Dzogchen Ponlop Rinpoche and Teaching Buddhism in the West
I found a recent article from the Seattle Post-Intelligencer today, Under The Needle: Bringing Buddhism to a wired Seattle, about Dzogchen Ponlop Rinpoche and Nalandabodhi, his organization. Rinpoche is a lineage holder in the Tibetan Karma Kagyu lineage. I had heard of him (heck, I have a couple of his books) but he was largely not present in Seattle in the times that I was looking for Buddhist groups with which to practice and study. A few years ago, his group bought an old school building in the Fremont neighborhood in Seattle and it looks like they have been doing great things with it. This is Nalanda West.
One interesting bit from the article, which is worth quoting, shows Rinpoche’s attitude towards teaching in the West:
It's his quest to figure out what is American culture and how to teach Buddhism to it. Rinpoche (and other Buddhist scholars in the U.S.) have been adapting traditions nearly 3,000 years old to a culture with far different expectations than what he had as a child in Sikkin, India. He entered the monastery at age 5 and soon was recognized as a future lama. Buddhism was woven into everything he learned. That is a much different experience than for a Belltown genetic scientist who walks into the center as an adult. Teachings in the Rumtek Monastery, vital for Rinpoche's childhood development, wouldn't make as much sense to an American. Within the Nalanda West center, chants are in English (heresy to some purists) and bowing is optional. Rituals are explained early, literally, rather than learned through years of practice. Breathing and meditation are an immediate focus in America. The process of calming the mind isn't as vital in Asia. Social problems differ, too. For example, a lama here must be able to talk about depression. "I had not seen that as a big issue before coming to America," he said. And a spiritual leader here must understand the effects of an aggressive culture. Lectures and lessons are placed on CDs and bundled for MP3 players. "The technology is something we have to embrace," he said. "It allows us to reach people. We put as much information online as we can."
This is a fairly, dare I say, progressive attitude towards teaching Buddhism here when quite a few teachers (though hardly all) want to adapt Americans to Buddhism rather than trying to understand our cultural differences. While Buddhism is timeless, in and of itself, it always exists in a context. Even the original Buddha taught in the context of Indian culture more than 2,500 years ago. The West in general and American culture in particular (especially in the 21st century) is very different than Tibet or Tibetan culture or even that of other largely Buddhist nations of Asia. I’ve heard people, including teachers even, comment on how superficial Americans are or how we have no patience but I’ve also heard other teachers comment on the level of enthusiasm and engagement their American students often have which is missing from elsewhere. Many people do not realize that, for example, regular meditation practice is not central to the day to day life of most Buddhists elsewhere even though it is an activity synonymous with Buddhism in America (to the point that Buddhist traditions with little emphasis on meditation, like Shin, wind up teaching it here oftentimes).
It is nice to see a teacher who is acknowledged as an authority within his tradition trying to do something a little different. Rinpoche makes a point of having people practice in English (which is something I struggled with at a number of points in the past when given a page of transliterated Tibetan with either no translation or not much of one…). One of the organizations working to train people that he is involved in is the Nitartha Institute for Higher Buddhist Studies. The Nitartha Institute runs a regular curriculum of study in two-week sessions as a residential program for at least a month a year. You can read more about the goals of the institute, if you are interested, but it is primarily focused on unifying the study of the philosophy of Buddhism in a residential program with teachers in order to compliment the meditation and ethics practice. Reference is made to the common terminology of view, meditation, and action (or base, path, and fruit) and the training goes largely to creating the proper informed view for practice (which leads to the action or result).
I’ve been hearing about it for many years now and recently begun donating to Nitartha Institute as a charitable organization. I know that they could use a much wider base of support and I encourage people with the means to consider donating to it.
You can see a short video by Rinpoche on transplanting the Dharma to the West. This is an excerpt from a longer talk at the Nitartha Institute.
Other teachings by him are available on his personal web page as well.