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Thupten Jinpa on Buddhism in the West

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I recently had the opportunity to hear Dr. Thupten Jinpa speak about his new book A Fearless Heart, which is an accessible and entertaining presentation of traditional Tibetan techniques for cultivating compassion informed by recent research in psychology and neuroscience. It reminds me a bit of the work of Jon Kabat-Zinn in its ecumenical and rationalized approach to sharing Buddhist techniques for self-cultivation. It’s full of engaging autobiography and short on life stories of the Buddha or hagiography of various masters.

Dr. Jinpa has served as the principle translator for His Holiness the Dalai Lama for many years, having earned an esteemd geshe degree in the traditional monastic curriculum, and subsequently turning to lay life and earning a PhD from Cambridge.

During his presentation, I thought quite a bit about an episode in the biography of Je Tsong Khapa, the Tibetan master who founded the Gelukpa lineage in which Dr. Jinpa was ordained. According to traditional teaching, Je Tsong Khapa had a formative moment of profound personal transformation in a dream. He had been studying the Buddhist philosophy of the Middle Way, which focuses on the ultimate nature of reality, and in his dream he was approached by Buddhapalita, one of the key figures of that lineage. Buddhapalita held a copy of his principle treatise in his hands, and he touched it to Je Tsong Khapa’s head. At the moment the scripture made contact with the crown of his head, Je Tsong Khapa had a tremendous flash of insight into the nature of reality that animated the rest of his life.

So I remarked to Dr. Jinpa during the Q&A session that Buddhism had come to many cultures in its transmission out of India, and each time it has done so, it has taken on new symbols and new stories to serve as the matrix of its message. But its transmission to the West appears to be the first time that it has been transmitted into a context of no symbols.

I asked him, given the repertoire of profound images in the Tibetan Buddhist tradition, and the integral role they have traditionally played in the process of self-cultivation and transformation, what happens to these practices when they’re abstracted into a scientific language, and the symbols are left behind?

Given his background, Dr. Jinpa is in a unique position to comment on this issue. He said it’s a very complicated problem, but in essence, he doesn’t believe that Buddhism will become a major religion in the West in the foreseeable future. The way he sees it, it tends to be concentrated into pockets of highly-educated elites. So the question becomes, not what form Western Buddhism will take, but how, in a larger sense, will Buddhism influence European and American culture. And in this regard, he believes that mindfulness and compassion techniques, which are already being taught in hospitals, have the most potential to provide a positive influence.

I found this a very illuminating and thought-provoking answer. Of course, Buddhism has typically first attracted the attention of well-educated elites in any new zone it enters. This has been true in Tibet, certainly, where ironically, the adoption of Buddhist beliefs by the imperial Yarlung court may have been a factor in precipitating the empire’s downfall, as doing so undermined the adherence to traditional religious beliefs that legitimated their rule.

But that is another story. The bottom line, I think, is that it becomes a question of doing the good that you can in the way you can.

It’s a nicely-written book, and if this is a topic of interest to you, you should check it out. I also like Jeffrey Hopkins’s Cultivating Compassion.


Written by Mesocosm

May 21, 2015 at 11:36 am

4 Responses

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  1. As long as the Buddhist message assumes that Western minds are the same as “Eastern” minds, Buddhism will remain “elite”. Even in Asia, Buddhism has to take 3 wildly different forms so it should be no surprise that a new Western Buddhist form might be required. Perhaps the “Essence Mahamudra” or practical Buddhism might be more useful in the West.


    May 22, 2015 at 6:07 am

    • Hi Paul, can you clarify what you’re saying here? I’m not sure if you believe that Western minds are the same as what you call “Eastern” minds or not. I’m also not entirely sure what “the same” means in this context. Clearly we’re all human beings with a lot of similarities in our cognitive apparatus. Just as clearly, people who come from different contexts of language and culture may see the world in different ways, though I generally have come to believe that the differences are not so vast.

      I don’t think many people would disagree that Buddhism will take a unique form in the West. Certainly that’s something I believe, and Dr. Jinpa believes so as well. The question I’ve been looking at here is, what form will it take, and what impact will its non-symbolic character have?

      With respect to Mahamudra, I think Dr. Jinpa’s point here is in part that the teachings of Buddhism on the nature of mind and on ultimate truth are less likely to gain wide adoption than the traditions of cultivating compassion, and I think this is probably true, myself.


      May 22, 2015 at 6:44 am

  2. Most of my Tibetan friends, for example, have great faith in the Buddhist cosmology which I probably will never have as I did not grow up in a Buddhist environment. So, all I mean is that I, and perhaps others as well, will never be able to approach Buddhism as a religion, but only as a philosophy and meditative technique.


    May 22, 2015 at 3:10 pm

    • Thanks for clarifying your meaning, Paul. Certainly there is a long tradition on the Western side among psychologists and scholars of religion that there may be something ungraspable in Asian philosophy and religion that Westerners cannot fathom.

      A scholar I knew asked the Dalai Lama about this – he asked if His Holiness thought that Buddhism was too alien for the western mind to grasp. The Dalai Lama pointed out that the original language and thought-world of Buddhism was the world of Pali and Sanskrit, which are much closer to Latin, Greek, and English than they are to Tibetan, which is not an Indo-European language. I think that’s a pretty good answer, myself.


      May 22, 2015 at 5:51 pm

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