them. And it is very confusing to newcomers: where do you go? And especially if they go to a few, and then they have no idea what´s going on.

So if you like to help with this process, getting involved in the Spanish section, the translation, and so on, this is something that is not just beneficial for people now, but this is something… I think in terms of long-term benefits, in terms of your own buildup of positive force. Even after our death, it is continuing to benefit people. It will continue to build up positive force for our mental continuum, so it’s a very worthwhile thing to do.

And as Shantideva said, before we say we are going to do something to be of help, very important to examine very well: am I actually able to do this and am I able to continue doing this and not just – and see it through – not just, “yeah, yeah, well, well,” you know, but do this – enthusiastic and then (not) do anything. Or you just work for a couple of hours on it and then that is finished. So if you are going to volunteer to Gabi, to help, think about this, be real volunteers, rather than just, “wow, yeah man, wow fantastic.”

And already, I mean the last time that I have the statistics available, which was in November, already 350 people were looking at the web site every day. So it seems to be starting to reach quite a good audience, certainly, incredibly much more than any of my books ever did.

And so if somebody now…. actually my translator in Berlin is preparing the new data organization system for the whole web site. Now there’s about 400 articles on it; that´s about 10% of my English material. But when I… when this is completed – the new data organization system – which will take some months to do, then I… it will be possible to put up the Spanish section, and hopefully that will also reach a considerable audience around the Spanish-speaking world.

I took a little time to explain this, but I think that can be helpful.

We as Buddhist practitioners, this, this type of… studying Mahayana, you know, and the cleansing of mind… so 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. But to… and not just leave at, “well, I’m doing this for all sentient beings,” which is meaningless for most of us, but the way I look at this is that here is an opportunity to actually try to reach lot of people and benefit them and not just now, but thinking in terms of future generations. Then within this context we can include the initial scope lam-rim motivation. If we put enough force into this for our next lifetime, there’s the karmic connection defining such things as this web site as our door back into the Dharma. This is sort of, you say, yet a level of motivation. At least, this is the way I think about it.

You know, how seriously we prepare for our next rebirth? And what concrete measure are we taking, if we’re really into the Dharma, to reconnect? That’s something I think about. We take the initial scope of motivation seriously, so don´t trivialize or belittle the initial scope motivation. 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 web site, obviously. But it’s important to do something. You know, I mean putting 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. “And may I be able to connect, and continue to connect with the Dharma in all future lives – continue to study with really qualified teachers.”

Like Atisha going, undertaking this unbelievable journey to Sumatra in his days, to find really qualified teachers. And so making situations available for, like a center and so on, for others to gain access to authentic teachings. And all the difficulties that are involved with doing that are nothing compared to… Imagine Atisha, you know, after this incredible journey to Sumatra, then, not as a young man, goes to Tibet in those days, and tries to make the authentic teachings available there where the situation was really much more difficult than here. And look at the result of his effort. And he did not go as a missionary. And look as the result. It continues to benefit people, what he did.