Said Rob Hogendoorn in 2006…

Written by Rob Hogendoorn

7 minutes

In 2006, I came across the text of Alexander Berzin’s advice to Tibetan monastics of the reconstituted monasteries Ganden, Drepung, and Sera in South-India in 1989. Berzin’s views triggered the following response that I sent to a Buddhist discussion group at that time. This is the first, slightly edited outtake from a manuscript tentatively titled Yogis and Children: Lay Study and Practice of Tibetan Buddhist scholasticism in the West.1

My doctrine has two modes,
Advice and tenets
To children I speak advice
And to yogis, tenets

‘Here’s a matter that has occupied my mind for some time now. By way of introduction, I’d like to refer to Alexander Berzin’s Advice for Tibetans before Teaching in the West, held in Mundgod and Byllakuppe, India in 1989. 3 Berzin began his address by saying that he has been asked by the Dalai Lama ‘to come to the three main monasteries of Sera, Drepung and Ganden to speak about the situation of Buddhism and Buddhist centers in foreign countries.’ Although I find it hard to judge how his advice weighed with his audience at the three largest Geluk monasteries in exile, I’d assume that after this introduction Berzin had the full attention of all the abbots, Lamas, Geshes, and monks present.

The address itself is fairly straightforward. Having briefly reviewed the rise of Buddhist centres in the West, Berzin assesses the nature of the Western interest in Tibetan Buddhism along with a few distortions that Westerners tend to project. He then proceeds by discussing the difficulties involved in properly translating Tibetan Buddhism in Western languages. These preliminary observations, as a matter of course, prefigure Berzin’s discussion of issues that illustrate the cultural divide that confronts Tibetan teachers while teaching Buddhism in the West.

Here, Berzin impresses on his audience the religious and cultural variety of the world outside Tibet and India. He concludes that ‘although there are some general characteristics that most modern foreign countries share in common, it is important for those who are going to teach and translate there to take an interest in and learn about not only these common features, but also about the culture of the specific country they are going to. This will help them to understand better the people they are teaching, and enable them to help them more.’

So far, so good. I do feel that Berzin sounds somewhat condescending when he speaks about Westerners. But, perhaps, this is merely to placate his Tibetan hosts with the prospect that there’s an actual benefit in helping the Wild Wild West develop.

Having thus set the stage for his next topic, ‘Advice for Teaching Westerners,’ Berzin underlines that ‘teaching foreigners is quite different from teaching Tibetans.’ He reprises the varieties of modern Western culture and catalogues some of its general features, such as an inquisitiveness paired with scepticism and the prevalent lack of faith in Buddhism. He points out to his Tibetan hosts that, therefore, ‘it is necessary to be patient with them and when they question something, not just think they are disrespectful or have wrong views.’

But then follows a casual remark that betrays a curious and often unstated a-philosophical stance. I believe that this view is problematic and seriously hampers the popular reception of Tibetan Buddhism in the West. Berzin counseled his Tibetan hosts in India:

It is very helpful to learn something about foreign religions, like Christianity and Judaism, and about psychology. Western philosophy is not so important to learn, since most foreigners do not study it. However, psychology is something everyone knows about, and is very important for being able to explain the Buddhist teachings on the mind to them. Also, Judeo-Christian and psychological ways of thinking shape very much the types of questions that foreigners ask. If the Geshes and translators can understand the cultural and religious backgrounds of the foreigners, they will understand their questions better.

First of all, I fail to see how Tibetan teachers could even begin to understand the cultural and religious backgrounds of their Western students without appreciating our philosophy too. Furthermore, it may be very true that, in general, Western audiences have only a very rudimentary understanding of philosophy, ‘since most foreigners do not study it.’ But the same goes for religion, psychology, science, or any other topic Berzin says prospective Tibetan teachers in the West should study. Indeed, measured by Geluks’ scholastic standards, Westerners probably ‘know about’ hardly anything at all. In effect, Berzin offers his Tibetan audience a ‘good’ excuse for not studying Western philosophy for the wrong reason.

Moreover, not only do Westerners’ minds continuously and unreflexively avail themselves of folk psychology, folk science, and folk religion, they routinely utilize the prism of folk philosophy as well. Now, within the context of Geluk scholasticism, the issue is not whether or not such spontaneous philosophizing is a singularly bad thing. People simply are prone to thinking: after all, they’re humans, not fish. If anything, on Geluks’ view, our philosophizing offers a window of opportunity to improve our lot.

The Dalai Lama’s translator Thupten Jinpa, for instance, characterizes Tsongkhapa’s reading of Madhyamaka reasoning as a form of ‘self-criticism,’ aimed at liberating our minds from a ‘deep-seated tendency for reification,’ specifically ‘designed to prevent the virtuoso Madhyamika from succumbing to any of the possible metaphysical havens that he may otherwise seek.’ Jinpa continues: ‘That many of these standpoints represent tenets of actual historical schools is, as far as Tsongkhapa is concerned, an interesting coincidence. In fact, it strengthens his point that these are possible routes one might quite naturally take to seek refuge if one is not vigilant through a critical approach.’ 4

Much could, and perhaps should, be said about the epistemological presuppositions and consequences that attend Tsongkhapa’s view, but for present purposes the following will hopefully suffice. If Daniel Cozort and Craig Preston are right in paraphrasing Tsongkhapa that, to be able to subject our (unconsciously held) beliefs to rigorous analysis, it is crucial that we first correctly identify what they are, it may well be inevitable that Westerners with a proclivity towards Geluk scholasticism focus on their own ‘native’ beliefs first. 5

I very much doubt that the Western students’ metaphysical safe havens are instantly recognizable as identical to those of their Tibetan teachers, or amount to the putative beliefs of the ancient Indian Buddhist schools that Geluks study. Any such correspondence to Tibetan catalogues of beliefs—however interesting in and of itself—is coincidental anyway, according to Tsongkhapa. So, even from orthodox Geluk Madhyamika’s perspective, a proper study of Western philosophy may well be Westerners’ only way out of the maze of their inherited beliefs.

To effectively take stock of our ideological preoccupations and hang-ups—as did their Indian and Tibetan Madhyamaka predecessors in their day and age—Tibetan Buddhist in the West should in fact study Western philosophy and the history of ideas long and hard, to retrieve and delineate the actual—not putative—safe havens and escape routes they themselves ‘quite naturally take’ while seeking refuge from Madhyamaka reasoning.

After all, didn’t the Buddha say that we should work out our own salvation ‘diligently’?

Most of this work has yet to start, I fear. Too many Western converts to Geluk Buddhism seem to think that they’re exceptions to the rule and that, quite contrary to common sense, their philosophical slates are spontaneously cleansed as soon as they start studying and practicing Buddhism with a Tibetan teacher. Moreover, among the highly articulate generation of Western Buddhists that converted in the 1960s and 1970s, Berzin included, many seem to be particularly prone to thinking that the only proper use one could make of Western philosophy is to either critique or laud Buddhism. Many of these pioneers were barely twenty years old when they left their homelands to study and practice Tibetan Buddhism abroad, and they may have been naively, injudiciously antagonistic towards Western philosophy at the time.

It simply didn’t occur to them that Western philosophy could help them make sense of Tibetan Buddhism too.

Having studied Tibetan Buddhism within a Geluk-oriented curriculum for some time myself, I’ve encountered an awkward disparity of means. Many Western students, some of them monks or nuns, fervently throw themselves into studying translations of their teachers’ Tibetan presentations of rather arcane tenets of Madhyamaka thought. Hoping to be able to validate their understanding in a proper Geluk scholastic debate someday, some supplement what they learn on their own by consulting miscellaneous translations, commentaries and analyses that Tibetan and Western scholars have made available in English over the past decades. Others, out of an auto-suggestive overcommitment, pre-empt their conservative Tibetan teachers’ culturally induced trepidation vis-à-vis modern Western scholarship by not reading anything beyond the prescribed course materials.

And yet, no matter how eager to learn these students appear to be, all but a few remain blatantly ignorant of their own philosophical and cultural presuppositions, unable to contextualize their new-found beliefs at all. Having prematurely lost sight of the very intellectual horizons that could make their very ‘conversion’ meaningful—or at least intelligible—they ostentatiously dwell in epistemological and moral vacuousness. Captivated by their own philosophical dilettantism, such students unwittingly evoke false expectations in themselves, their preceptors and peers, eventually leading to disillusionment and embarrassment for all.

Whenever a Tibetan teacher—a learned, inquisitive Geshe, for instance—casually challenges his students on their ‘own’ ground, questioning them perhaps on science, psychology, philosophy or biology, hardly an answer is forthcoming. Stranded in an intellectual no man’s land, these students apparently can’t hold their own defending any view at all, whereas their teacher, who presumably can hold his own debating within the parameters of Geluk orthodoxy, is hardly ever challenged to do so from a heterodox perspective. This asymmetry is not unlike that of Geluk debate itself, where the defender is held accountable for the truth of his assertions, whereas the truth content of the challenger’s questions is irrelevant. 6

Perhaps, then, Berzin ought to have given his distinguished Tibetan audience the following advice instead: ‘For you, Western philosophy is not so important to learn. However, since most foreigners do not study it of their own accord, make them do so.’

  1. See also: Said Rob Hogendoorn in 2004….
  2. Geshe Lhundub Sopa & Jeffrey Hopkins. (1989). Cutting Through Appearances: Practice and Theory of Tibetan Buddhism. Ithaca, NY: Snow Lion Publications. p. 149.
  3. Berzin, Alexander (1989). Advice for Tibetans before Teaching in the West. Retrieved October 11, 2020.
  4. Jinpa, Thupten. (2002). Self, Reality and Reason in Tibetan Philosophy: Tsongkhapa’s Quest for the Middle View (18). London: RoutledgeCurzon. p. 62
  5. Cozort, Daniel & Craig Preston. (2003). Buddhist Philosophy: Losang Gönchok’s Short Commentary to Jamyang Shayba’s ‘Root Text on Tenets’. Ithaca: Snow Lion. p. 8
  6. Jeannine Chandler wrote: “Georges Dreyfus has stated that Tibetan lamas tend to infantilize their Western students. Many Tibetan teachers view Westerners as ‘nice kids’ but not fully mature or trustworthy. According to Dreyfus, the cultural gap between Tibetans and Westerners, as well as the nature of the organization of Tibetan Buddhism in the West, places Tibetans at the top of the hierarchy.” Chandler, Jeannine. (2015). Invoking the Dharma Protector: Western Involvement in the Dorje Shugden Controversy. In Scott A. Mitchell & Natalie E. F. Quli (Eds.), Buddhism Beyond Borders: New Perspectives on Buddhism in the United States (pp. 75-91). New York: SUNY Press. If truth be told, many Western converts give ample reason to be perceived this way.

About the author

Rob Hogendoorn

Investigative reporter and academic researcher Rob Hogendoorn (b. 1964) began researching the reception of Buddhism in Western society and culture in the early 1990s. His modus operandi remained the same ever since: independent, inquisitive and provocative.