Does Buddhism need to be adapted to the West?

I was looking at some other Buddhist blogs on the internet yesterday, just to see what is out there, and if I might be interested in connecting with others there. I noticed on some blogs there are very passionate discussions about how Buddhism needs to be adapted to the modern world and how to get rid of cultural elements that people feel are not relevant to the them. I have very mixed feelings about that because it seems quite hasty and rushed. The teachings of Buddha date back over 2500 years and the fact that I am able to benefit from them is because many generations of practitioners strived to embody them and pass them on in an authentic and intact form to the next generation. If there would have been the same attitude of just picking what we can relate to and getting rid of the rest that seems prevalent today, I doubt that there would be anything that even remotely resembles the original teachings of the Buddha existing today.

I recently read some comments by the Dalai Lama on this question and he pointed out that the teachings of the Buddha aim to address the basic human condition and since the problems of ignorance and negative emotions have not fundamentally changed over time he felt it was not necessary to dramatically change the methods and tools that are given in the teachings. Of course, the teachings have changed over time and been incorporated into different cultures, but it is hardly 40 years that the Buddhist teachings have come to the West. Compared to over 2500 years since the time of Buddha, this is nothing. It will take generations of practitioners to make the teachings really take root in the West and so far we don’t have a lot of examples of realized beings in the West … If we change the teachings without a full understanding and just based on our personal preferences I don’t think there will be much left in a hundred years. It would be wise to first fully realize the true meaning of these teachings through diligent study and practice. Even the cultural elements have a spiritual meaning and we need to first fully understand these. For example, a few days ago I wrote about the ritual of opening the shrine in the morning and how it is based on old Indian custom. At first, when I began to practice it, I couldn’t relate to this but after understanding the meaning behind the ritual I was able to do this practice meaningfully. Once I understood the meaning I also didn’t feel the need to adapt the ritual any more. That’s why I feel we should go slowly with this. Maybe in time new rituals will evolve but I hope that realized and accomplished teachers will guide us in this process of adaptation.

Tulku Thondup

Of course, we need to adapt the teachings to each individual situation. About ten years ago I attended a teaching by Tulku Thondup where he taught on healing practices based on one of his books. I remember asking him if it was ok to incorporate some of the methods and visualizations that he taught that day into the healing practice of Vajrasattva of the Longchen Nyingtik Ngöndro that I do every day and his response is still very vivid in my mind. He first responded very cautiously saying that it was a very sacred practice and that it would not be good to change the practice itself or change how it is taught. But then he added (to my surprise) that in his personal practice he incorporates these elements himself. It took me a little while to get the point of what he was saying but it really stuck in my mind. On a personal level we need to adapt and we can be creative, but when it comes to how the teachings are taught and passed on to others we need to be very meticulous and careful to preserve the purity and authenticity of the teachings.

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