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Home > Approaching Buddhism > Buddhism in the World Today > Distinguishing Dharma from Asian Culture > Distinguishing Dharma from Asian Culture

Distinguishing Dharma from Asian Culture

Alexander Berzin
Berlin, Germany, July 2010

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The Necessity for a Cultural Context

This evening I’ve been asked to speak about distinguishing the Buddha Dharma, the Buddha’s teachings, from Asian culture or Tibetan culture. This is a very important question to ask, particularly if we are working to benefit others. For instance, we ourselves might be fascinated with Tibetan culture or Asian culture in general and like it; but if we want to help others and teach them about the Buddha’s teachings, will it be helpful for them? I think that’s really the question, isn’t it? And just as we may or may not like these aspects of Tibetan culture, similarly there are going to be others that we try to help that may or may not like it as well. So we need to be flexible in terms of working with others, helping others. Do we encourage them to light butter lamps and string prayer flags, this sort of thing, or is that something that would just cause them to turn away from Buddhism, to be turned off? So there are two considerations here: our own purposes and benefit and the purposes and aims of others.

Now, one has to ask a very fundamental question here. Can you have Buddhist teachings without a cultural context? In other words, can the teachings exist by themselves out of a context, which is similar to the question of can anything exist outside of a context? Or if we want to use the terminology that we find in the voidness teachings, then can we establish something as a Buddhist teaching just from its own side or is it established dependently on a context? And of course, from an analysis of voidness we find in Buddhism, we can’t establish a Buddhist teaching outside of a context.

So, that fits in with the general principle that we know that Buddha taught with skillful methods. He taught various people, various students, disciples, in terms of what they could understand. And that was all that Buddha did in terms of others. He taught others in terms of consideration of others. In other words, by considering others, Buddha taught. If you consider others, others live in a society with a culture, with basic ideas, don’t they? And so Buddha taught to an Indian audience, if we look just in terms of the historical Buddha. If we think in a larger Mahayana term that Buddha taught countless universes and countless beings and all sorts of different cultures, but still in each of the Buddha fields, in each of these universes there was a culture.

The Fundamental Indian Context

So we look at the teachings that have been written down and are available to us and we find general themes that are found in all of Indian – “all” is a very large word – but in practically all Indian systems of philosophy and Indian thought. And so, karma, rebirth, the whole idea of repeated rebirth due to the influence of ignorance or unawareness of reality; and under the influence of karma that’s built up on the basis of that unawareness or ignorance; and the path of listening to teachings from a spiritual teacher, thinking about them meditating on them in order to gain liberation from this ignorance and samsaric rebirth. In other words liberation comes from understanding reality and purifying away karma – that we find in common in so many different Indian systems. And teachings on love and compassion, that’s held in common with other Indian systems. All the methods for attaining concentration, it’s in common. Even the teachings on how to attain shamatha and vipashyana, which sometimes we think are just all Buddhist, they’re not. You find that in other systems as well. Shamatha being a stilled and settled state of mind; vipashyana being an exceptionally perceptive state of mind – this we find in other Indian systems.

And Buddha modeled his monastic community on the Jain community that was there already, so having the bi-monthly meeting of the monks and the whole concept of refuge and so on, that came up in Jainism as well; that came before Buddhism. And certainly making offerings and all of that with all the different beings from the different realms – the hell creatures and the ghosts and the gods and all of that – that certainly you find in all the Indian systems. And Mount Meru and the continents, all of that’s there as well in these other Indian systems. So if we took all of that away, saying that we can do without the Indian cultural context, what would we have left? Very interesting question; we’ll come back to that question.

When we look at how Buddhism went from India, and Buddhism was clearly taught in a context of Indian culture, when we see how it went to other Asian cultures, we find all these aspects that we mentioned, ethical discipline etc, all of these things were retained. Tibetans kept them, the Chinese kept them, the Japanese kept them, and Southeast Asians kept them. So they did, of course, in each of these countries, add a little bit to these basic elements that helped to make the Buddhist teachings a little bit more comfortable in their culture.

Superficial Culturally Specific Aspects versus Fundamental Indian Aspects

And so these things that were added, like when I mentioned before Tibetan prayer flags, which basically was coming from the earlier tradition in Tibet, Bon, well we could argue that this is not so essential that we follow that in Western Buddhism, so-called “Western Buddhism.” So we have superficial aspects. I think we need to differentiate superficial aspects of how Buddhism is presented in a culture from the more fundamental Indian aspects and then is there something, even if you took away the Indian aspects, that characterize something as a Buddhist teaching?

I think there’s three levels here. Okay, so, Tibetans – since we are most of us receiving the Buddhist teachings through a Tibetan medium – weren’t able to follow some of the Indian customs because of what they had available in Tibet. It’s not the same as what they had available in India. Here I’m thinking in terms of offerings. All right? Tibetans didn’t have a whole assortment of flowers, for example, so that used this dry thing that comes from a tree. They call that a flower. If you’ve ever seen it, it’s sort of like a paper type of white seed. So, do we have to use those? No, obviously not. Tibetans like butter lamps; in India they probably also had butter lamps, that I don’t know. Do we have to do that? Well, probably not. Can we offer light bulbs and turn the electricity on? Why not? It’s light. Tibetans in India do, some of them; and they also offer plastic flowers in India, the Tibetans, because they last longer. Tibetans are very practical.

And these paintings, these thangkas, well, yes you had these type of figures on wall paintings in India, but the Chinese brocade around it, which the Tibetans obviously took from China, do we need that? No, that’s quite superficial, isn’t it? Put it in a picture frame. And what about music? Tibetans had different musical instruments than in India. They composed their own musical accompaniments to things. So we could say, do we have to play the Tibetan musical instruments or could we play for an offering a trombone or a trumpet or a saxophone? Would that be acceptable? That’s an interesting question, isn’t it? But in theory, why not? What is the point? The point of these offerings is to make an offering, to be generous, to develop generosity. The Buddhas, from their side, don’t care if they’re hearing a sitar or a Tibetan trumpet or a saxophone. What difference does it make to them? Certainly nothing. The important thing is that it be respectable and not sound like some silly popular tune.

What other things can we think of that change from culture to culture? How about the monastic robes? The Tibetans certainly at least have a different color, a different shape from the robes they wear in Southeast Asia. Chinese have different robes; the Mongolians have different robes, but they all have robes. That’s the point. We could ask about the monks’ vows and the nuns’ vows. That becomes an interesting question, doesn’t it? They were kept in all the different countries that Buddhism went to in their various versions of the vows that developed in India, and different lines of it went to different countries; but nevertheless, they were retained. Do the Tibetans, for example, follow all the vows? Well, you’d have say that some vows seem to be quite irrelevant. Tibetans don’t go around barefoot in the village with a begging bowl, and all the vows concerning how you beg, and keeping your eyes down, and so on – Tibetans don’t even do that, do they, if they have the vows?

So, of course that becomes a very difficult and delicate question: if you have the vow, does that mean that you actually have to go around and beg? Well the Tibetans get their food in the monasteries in Tibet from offerings. They didn’t go out to collect the offerings; the local people brought the offerings to them. So is that staying within the Vinaya rules? That’s hard to say. The Chinese, they said, no begging. The monks and nuns have to produce their own food; they have to be farmers. There’s some adaptation there.

So if we look at the monastic institution, is begging something that is just cultural? No; obviously the whole set-up of the monastic institution was one in which it would be supported by society. So, how do you adjust that to a Western society when you still have the vows about begging? Questions are very difficult to answer. Should we send all the monks and nuns out here in Germany on the U-Bahn [subway] begging with a little bowl or selling little magazine books, like they sell here in order to get their food every day. That would be a little bit strange, wouldn’t it? But, it would be begging. All right, if the society doesn’t support the monastic community, how does the monastic community survive? This is quite a difficult question in the West.

So, is having a monastic tradition just cultural? Well, you have a monastic tradition in our Western Christianity, for example. There’s a tradition of giving donations which will support them; but some of these monastics in the West make wine, for example. Well, that wouldn’t go over in a Buddhist context. Do we adjust? Question – what can you adjust? How much can you adjust?

Other things that were added into Buddhism, a very good example is in Chinese Buddhism they add filial piety as one of the positive things, which means that children should take care of the parents. That’s emphasized very, very much; and they even have offerings to the ancestors. And so, from a Buddhist point of view, that’s quite strange because, here, deceased parents have taken rebirth. And the Tibetans and the Chinese have a custom of taking more than one wife and the Tibetans, some of them take more than one husband. How does that fit in with the teachings about inappropriate sexual activity? So, they added certain things. Do we need to then take it over in our culture? Well, no.

Then, what about language? A lot of the Tibetan lamas emphasize that we should do our practices in Tibetan. In a recent lecture that Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche gave here in Berlin, he raised a very interesting question concerning that point. He said, if the Tibetans had to say all their prayers and practices in German, written in Tibetan letters, but German words, without understanding anything of what they’re saying, he wonders how many Tibetans would actually do that. It’s a very interesting question, isn’t it? So, obviously, although some lamas do emphasize doing our practices in Tibetan, we could really question whether or not that is so helpful. The Tibetans certainly don’t do their practices in Sanskrit, do they? And they don’t visualize mantras in the Sanskrit alphabet either. They use the Tibetan alphabet, and they don’t even pronounce the mantras the way that they would be pronounced in Sanskrit. Vajra in Sanskrit, they pronounce benza. When it goes from Tibet to Mongolia, Mongolians pronounce it ochir. So which one is correct? And when it goes to Chinese, you wouldn’t even recognize the words. And then the Japanese pronunciation of the Chinese characters becomes even more removed. So these are all important questions.

One of the reasons, by the way, that one great Tibetan lama gave for insisting that people do the practices in Tibetan was that he had students from all over the world and he said that if everybody was reciting their practices, like Chenrezig puja, in Tibetan, they could all practice together. If everybody was doing it in their own language, they wouldn’t be able to practice together. So that’s one reason; but then by that that same logic all the Tibetans should have done everything in Sanskrit, and the Chinese, and Southeast Asia, everybody should have done it in Sanskrit, and they didn’t.

I must correct what I said because the Southeast Asians follow Theravada Buddhism. They all recite the sutras and so on in Pali, and it’s only very, very recently, and within the last – don’t quote me on this – a hundred years or a hundred and fifty years or so that these Pali sutras were ever translated into the local languages: Thai or Burmese or Sri Lankan. So it’s a little bit similar to Luther finally saying that you can translate the Bible into German, not just have everything in Latin. But the Catholic church: for a very long time, everybody did everything in Latin; but it made some sort of unity, didn’t it? Even if you didn’t understand what anything meant. There are arguments pro and con.

There are a lot of things, when you start to think about it, that one could question are they just cultural. How about the way that people sit in meditation? The Indians sit crossed-legged. The Tibetans follow that. Japanese Buddhists sit basically on their knees, with their legs behind them. The Thais sit with their legs both going to one side. So could we sit on chairs? Well, maybe for certain practices in tantra involving working with the subtle energy systems, maybe not. But for ordinary practice, why not? Even the way that prostration is done differs in the different Asian countries. So, one, I think, has to think in these cases to the principle, and the principle behind it is showing respect, for instance for prostration and sitting in a comfortable position or a standard type of position, not just in any old way, so with some discipline for meditating.

In these examples that I’ve given there are certain principles that are there that are followed in a different cultural way in these different countries. So, we could have our own cultural way. The monastics wear special robes. Do they have to be exactly like the Tibetan or exactly like the Chinese? Well, maybe not. But they should be special; they should be different from ordinary people’s clothes and everybody should wear the same so you’re not concerned with how pretty you look. And what’s the principle behind begging? The principle behind that is that you’re not involved in commerce, in trying to make money, trying to make a profit, and so on. And so you live on what others give you and whatever is given is accepted. You’re satisfied with that. So, is there some way to be able to bring that about in our societies?

Do we need all this elaborate decoration for a Buddhist center which is done in Tibetan style with a Tibetan altar and these curtains up by the ceiling and the special colors and stuff like that. Do we really need that? Is that cultural? And I would say that yes, that is culture; we certainly don’t find this in a Japanese Buddhist temple. But some people like them; so if they like them, why not? Some people might not like them, and find it very strange. So, I think perhaps enough of the superficial level of Buddhist trappings, this sort of prayer flags and decoration, and what kind of music you offer, and all of that.

So let’s go onto this second level. Although one thing I should add in that, what about all these offerings to spirits, and you find that in India as well. You have a whole array of – it’s very difficult to even translate them, gandharvas and yakshas and rakshasas. They call them “demons” and “cannibal spirits” and stuff like that and we make offerings to them, “Protect us, don’t harm us,” like that. Well, Tibetans actually didn’t make that up. You had that in India but the Tibetans just added it much, much more, and then the Mongolians kept everything the Tibetans had and added even more. Do we need that? No. It becomes very interesting, doesn’t it, because you had all of these yakshas and rakshasas and all of these things in general Indian thought, it wasn’t just in Buddhism.

So, now you can say, well, when you come to the West should we make offering to elves and goblins and all these sort of beings out of the Tolkien book – the hobbits and stuff like that because that’s part of our culture as well? The evil witches and stuff like that. What if we do that? Would that be keeping the same principle as what you have in Buddhism? I don’t like giving answers here; I’m asking questions. In fact, there are even some translators in the West who translate dakinis as angels and fairies; so should we have angels and fairies as well in our Buddhism? So one has to think, is there any deeper meaning to all of this?

Are we really talking here about harmful forces? I think in the West we’re more comfortable with the word forces rather than spirits. It becomes a difficult question, because then you start talking about “evil.” Is there evil in the world and we have to combat the evil, and then that gets into a whole question of the devil and stuff like that. So, do we really want Buddhism to go into that direction? Would that fit in with our society, with our culture? And it’s a difficult question. Most of us would probably feel more comfortable not having that; if Buddhism came into medieval Europe, probably it would have all this stuff to chase away the devil, wouldn’t it?

But what is skillful methods? One other thing that is very Tibetan that probably we can put in this category of superficial cultural things that if you like, okay, if you don’t like, you can do without, would be tormas – these cones made out of barley flour mixed with butter and all the decorations. I mean my own teacher, Serkong Rinpoche, used to say you can just have a box of cookies instead. You don’t need to have all these elaborate torma offerings.

Can We Do without the General Indian Aspects?

Well, let’s turn to these general Indian aspects like karma, rebirth, liberation, enlightenment, etc. Can we have Buddhism without that? And I think that would be too much. What would be left? Meditation is something that we find in Indian culture. So, do we throw it out just because it’s Indian culture? All right? The form in which we do meditation could be slightly different in terms of let’s say, the posture, but the method itself is something which is obviously a very integral part of the path.

We look at the boundary which is set – we find this in the Tibetan teachings – the boundary between what is Dharma and what is not; and what is Dharma or not is if you’re aiming for – you find this in the lam-rim – future lives and beyond, benefiting future lives and beyond. If it’s just for this lifetime, it’s not Dharma. It’s very clear in the teachings. Then you have the three levels of aim, of motivation: for improving future rebirths, for getting liberation from rebirth, and gaining enlightenment so you can help everybody else get free of rebirth.

There’s rebirth – can you do without that in Buddhism? I would argue no. But, improving future lives you find that in – and rebirth – you find that in a modified form in Christianity as well; Western religions, go to heaven, go to hell; that’s rebirth, isn’t it? And in Indian systems we have beginningless rebirth, cycles and so on; you have liberation from that. So just to aim to improve future lives or to gain liberation, that in itself doesn’t make it Buddhist. Just to improve future rebirths is not an ultimate aim, we say in Buddhism, but is just to help us to be able to continue on the path, to have the circumstances that are most conducive to continue on the path. So, okay, that aspect makes it something which can be included in Buddhism, comfortably.

What Buddha said was to gain liberation, although in these other Indian schools they talk about liberation, “Your liberation isn’t real liberation. You’re not really liberated yet,” Buddha said because the understanding of reality that you have is not correct, it’s not the deepest. And so, if you really want to gain liberation, this is the way. Obviously, the others said the same thing about Buddhism: theirs were correct. But, Buddha argued with logic. Later Indian Buddhist masters argued with logic and argued very convincingly.

And this whole issue of rebirth becomes very crucial in terms of making sense of the teachings of karma, because the results of our behavior don’t necessarily ripen in this lifetime. In fact, most of them don’t. This becomes of course, a very difficult point, doesn’t it? “Why should I follow the Buddha’s ethics? I could cheat and so on and get away with it.” So one has to be able to understand rebirth in order to really deal with karma; and to understand that, you really have to understand all the principles of cause and effect.

I make a difference between the “real-thing” Dharma and Dharma-lite, like real thing Coca Cola and Coca Cola-lite. And the lite version is the version without rebirth, just sort of be kind and helpful and, you know, all the teachings of Buddhism in terms of the disturbing emotions and methods for dealing with them and so on, that you can have all of that without rebirth, without liberation, without all of that. But, that’s not the real-thing Buddhism. So the question becomes if we reduce Buddhism to another form of psychology, is that still Buddhism? But, then again, as I say, if you call it Dharma-lite, and if that’s what you want, then fine, that’s okay. But don’t confuse it with the actual Dharma teachings, the real-thing Dharma which is with rebirth and liberation and enlightenment and karma which are all part of Indian culture. But, ethical discipline becomes a little bit difficult in Dharma-lite because again one might not see the results or experience the results of one’s destructive behavior: criminals who get away with it and never get caught, for example.

And a very interesting question comes up. Could we substitute instead of working for improving my own future lives, thinking beyond this lifetime in terms of the effect of my behavior on future generations? Would that be okay to add into Buddhism as a substitute for future lives? It would be more comfortable for our Western way of thinking, at least secular Western way of thinking. Well, I don’t think that thinking of the effect of our behavior on future generations is contradictory to anything in Buddhism. In fact, it’s quite good in terms of a consideration, just as the Chinese added filial piety serving your parents, as part of Buddhism. There’s nothing wrong, nothing contradictory to Buddhist principles in that. But could it substitute for rebirth or just be something that’s added?

Buddhism always emphasizes that the effect of our behavior, the only thing that’s certain is what we will experience as the result of it. It’s not certain what the other person will experience. You can serve somebody a wonderful delicious meal and then they choke on it and die. So, it’s not certain what the result of our actions will be on the other person. So, I think one still has to honor this general principle within Buddhism that one looks at the effect of one’s behavior on one’s self, on the continuum of one’s mental mind-stream, or mental continuum.

So these various aspects of Buddhist teachings, taught to an Indian audience – but they seem to be universal, in terms of rebirth, liberation, etc – were not limited to the Indian context, but it arose in the Indian context. But to do away with it would render Buddhism into Dharma-lite and we’d have some problems in terms of the understanding of cause and effect. And what really is the aim of Buddhism, what’s the aim of the path? To just improve things of this lifetime? That’s the aim of Dharma-lite. Or a little bit better to improve the world for future generations – so environmental concerns, global warming concerns etc? So, we have to really make clear what our aim is and what really Buddha set as his aims regardless of the cultural context – not his aims, but the aims for all beings.

The Unique, Indispensible Characteristic Features of Buddhism

Now, we can ask are there any characteristics of Buddhist Dharma that need to be there regardless of culture, regardless of any of these considerations – what I was referring to as the third level of something a little bit more deep, the characteristics features of Buddhism itself not shared in common with other traditions. And we have what’s called the “four hallmarks” or “seals of the Dharma.” The full term for it is the “sealing points that will allow us to label a particular view, philosophical view, as being based on the Buddha’s teaching, the Buddha’s words, enlightening speech of the Buddha.” What guarantee is that something comes from the Buddha’s actual speech, what he taught? And there are four points that are stated.

So, it’s not love and compassion that make it specifically Buddhist; it’s not meditation that makes it specifically Buddhist; it’s not a monastic community that makes it specifically Buddhist, or ethics – don’t harm others – that’s not specifically Buddhist. It all comes down to the view of reality that makes it specifically Buddhist. But that doesn’t mean that we could do away with all these other things and just have the view. So we have these first points.

The first one, all conditioned phenomena or affected phenomena are impermanent or nonstatic. It means that everything that is affected by causes and conditions – it arises from causes and conditions – will continuously change. And some of them will come to an end; most of them will come to an end. There are a few that will go on forever; but, nonstatic here means that it changes moment to moment to moment. Now teaching impermanence is not so Buddhist, well I mean the point being that most people don’t even realize this. They want to think that things are permanent; they’re going to last forever and they’re never going to change. But, more relevant is that “me,” I change from moment to moment. I’m affected by causes and conditions and I am changing from moment to moment to moment.

In the Hindu thoughts – “me,” I’m permanent – that doesn’t affect me. I’m not affected by anything – that way of thinking; my body, that gets affected, but not me. I might experience many, many different things, but, “me,” I’m not changed by that. Knowledge, but “me,” I’m not changed by that. So, this whole point about all conditioned or affected phenomena change from moment to moment. They’re impermanent and nonstatic, that applies to “me” as well. As long as something arises and is affected by causes and conditions, it’s going to change and most of them will come to an end. I don’t really want to go into very deep philosophical discussion of all these points. It’s already late and very hot and perhaps this isn’t the time; but, this point, all conditioned phenomenon are nonstatic, then we have to differentiate – there are some nonstatic things or changing things that are degenerating, slowly, slowly, coming to an end; and there are other things which don’t degenerate.

And so now we talk about “me?” Is it degenerating, like the body? Is it deteriorating and falling apart or does the “me” continue? If the “me” is affected by causes and conditions, at the end of life, and the mind as well, in terms of just knowing – your capacity to remember might deteriorate but the capacity to know is not deteriorated – so, if that’s not deteriorated at the time of death, it’s still affected by something, then it’s going to change into another moment. So, one could go quite deep with this point.

Second point is all tainted phenomenon are problematic, all suffering. “Tainted” means that they arise dependently on disturbing emotions and karma, which brings us back into rebirth, doesn’t it? So, to explain that point elaborately would be the twelve links of dependent arising, that all of our experience, everything that happens, is arising because of our ignorance, basically, our unawareness of reality which brings about the disturbing emotions, brings up karma and so on and generates different levels of happiness, so pain and happiness. But what it really generates is the continuing basis for that, uncontrollably recurring rebirth. And all of that’s problematic. This is specifically Buddhist, this whole mechanism of how samsara functions, how rebirth works, and it’s all problematic, all suffering.

And then the third point is all phenomena are devoid and lack an impossible “me” or an impossible soul, an atman – it’s the Indian word – but an impossible one, one that couldn’t possibly exist. So here we get all the Buddhist teachings on voidness, whether we’re speaking of it just in terms of voidness of the self or a person or voidness of all phenomenon. There are different levels of understanding this that Buddha taught, but basically teachings on voidness are totally essential for the Buddhist view. Voidness means an absence of impossible ways of existing. Things appear to exist in a certain way, but it doesn’t correspond, it doesn’t refer, I should say, to anything real. It’s impossible.

Other Indian systems – we find this in the Hindu systems – they say that everything is an illusion, and you have to see that it’s an illusion and get to reality, like we’re all One, the self is equivalent to Brahman, this type of thing, but Buddha was saying that all of that is impossible. These other interpretations of what illusion is are impossible. He gave what is considered the correct view and what is demonstrated by logic and by experience is the correct view.

And the fourth point is nirvana, referring to release from samsara, is a pacification and something constructive. It’s a pacification – that’s basically talking about the third noble truth, that it is stopping completely of all the causes of suffering – the disturbing emotions, unawareness, karma, etc and the suffering itself, so rebirth, uncontrollably recurring rebirth. And it’s something constructive; it brings happiness. So this implies that liberation is possible and putting this together with the points that come before, what would bring liberation and liberation from what?

So, we could see the four noble truths, another way of structuring what is said in these four seals of the Dharma, or hallmarks of the Dharma. So although we could think in terms of these four points just in terms of this lifetime – all things that are affected by causes and conditions change and anything that comes from confusion is going to give you problems, and there is no solid “me,” and if I could become free of all my problems it would be great – this type of thing. But, is that really Buddhism? That’s, I think, the Dharma-lite version. That’s not really going deeply enough in terms of cause and effect and what really we want to get rid of.

There’s the problem with just positing all of this in the context of this lifetime – it’s the whole issue of cause and effect, because then you’re going to have to have a mind and a “me” that, at the first moment arises form no cause or cause that is irrelevant like just the physical substance of the parents and that somehow changes, changes, changes, but then just that final moment doesn’t have any effect of something else. So you have a big problem with cause and effect, in terms of the mind, the mental continuum and the “me,” without positing beginningless rebirth and beginningless and endless mind, beginningless and endless “me,” not this impossible “me,” but the “me” that actually does exist and function.


So, we have, in summary. Buddhism has certain characteristic features, four noble truths, these four sealing points, refuge in Buddha, Dharma, Sangha, I haven’t gone into that, but that also, the way that it’s defined in Buddhism is specific to Buddhism. We have defining characteristics. Is the existence of Buddhism established by the power of these characteristics all by itself independent of anything else? No, you couldn’t say that? That’s impossible – the point of view of voidness teachings. It would have to be within a context. So, there is a general context which happens to be Indian – because that was the audience that Buddha taught in – but it seems to be universal. So it has to be within the context of practices of love and compassion and concentration and meditation and other things which are literally less easy to swallow like karma , rebirth etc. That would be a context.

But then there’s this other level which is more superficial, which might have a general principle behind it, but the form is different in different cultures. So, making offerings, showing respect, these sort of things, can be done in many different forms; and how the monastic community supports itself, and so, these can be in various different ways. What type of robe they wear that will distinguish them from lay people and not bring about attachment – that could be culturally dependent; and certainly the language would be culturally dependent.

And things like Mount Meru and the four continents and so on – and all the various beings that inhabit the universe – well certainly, I mean his Holiness himself, the Dalai Lama has said we don’t need Mount Meru and the abhidharma explanation of the universe. It’s contradicted by science, by experience; so when you offer the universe, it can be in the form of the solar system or the planet Earth or whatever. The point is that you’re offering everything, you’re offering the universe and you’re thinking of more beings than just human, with some that have more suffering, with some that have less suffering.

And in Buddhist perception theory, how the mind works etc, there’s never a mention of the brain, but, that can be brought in; there’s no contradiction. So when we ask this larger question, “Can we distinguish Buddha Dharma from its Asian context?” we see that this is actually quite a complex question and one needs to analyze it in levels of what is essential, what is general, what comes from a culture like Indian, and what is superficial and just can be changed according to culture but follows principle. That has to be honored.

Okay, thank you, what questions might you have? Yes.

Question about Different Life Forms

Question: So, in which context you see the pretas, the god realms and so on?

Alex: The way that I relate to that is to look at mind and feeling. So, mind is to be able to experience things and have certain like mental holograms arising and some experiencing or knowing of them. And one mental factor that’s always present is a level of happiness or unhappiness; it’s not quite the same as pleasure or pain, but it’s a mental or physical happy or unhappy. And in, if we use the Buddhist terms, in the desire realm it’s also going to be pleasure, pain, the physical sensation. Now, when we talk about happiness and unhappiness, or pleasure and pain, there’s huge spectrum from the most intense horrible suffering to the most intense pleasure and happiness, just as there is in terms of the visual spectrum, the audio sound spectrum and so on – a large spectrum. Now, with sight and sound, which part of the spectrum are we able to perceive that is dependent on the hardware of the type of body that we have. An eagle can see much better than a human eye. A dog can smell much better than a human, a human body can; it can hear more than a human can. So, it is possible with these spectrums that with a different type of body you would be aware of a different portion of the spectrum, larger portion.

If that’s the case with sight and sound and smell and so on, then why shouldn’t it also be the case with pleasure and pain and happiness and unhappiness? So, if (it is) a human body, when the pain becomes too much, too intense, we fall unconscious. If the pleasure is too intense, we are driven to destroy it, actually – if you think about an itch, an itch is actually intense pleasure, it’s not painful, but if the itch becomes too much then instinctively we have to scratch it to stop it. So, the mind however, is capable of experiencing much, much more than what is limited by our body, a human body. So, by that reasoning, there could be other life forms, non-human, that can experience the whole range of suffering and pleasure. So, that, of course there are others or our own mental continuum, could experience the whole spectrum. There are two ways of looking at it of course and Buddhism looks at it in both ways.

So, I think this comes into our second category that we were dividing our discussion into. In other words, I don’t think it really is relevant what the hell creatures look like and what type of torture they experience, and how big the ghosts are, and how long they live, and stuff like that. That’s coming out of Indian culture; and each of the Indian systems speaks about them and gives a different size and description and so on. That I think is not so necessary. But, what is necessary is the principle behind it, which is that a mind could experience much more suffering and much more pleasure. And that is we want to avoid both of these in order to have just the right amount that will enable us to practice the path; and to take that seriously, that we could be in a situation after this lifetime in which the area [of the spectrum] that we are experiencing is not a very conducive one [for Dharma practice] – the area of that spectrum of pleasure or pain or happiness or unhappiness. That’s the principle. The form – not really relevant.

Questions about Free Will and Choices

Question: How much freedom actually remains in this conditioned existence because sometimes I think with all this conditioned existence there is not much freedom to decide?

Alex: Well, we always have choices, but what we chose will be for a reason. So the choices that we make are not based on no reason at all. But, the choices that we have are restricted; we can’t choose just anything. If you go to a restaurant, let’s say it is a Turkish restaurant; well you can only chose what’s on the menu. You can’t chose Chinese food or Italian food. So there’s a limited number of choices that you have; but what you choose, that’s up to you. But whatever you choose is going to be based on a reason – you’re vegetarian or you eat meat or you don’t like this, you don’t like that. There’s a reason for what you choose – “I just had this yesterday, so I don’t want it again” – there’s always a reason for what you choose. But, you have a choice.

Question: It’s clear that there are causes for making a certain choice rather than another, but does this have absolute necessity that one will make that choice?

Alex: That’s hard to answer because from the point of view of a Buddha, an omniscient Buddha knows everything, so he knows causes and effects. So, in a sense, a Buddha knows what you’re going to choose; but what you’re going to choose hasn’t happened yet. So, he knows it hasn’t happened yet. Now the question is “How do we experience it?” We experience it as a choice. Is it really a choice, well then one has to analyze what does “choosing” mean. What does choosing mean? It means distinguishing one thing from another, discriminating what would be more beneficial or more pleasurable than another thing. So all these variables are there.

So from our side, I think that all that we can speak about is in terms of how we experience things in life, and we experience it in terms of using our discrimination to make choices. But, you see this gets into a very, very deep, difficult philosophical question in terms of what has not yet happened. It’s not that all our choices and whatever we’re going to do is already happening or happened and Buddha sees all of that. There are things that have not yet happened. Next year has not yet happened, tomorrow has not yet happened. Do we know that there’ll be a tomorrow? Yes. Is it predetermined that there’ll be a tomorrow? Well, that’s a strange way of looking at it. Isn’t it? But I know there’ll be a tomorrow. So, one has to go deeper and deeper philosophically. It certainly isn’t that everything is predetermined and we’re just living out a script that somebody else wrote and decided what’s going to happen.

[See: Analysis of Free Will versus Determinism.]

Question about Blessings

One last question.

Question: Okay, that’s maybe we come back to the topic of traditions, and what means blessing, or what is blessing? Is it a provisional stuff or it’s a kind of energy that comes from where or from me?.

Alex: All right. So the question is about blessings, is that something cultural or what’s going on with blessings? So, this is a very good point that you bring up because a lot of the misunderstanding about Buddhism is due to the type of terminology that’s used to translate the technical Buddhist terminology, And so a lot of the terminology, or a portion of the terminology that’s been chosen traditionally in the West has strong Christian connotations, like for example the word “blessing.”

Participant: Maybe because it’s about provisional things in Bhutan, there’s a lot of very, very holy stuff from Drugpa Kunlay and this and that, and everybody gets like…

Alex: Right, so she’s saying that in Bhutan everybody gets these sacred things from Drugpa Kunlay and from all sorts of various masters that’s touched to your head and you receive the blessing. So I said you certainly have that, but to translate it as a “blessing” is introducing a Christian concept. The term that’s used in Tibetan could be translated differently and the way that I would translate it is “inspiration,” something which inspires you, which uplifts you.

So, then the question is where is this coming from, this inspiration? Is it existing just by the power of the object? Is it existing just by the power of the mind of the person – like if you put a dog’s tooth, you know the story of the dog’s tooth, that somebody was supposed to bring back a relic of the Buddha. They forgot so they brought a dog’s tooth and this inspired everybody. So where is the inspiration, from the side of the object, from the side of the mind, from the side of the person who brings it, from the side of the good story that you tell about it? And you’d have to say, it arises dependently on all of this.

But, the fact is that people do get inspired. You get inspired from a rainbow, so is there something special about these, is it some sort of vibration that’s in it? That’s a difficult question. And you would say, from a Buddhist point of view, that for instance, if somebody has great concentration and great experience, which sort of brings everything into focus and so on, it does affect the objects around it. It does affect the environment, like under the bodhi tree in Bodhagaya. So they have these ceremonies in which all the monks get together for a whole month. They recite Om mani padme hum and they have these little pills that are there and they blow on it and it gets the vibration of the Om mani padme hums and people take it and fell very inspired. So you could say, well, there’s some sort of energy vibration – sounds a little bit New Age but, it’s not, what should we say, outrageous that somehow vibration and energy can affect the environment and the alignment of the energy of an object.

But, of course, you can give these things, these little pills to someone who has no respect, no anything, it’s not going to have any effect. So the inspiration also is dependent on the mind of the person. The example that’s given is that even if the highest lama in the world blows on a protection string and ties it around the neck of a pig that’s going to be slaughtered, it’s not going to prevent the pig from being slaughtered. So, things arise dependently on many, many factors.

Okay, so let’s end here – not with a blessing – but we’ll end here with…

Participant: Why not? It’s an inspiration.

Alex: Inspiration – with a dedication. Dedication; we think whatever positive force, whatever energy is been built up – so it is dealing with the energy on our mental continuum here – may it go deeper and deeper and grow stronger and stronger and act as a cause for not only us but everybody to reach the enlightened state of a Buddha for the benefit of us all.