By Lama Thubten Yeshe

Lama Yeshe was a pioneer in bringing Dharma to the West, and the collected teachings in this book demonstrate his understanding of the Western psyche and his ability to express profound truths in simple terms.

Knowledge-Wisdom includes new material and complete discourses edited by Nicholas Ribush and published for the first time. Go to the Contents page to find links to all the teachings published in this book and now available online.

Lama Yeshe teaching the Six Yogas of Naropa at Istituto Lama Tzong Khapa, 1982. Photo: Dieter Kratzer
15. How the FPMT Centers Began: A Conversation

Istituto Lama Tzong Khapa, 25 October 198213 

Brian Beresford: Lama, how did the very first center outside of Nepal develop? How did it begin?

First of all, more than twelve years ago, many students came to India and Nepal from all over the world seeking satisfaction that they could not find at home. Having discovered the Dharma at Kopan, they started inviting me to the West so that they and their family and friends wouldn’t have to go all the way to Nepal to receive more teachings. At the beginning, I was a bit uneasy at the thought of such a simple monk as me venturing into the super-samsaric world, but I finished up accepting their invitation.

In 1974 [Lama Zopa Rinpoche and] I went to America on a lecture tour and after that we went to Australia to give a one-month lamrim course in Queensland. That became the cooperative cause for the students to ask me if they could start a center to facilitate the teaching of Buddhadharma. Since their dedication was strong, I said, “OK, if you want one, you’re welcome, but it’s your baby.” Then four of our students—Dr. Nick [Ribush], Yeshe Khadro [Marie Obst], and Tom and Kathy [Vichta]—donated about 160 acres of land nearby.

So it was only these four people who were mainly responsible for the first center beginning or was it a larger group?

Well, it was a larger group that expressed the wish for a center, but these four were the ones actively involved. They were completely dedicated and offered their body, speech and mind to develop the center, so I thought, I mean . . . [how can I refuse?]

At this time, had most of the Australian students already been to Nepal?

Yes, many of them had. Anyway, it was just an empty piece of land, but the students built a meditation gompa, geshe quarters and student accommodation, and in that way it has developed naturally up to the present.

So that was the very first center that actually developed practically. Did you, for the other centers that came afterwards, follow the example of that, as an experience to draw from?

I think so. Somehow it all came naturally. Each time I went to the different countries there were already groups of former Kopan students there, and they also expressed the wish for a place where they could gather and put their energy into the Dharma. Personally, I thought this was very reasonable, since they were so sincere. In the Western world there is such an orientation toward the heavy samsara that if the students go straight into it after returning from Nepal, they’re going to lose their heads. I completely understand that. The Western environment is exploding with the pollution of mental superstition, so I can understand that their baby refuge and lamrim knowledge can disappear under the weight of all that. I thought they were asking something essential: a place where they can gather as a group and practice continuously. I thought it’s so natural, so I let them go ahead. I didn’t say, “No, I don’t want a center.” I just told them, “The center is your baby, what I can do is blah, blah, blah [give teachings], and then I say goodbye!”

So you thought one of the main reasons for the centers in the West was to continue the practice of the Dharma in a good environment.

Exactly, yes, because the way the Western environment is set up is anti-Dharma practice, anti the practice of religion. Even though we do have religion in the West, I understand why nowadays it has degenerated. It’s because of the orientation of the environment, in which the explosion of dualistic delusion is overwhelming. Therefore, I not only accepted the establishment of the center they wanted, I also told them that it is essential that we create there the correct environment for developing concentration and intensive awareness so that when they venture from there into the polluted city they are prepared not to be affected by it.

So, did you see then one of the main purposes of the centers was to be an actual physical place of refuge?

That’s exactly right. Because I felt from my own experience, my own refuge, that I needed to do some strict retreat every year in order for me to cope with my life and for my blah, blah, blah [teachings] to be useful. I felt it would be the same thing for Western students who worked in that city environment. Every year they should make the time and space to go into intensive meditation. That would be very, very useful. Otherwise, we put so much energy into taking a one- or two-month course, and when we get back to our regular environment, whatever we gained completely vanishes. That is not worthwhile.

Bringing Dharma into the Western world is something that will require continuous development if we want it to carry over from generation to generation. It’s not just some kind of trip. To be able to incorporate Mahayana universal concepts into daily life, it’s very important to develop shared, community-style living situations. The problem in the West is our capitalistic attitude, which emphasizes materialistic, selfish individualism; an attitude of not sharing with others. We can’t avoid that; it’s the foundation of our society, built into it. So we need some way of breaking down these concepts and transforming that energy into a transcendent, peaceful experience.

So then do you consider that there are basically two purposes that a center serves: it should be a place where communities can develop and also a place for people from outside to come on a regular basis to strengthen their practice?

Yes, there could be those two divisions, and so far, that’s what we’ve been doing. But we’ve seen some problems, too. When the center serves as a community where there are families—wives, husbands, children, that sort of lifestyle—sometimes the environment can be somewhat shaky and disorderly. So when outside people come into that, expecting intensive training and serious meditation, sometimes they can be disturbed by what they find. Therefore, I think we have to reconsider the community-living situation, by perhaps having the families living separately so that the center itself is the peaceful environment people who come for serious training should have.

Does this understanding come out of practical experience of centers with mixed communities facing problems when people come from outside expecting discipline but don’t find the environment conducive? Should there now be a division within the communities between laypeople and people following monastic discipline?

Not necessarily. It’s natural for couples to want to have children, even those living at centers. I myself feel that if we’re establishing a community, it should include husbands, wives, children, everything. Practically speaking, that’s what’s happening now, but my vision of community development is different. My vision of a Dharma community means universal totality. We have spaces for monks and nuns, spaces for families, spaces for children, space from the very beginning up to the end of human growth. That’s my projection, but of course, we’re dealing with the materialistic life. Making this vision a reality will take a tremendous amount of money and energy. So at the beginning we just have to try to utilize the energy we have, and hopefully in the future it will develop by itself as students see the need for this kind of center. So that’s my hope, that eventually every need will be fulfilled and instead of everything happening in one place, with the resultant uneasiness and confusion that that brings, there’ll be enough space for all these different aspects of the center to be spread out.

So, Lama, do you think the different areas you mentioned should be clearly defined? The monastic site, the family site, the children’s site, a college site, a meditation site and so forth? And if so, should that happen now, or later, as the centers develop the way you described?

There could also be a school for the arts and a place for music, singing and dancing, activities that are part of our nature. If we really want to create some kind of peaceful Mahayana society, we have to accept all these things. Whatever exists in samsaric society should be transformed into this Dharma society and then utilized in the path to liberation.

Do you think there’s any contradiction for a community to celebrate its feeling of togetherness by having a party or a dance or something like that?

No, that’s all right. It’s part of our life, we have to accept it. Of course, when you’re talking about a community you’re going to be dealing with all different kinds of people. And even though we have a completely common universal sense of actualizing the Mahayana attitude, different people choose different lives. But still, we can play. Some people like to touch red flowers, some prefer white flowers, others enjoy yellow flowers. People like different things. That’s acceptable. It’s still conventional life.

The most important thing, however, is how we interpret these things. A red flower can be interpreted as divine red light. A white flower can be interpreted as pure white light that purifies our own negativities and transforms our energy into blissful kundalini energy. So we need that kind of interpretation to signify the transformation of deluded energy into divine energy.

For that to happen, Lama, we obviously need to have received teachings—clear instructions from qualified teachers. One of the great fortunate things you have been able to do is provide nearly all the centers with very highly qualified teachers. Would you like to say something about the teachers you have chosen and how you feel the communities should look to those teachers in their centers?

Well, we’re involved in something that has a vast scope, so if I think I can do everything that’s just an ego trip. I can’t do everything. Therefore I choose geshes or tulkus that I trust to lead the centers and my students; teachers who can bring extensive benefit on an international or even universal level. Lamas who can teach Mahayana thought and the universal attitude. And the students at the center should regard those teachers as their spiritual leader and make sure they communicate with them well.

What has been the basis for your selection of the teachers for the centers?

I try as best I can to choose teachers who have been well-trained: intellectually, psychologically, philosophically and practically. And most of the ones I have chosen have been disciples of my own gurus. Some of them have the same qualities that I do; some are better than me. But we are all from the same tradition. So all in all, I think we have similar things to offer to the students.

Did you approach them to go to centers or did some of them come to you?

Some of those teachers were not really keen to go to the West, but I asked, “Please go to teach them.” Sometimes I had to push them a little bit, but there were some who also pushed me to go. I’m not sure what that means!

How should the community members look to the teachers for responsibility of the general program and the general activities of the centers?

It’s very important that everybody has a broad view and a strong commitment to sharing ideas: the Tibetan teacher and the Western director and spiritual program coordinator. Without a strong connection and mutual understanding, it’s difficult to make beneficial programs. Without good communication the vibrations aren’t that good. Then we can’t really impart the Mahayana attitude. Conflict between the teacher and the director, a breakdown of communication, damages the root of the center.

Bringing Dharma to the West is really special. Some part of your Western personality has to die and then you and the teacher have to put your energies together very strongly. That’s the way to become successful.

So you think it’s very important for whoever has a position of responsibility in the community to always keep the broader aims of the community in mind and not be limited by their individual wishes?

I do. Individualism is a problem all over the world, isn’t it? Sometimes students say to me, “Lama, you are my blah, blah, blah [one and only, perfect guru],” something like that. I think that’s rubbish. I send geshes to the centers and they are the ones who are responsible for the students’ education. Our students should take teachings from them, take advantage of the opportunity and grow in that environment. That’s very important.

Lama, there have been problems in some of the communities where people aren’t sure how much the resident teachers should give advice on the development of the community. How do you feel about this?

I understand. There are many stages of development. First of all, most of the time the teachers come from India and are in the West for the first time, so they experience a certain degree of culture shock. Then, the way the center is set up is very strange for them. It’s nothing like the Tibetan monastery they came from. So maybe at the beginning they feel a little disturbed: “What kind of Dharma is this?” I just let them go. Anyway, at this point it would be very hard for them to give advice. But what I tell them is that they are responsible for the development or decline of the center; that their job is to spiritually direct the students’ minds.

However, I also tell them that if they want to, they can attend all the committee meetings. The teachers and translators are part of the management committee and have an equal right to make whatever verbal contribution they like to the development of the center. My experience is that some geshes may not want to get involved in what they might consider samsaric affairs. They’re only interested in liberation. I say let go. How can you push them? OK, let go. Other geshes want to talk and be involved in community business. I’m very happy if they are. If they have the wisdom and method to help grow the center in a beneficial way, to help the human mind develop, then it’s very worthwhile for them to get involved. So my style is to give them the freedom, the option, to do whatever they want.

So, Lama, this would seem to suggest that the students themselves, especially those in positions of responsibility, would also have to exercise quite a degree of wisdom to judge whether or not the geshe is ready to give advice.

To some extent, yes, but I don’t know about the word “judge.” If the geshe makes a decision, OK. If he doesn’t, the director has to make the decision. If nobody makes decisions the place just descends into chaos.

To what extent should community members themselves be involved, not in the day-to-day running of the center, but in general decisions about the future of the community? This has sometimes created problems.

Yes, I know, but we do have a system, which is to have regular community meetings that everybody can attend. That’s where we can discuss any problems that might have arisen, the teaching program, anything, really. We investigate, we talk openly. I believe everybody has wisdom. Then after the meeting, when the whole center family has discussed everything, the management committee takes up the action items at their next meeting and agrees which ideas to implement when. Then it’s the director’s responsibility to see that what the committee has decided to do gets done. That’s our setup.

So, in a way, our centers are democracies. Everybody can have their say. We are open to the best ideas, either worldly or spiritual, that the community contributes.

Do you think, then, it’s important that in the communities themselves there are regular meetings and that people are encouraged to participate in them? Sometimes community meetings have actually just broken down. I think one of the most valuable things is to keep a really good spirit amongst everybody so there’s always a feeling of participation.

Yes, I definitely do. It’s very important that the community work and share together. The connotation of “community” is people working together for a common purpose rather than it being a collection of individualists working for themselves. Even though each individual should have time and space for themselves, the overriding principle should be the common good. On that basis, community members can then lead their individual lifestyle.

Now, basically, I hear from what you are saying that the real concept of the centers is that they are to be communities. Is this correct?

Yes, if the center is set up as a community. But not all of our centers are like that. City centers, for example, have a different kind of community than country centers do.

OK, we’ll talk about that in just a minute, but in the sense that the centers are communities, they are groups of people together, participating in developing the Mahayana Dharma. Sometimes I’ve felt that some country centers become more like a college or a school and the community side is pushed aside a bit, and this creates conflict among the people living there. How do you think the problem between it being a college or a community should be balanced? Do you think they can exist together?

Yes, of course they should be balanced. First, if I tell you the characteristics of a Buddhist college—normally it involves a tremendous amount of intellectual material and years of study. People who choose to undertake that kind of lifestyle have to live very differently from those who choose to live in a community, where the emphasis is more on daily meditation, teachings dealing with integrating the Dharma with daily life and so forth. People who live in this sort of lay community can’t be on an intellectual trip because their lifestyle doesn’t allow it. They need practical teachings on how to solve the problems of daily life.

My understanding is that the spiritual leaders of the center have to be sympathetic to each community member’s feelings and need to investigate anything that might be disturbing them. Then they need to figure out how to solve any problems. That is something that is almost beyond intellectual philosophy. It’s practical, but needs to be done very sensitively. You can’t say, roughly, “You sit down and listen while I tell you what to do.” You have to work specifically with this delicate flower’s specific issue and meet them at their particular level.

Of course, sometimes Tibetan Buddhist scholars and teachers don’t like to deal with individual students’ personal problems. They are not keen to do that. But in this super-samsaric, materialistic environment, this is one of the most important things we need. We desperately need it. Daily life’s complications and the symptoms of them are so sensitive, so strong: stronger than people’s general, normal problems. Therefore, I’ve felt from my side, since I’ve been trying to cure Western students’ pain and dissatisfaction, that somehow, I have to deal directly with them. Even though it takes a tremendous amount of energy, it’s very worthwhile. If the symptoms of people’s personal problems aren’t stopped, the whole community can get sick. Dealing with Western and Eastern students’ problems is quite different.

Would you say that this really is Mahayana in practice?

Yes, definitely. I feel that in a community setting we need teachers who can go beyond the theoretical, understand the psychological history of their students and deal with that situation.

When you say teacher, do you mean a Westerner with some experience in the Dharma or only a Tibetan teacher?

I don’t care who it is, just somebody who’s involved in that center. It can be a Western teacher or an Eastern one. When you’re the teacher in a community you should have that kind of helping attitude and not just sit on the throne going blah, blah, blah. That doesn’t really help students. There’s a gap between you and them and you don’t touch their heart problem.

Do you think it’s worthwhile, then, if people in the communities take a more active role in individual or small group meetings?

I think that’s a very good idea. You can create a system where at least once a month people get together to help heal each other. That’s another desperate need. Because I feel that in our centers, people sometimes pretend they are so busy. They feel that it’s their job to stay in their rooms studying Buddhist philosophy, so they always show a busy aspect doing that and have minimal personal contact with other students in the community. If you behave like that, how can you share with others and how can they share with you? I think all students living in the community should connect with each other.

How do you think we should balance teaching activities and community work? Most residential centers require considerable physical maintenance and administration.

I think everybody in the community—the teachers, the administrators, everybody—needs to be clear about this. Now I’m just giving you my own opinion. We need to be clean clear that community life means normal life, doing what is necessary: taking care of the physical environment, taking care of our own and our family’s health, cleaning, food, clothing; managing all aspects of normal family life. At the same time, we should be practicing Mahayana Buddhism. That’s the emphasis. Students in the community should know clean clear that that is their job, and if they are not intellectually inclined, they should not be intellectually ambitious. If they have a family, they should not be obsessed with studying philosophy. If that’s your aim, that’s when conflict arises.

Let me give you an example. Say you’re in a family situation—wife, children, babies; you’re intensively involved with your own lifestyle—and your teacher says, “I’m teaching Madhyamaka philosophy. Why aren’t you coming? You’re missing a great opportunity. Mahayana philosophy is so important for your liberation.”

Then you think, “Oh, my lama is telling me to study. That’s true. My life is very short. I don’t care about my wife. She’s secondary, transitory. My babies are transitory, conventional. I need to achieve absolute realizations. That’s true. I need to give up my family and go study Madhyamaka.” Well, in the Tibetan system, it takes four years to study Madhyamaka. So you neglect your wife and children for four years. That’s totally wrong. I tell you, if you do that you will get sick; you will manifest symptoms of illness.

I mean, it would be good if you could do both—family and study—but you can’t. You split yourself. Then too many family problems arise. In the face of family problems, you can’t do anything. You can’t learn anything because your mind is turbulent and disturbed by so many family complications and arguments with your spouse. Your mind is split in half.

In my opinion, Dharma families should develop in a down-to-earth way. The husband should keep his job, make money and create a comfortable life for his wife and children. Just lead a normal life. Of course, you are practicing Dharma at the same time, but you’re not involved in intellectual activity twenty-four hours a day. Otherwise you just create enormous problems and your marriage breaks down.

That’s why I say everybody in the community should be clean clear about this. We should not put the family people down: “You do this, you do that. . . .” We should have reasonable expectations of everybody, whatever their area, and then there’ll be no conflict.

In other words, each individual should be very precise in understanding their own responsibilities in the community, to both themselves and their families or the people that they’re with? And then that would determine how much time the individual could then put into their own studies? So then their studies in the college sense should come second in the practical sense?

Yes, I think so, because study involves a tremendous amount of time and space, so if you cannot follow it, you should not push yourself to do so. [It’s really a matter of being realistic.] Yes, it’s important to be realistic. That’s my point. Sometimes, center students are confused and they become unrealistic. Somebody says this, somebody says that, and they try to do it all. Sometimes I think that they rely on their lama or teacher too much. Personally, in my opinion, they should not expect that all the community’s activities should be according to what the teacher says. They should not expect to have to do that; I don’t believe it myself.

So the teacher answers all their questions about everything they do?

That’s wrong, definitely wrong. The result of that would be too much confusion, too much conflict. It would destroy students’ devotion, which is like destroying everything. I truly believe that to some extent they can make their own decisions. For instance, when the time came for me to leave Tibet, I left. Nobody had to tell me, “You should leave Tibet.” In fact, everybody was telling me not to go. But my intuition was telling me I must. I wanted to be where there was no communist ideology controlling me; I wanted to remain a monk for the rest of my life. That’s the reason I left. None of my teachers told me, “You have to go; get out of Tibet.” I made my own decision, and that’s the truth. I don’t like people saying, “My guru said this, my guru said that. . . .” You don’t need somebody telling you precisely what to do and what not to do. Make your own life. You have to trust your own buddha nature to some extent.

Of course, you should listen to your guru’s advice. Actually, when your guru is giving teachings, he’s telling you everything; he’s explaining how life is throughout the entire universe, life in all six realms. He’s already advised you what to do from the beginning of your practice, renunciation, all the way up to enlightenment. In other words, you already know all this. So why do you have to ask him what to do every day? The members of the community themselves have to make the day-to-day decisions. That’s the way to avoid confusion.

In what areas, then, do you feel the teachers themselves should be limited to in terms of advice?

Well, the teachers themselves have to know their own limitations. If they are not clean clear about that, it’s difficult for them to advise their students. I don’t know New Zealanders’ lifestyles, so I can’t tell you out of the blue, “Brian, you’re from New Zealand, therefore you should stay in a cave for twenty years.” That’d be talking nonsense, so I’m not going to tell you that.

But perhaps I’d like you to tell me! I think it would be helpful for people to have a general idea of what subjects they should go to their teachers for.

In general, then, I’d say the lamrim is absolutely practical. If you want my interpretation, my wish is that all our centers’ students should start with the lamrim. The lamrim teachings contain the answers to everything, to all of life’s problems. Then, after some time, they should study the lojong teachings. And in terms of practical, daily life issues, again, the answers are in the lamrim. So the lamrim is the essential thing and is sorely needed by Western people in a Western environment. People who follow those teachings can become good Buddhists, good Mahayanists, and at that point they can integrate whatever they’re taught into the path to liberation.

So the questions or advice that students should approach the teachers for should be about lamrim practice, how to bring the teachings into daily life and questions about Buddhist theory and the paramitas?

My personal take is that there’s something beautiful, something unique, about Western students coming into the Dharma. They do so completely differently from the way Eastern people do. I like that. Most Westerners coming into the Dharma are fed up with their lifestyle, fed up with the systems into which they were born, fed up with the materialistic life, fed up with political games and fully in conflict with their societies. That’s why they come into the Dharma.

So already there’s some renunciation?

Yes, I truly believe that. And they are truly ready for it. That kind of student is really seeking ice to put into the boiling water, and the ice that they seek is the lamrim. It allows them to understand their own conflicted life situations and how to cope with them. How to observe their problems and how to solve them. The lamrim talks directly about them. Then there’s no argument.

If we start off by talking philosophy, they’re going to say, “No, you’re wrong. This Eastern philosophy is bananas. You say this, but we have our own philosophy, which says that.” They’re going to argue like that. But when we talk strictly about their own problems, their own conflict, and how to deal with all that, how can they deny what we say? They can’t. And they’re also surprised: “How come this man knows my problems?” It’s not that this man knows their problems; it’s because this man has studied Buddhist psychology. That’s why we have something to offer Western people.

This has been my experience. I don’t try to talk sophisticated Buddhist philosophy to the Western mind. I don’t care, because that doesn’t help them. What I try to convey is the essential aspect of Buddhism, something that is over 2,500 years old, by putting a new color and new clothes on it and linking it with their own culture. When I do that, there’s no way they can reject it.

Will our practice lead to the development of a Western Buddhism?

I think so. I truly believe that Buddhism should be something related to the Western mind, Western things, Western spirits, Western consciousness. I don’t emphasize any of the aspects of Tibetan culture: rituals, torma cakes and so forth. Anyway, during the Buddha’s time, there was no making of Tibetan-style ritual cakes. Tibetans did the same as what Westerners do in that we offered what we ate. In the West it can be food, fruit and so forth; whatever you eat, you offer. That’s the right thing to do.

Sometimes I wonder if we lay too much emphasis on external ritual and not enough on the internal ritual of meditation. That’s an example of losing the principal point and emphasizing secondary things. Western students should not try to copy exactly the superficial color of Tibetan rituals and bring them to the West. Instead, try to bring the essence of Buddha, the essence of Dharma, the essence of Sangha into the Western environment.

What I’m saying is that in bringing Buddhadharma to the West, we have to bring the essential, nuclear part of Buddhadharma and not emphasize its ritual aspects. Ritual seems to be archetypical of Tibetan Buddhism, but I remember His Holiness the Dalai Lama saying in a talk not long ago that some of these rituals came about as part of the assimilation of Buddhism into Tibetan culture and were developed in order to sort of manipulate Tibetan society into accepting the Dharma as their own. That’s not exactly what he said but I hope I’ve caught the essence.

Therefore, I think it’s important that you decide not just to imitate Tibetan culture but, as a Westerner living as a Westerner, to have no doubt that Buddhism is your path to liberation and to take its essence as such.

When I first met Westerners I did a scientific experiment in which I emphasized their copying Tibetans exactly: wearing Tibetan robes, making traditional tormas in retreat, using the dorje and bell and so forth. As a result of this scientific experience and observing my “patients” for some time I changed my approach. Because, for example, once when I went into a Western city with a Western monk, people spat on him. I’m not really blaming them, I understand, but emotionally, in my heart, I had compassion for my monk. He was a good man trying his best to live an honest life, renouncing worldly pleasures, but just because of his behavior—shaving his head, wearing robes—he became an object of disgust to some of the people there. I thought that was so unfair. I’d put such a wonderful human being into a situation where people thought he was garbage and something to be spat upon. I thought that was so incredible and that I’m not fair; I’m not fair. I told him to wear those robes, he listened to me, and that’s what happened. I thought I was stupid; that I shouldn’t force people to do that.

But it’s not only my experience. In his Vinaya teachings, the Buddha himself said that as the times change, so can the Vinaya rules, in accordance with the way the majority of people’s minds have changed. There’s a clean-clear explanation of all this. So I discussed this issue in public with some of my Western students. I didn’t share my experience; I just asked them how they felt about Westerners wearing Tibetan-style robes. This was during one of my courses in Amsterdam. Most people thought it was no good.

Buddhism is democracy. Buddhism is for the people. So if most people say ordained Westerners shouldn’t wear robes, that’s evidence that they shouldn’t. A good example is what happened when Buddhism went from India to China, Korea, Tibet, Japan and so many other countries. Everybody wore different robes according to the particular environment and the proclivities of the population’s minds. My opinion is, therefore, that Western people should develop their own cultural heritage with respect to the archetypical behavior of their own monks and nuns.

That brings me to a good subject, Lama, which is how do you feel that monks and nuns in FPMT communities should live within those communities if they are mixed ones?

In mixed communities it’s easier if the monks and nuns live separately from the laypeople. The Sangha need an environment that supports their philosophy, psychology and ethics. So it’s essential that they live separately. Ideally, though, the Sangha should have their own separate communities. At the moment, however, we’re just beginning to create a new society, and for our monks and nuns to have separate facilities would be tremendously expensive. So we have to accept the reality of our limited resources. It’s taken many years, and we’re lucky now, just to establish Nalanda Monastery in France so that our monks have somewhere to go. Monks and nuns are responsible for maintaining their ethics according to the Vinaya and for them to have to live in a Western laypeople’s environment would be very difficult. Even though we’re an entire universal community, monks and nuns should have their own space. Then after some time, after they have become strong, they can come into the broader community. First you have to strengthen yourself before you can effectively benefit others.

Wasn’t that why the Buddha established the Sangha in the first place? So that they could be strong holders of the pure tradition?

That’s right. And I hope that in future, Nalanda Monastery will produce monks like that.

How do you see the relationship between the lay and monastic communities, their responsibilities toward each other?

First of all, we’re all linked as one community. First, we should understand that. Secondly, we need to support each other. Whatever we have—spiritually and materially—we should share with each other. That’s the attitude we should have. Laypeople should feel, “The monks and nuns have chosen the ordained way of life, which is so worthwhile, and their needs help me, even though I’m a layperson.” At the same time, monks and nuns should feel that the laypeople need their own kind of lifestyle and environment, which are right for them, and accept their choice rather than put it down. In other words, there should be mutual respect by understanding that each person has their own individual needs with respect to spiritual growth.

Of course, you cannot judge such laypeople as Dromtönpa and Milarepa. They were far better than the ordinary monk and nun. Nevertheless, relatively speaking, we’re working on the level of individual need, so we should accept and support each other ideologically, materially or in any other way.

Speaking of support, how should the communities support themselves and become self-sufficient?

As I see it, people in any community in the world should be able to live according to the prevailing economic standards of their society in general. People in our communities should work to support themselves and the community, and benefit others as well.

Should the communities support themselves by offering courses, for example? Should that be one of the ways in which they support themselves?

No, no way. In our experience there’s no community that supports itself by giving Dharma to others, and there’s no historical precedent for that either. That’s not possible. People can’t support themselves without working, especially in Western materialistic countries. People in the communities have to work in the same way that people in the general society do, to support themselves and live a comfortable life. And if you make extra money, you can contribute it to the development of the community. When individuals take responsibility for their own health, the community becomes stronger too.

Sometimes the motivation and energy of people who have been sponsored by the community weaken because they lose enthusiasm for what they’re doing. How can that problem be fixed?

Well, I’ll tell you something. Some of our centers try to sponsor students to work in the administration and, as you say, for some people that situation can become a problem. But at this stage of the FPMT’s development, there’s no center that can sponsor twenty or thirty people. Honestly, that’s just not realistic. At present we have to build and maintain our facilities, and we’re dreaming if we think we can sponsor many people on top of that.

Dharma is not a commercial enterprise. We’re not doing business. So to try to sponsor thirty people on our limited income would be very difficult. What we can do is set up some kind of workshop at the center and give people creative jobs. Something like that could be essential in order to bring some kind of stability. If the community isn’t stable, it’s like a butterfly, coming and going, coming and going. That’s no good.

So, your vision of the community is that it should be stable in terms of the people living there and they should be thinking long term, and therefore they should be encouraged to develop some professional skills or business, something that’s going to allow them to support themselves while living there?

Yes, and I’ve told the directors that. Being a center director is not an easy job. What is the job? The director has to keep the community together by making sure they get whatever they need to fulfill their spiritual needs and their material needs as well. But not by handing out money. We don’t have enough. The director has to utilize or facilitate the skills within the community by directing them in a way that steadies their life; by showing them what to do and how to do it. I believe that people who come to live in a center community are quite intelligent. But some of them might be a bit lazy, so the director has to become a skillful psychologist and give shape to their lives. Job creation is very important.

At this stage and in the future?

Yes, all the time. Many people come to a center with a lot of problems, anxiety and an inability to cope with society. They’re looking for a situation in which they can cope and live their life. We’re making it possible for people to have a better life. We’re taking responsibility for that. If someone can’t take responsibility for the creative growth of the community, they shouldn’t join it. It’s a mistake if we allow that; we’re cheating people.

Do you think there should be more discrimination in terms of allowing people to join the community who are not going to be able to support themselves in the sense of either one or two things: either they have the fortune to have some financial backing from their own side or they have a creative skill that they can bring into the community and develop it so that the community can continue to be self-sufficient?

Yes, it can be that, or we can offer training as well. Perhaps in carpentry or candle-making. Some skill with which they can support themselves. People often don’t know that they can support themselves, but they have so much potential. If they can make themselves a buddha, why can’t they do business? They can work with wood, with clay, with many things.

For example, at Manjushri Institute we have the equipment for making pottery. Good pottery is expensive. You can get three, four, five pounds for a well-made porcelain vase, so it’s worthwhile. What kind of person can’t do that? It’s better not to have such people in the community.

Lama, since the long-term success of the community depends upon the self-sufficiency of the individuals in it, what relationship should a business in the community have to the community itself? If someone in the community sets up a business and they’re living and working in the community, who owns the business? There has to be some incentive.

That has to be scientifically researched. It’s practical, not merely theoretical. Let’s take pottery, for example. I’m a student living in the community and the center sets up a pottery studio for me. We need to look at the numbers. How much would that cost? Then I start making pots. How many can I produce? What I need to cover is the rent of the studio, the cost of materials, the cost of my living in the community—room, board, etc.—and a contribution to the development of the center itself. If I’m skilled enough to make more than that, that’s my money to use as I see fit: I can give some to the community, to my friends, to my children, to the Buddha, to the third world. That’s my freedom. But from the beginning, the director has to have enough sense to make a clear agreement between the center and me so that later on there’s no conflict or problems.

So in other words, Lama, when somebody is approaching the establishing of a business, they should just look at it in a traditional, businesslike way. [Exactly.] You have a facility; you’re going to use the facility. [It’s normal.] You pay rent on the facility. [Exactly.] You take responsibility, obviously, for the materials and so forth. [Absolutely.] You pay for those, you produce a product, make profit, from the profit you pay your rent . . . like that?

I agree. It’s normal. We are normal. Even though we have become Buddhists, we still buy bread and butter. You’ve renounced this life but you still eat bread and butter. You cannot renounce eating, in the sense of bread and butter. That would lead you to death.

Therefore, I think it’s very important that, even though we are Buddhists and are supposedly renounced, we still lead a normal life. Buying and selling things is normal. In the West, if you don’t buy and sell you basically don’t exist! That’s how the entire universal modern world is. That’s the universal modern law: if you work, you have money and can go anywhere; if you don’t work, you have no money and you can hardly breathe. Unfortunately. What can I say? That’s why it’s so difficult.

Still, perhaps it’s not so difficult. There’s a positive side to it, too. Since the West is oriented toward materialism, it has advantages. Amazingly, you can easily support yourself. In the Third World, making money, earning a living, really is difficult. Here it seems to be much easier, but it can also cause people to become a bit crazy. Since they don’t have to worry about food and clothing, their minds create fantasies of misery. So that is their problem, which is opposite to the problems people in the East have. East and West both have problems. They’re just different.

But we can certainly take advantage of what we have in the West for the development of the centers.

Definitely. I really feel that to some extent Western people understand the nuclear essence of Buddhadharma better than people in the Third World. Those countries are preoccupied by their lack of material development. Here in the West we have everything, so what do we gain? We discover that material gain doesn’t really bring us anything. If you’re impoverished, when you say material things mean nothing, people don’t believe you. But they do mean something. For that reason, people in the West are hungry and ready for Dharma—not for the intellectual knowledge it contains but for the spiritual satisfaction it brings.

Lama, could we talk just briefly about your concept of city centers. We have spoken about the larger communities and their overall situation, but as we have seen, many of us in the West are from cities. We live in cities, which is a very intense environment, and now you have many city centers. In London we’re fortunate to have a very good geshe [Geshe Namgyal Wangchen] as do many of the other city centers. How do you think those centers should develop? What is their purpose?

Well, first of all, city centers are different from country or community centers. Of course, all centers’ purpose is for people to develop and bring peace to themselves, but the orientation of city centers is different. First of all, in my opinion, city centers should emphasize strong meditation and be less involved in prayers and rituals, because the city situation is so strong. Rituals and so forth don’t have enough power to calm sensitive delusions. Strong meditation, however, can quickly cut such delusions, and therefore it’s very appropriate for city people, who usually don’t have much time. And for them, silent meditation is often best. Ideally, a city center should be open twenty-four hours a day so that people can come and sit and meditate at any time.

How big should a city center be?

That depends on how developed the community is. But say I’m working near the center. At lunchtime or after work I can just go there and relax and meditate. I can go any time and take refuge in that tranquil, peaceful environment. For that reason we should try to make the gompa soundproof. We bliss out just being in that quiet environment. So we should emphasize meditation over the intellectual trip, since city people don’t have time.

Another thing, which I have expressed to city center directors many times, is to put on social events for the center community. Meetings, tea parties, dinner parties, that sort of thing. Light, relaxed, Dharma-oriented. Dharma brothers and sisters come together and share. We can eat, sing, dance. First, we can do a short meditation, maybe ten minutes, then we can dance. Then again, sit down, talk, relax, drink, and then, before we split, meditate for a couple of minutes again, dedicate and then go home to sleep.

In Western cities, people live very close to each other but often don’t even know their neighbors. We try to break that down by bringing people together; the human touch. In that way we can stimulate the Dharma in Western cities. Businessmen can’t do deep meditation but are often lonely and desperately need relaxation. So we can give our businessmen friends an opportunity to relax within themselves, to sing and dance, or to just transform their mind in a tranquil, peaceful environment; to turn the worldly objects of the five senses into the Dharma, into the path to liberation. That we should develop.

The way to bring Dharma into the Western world is to present it in many skillful ways. We should not have fixed ideas of how to do this.

Is flexibility the key?

Yes, yes, flexibility. Otherwise you can’t practice the Dharma the situation demands because you’re caught up in and bound by the culture of Dharma and can’t respond appropriately. You should be able to transform any situation into Dharma: eating, drinking, walking, dancing, sleeping. That is Buddhist skill in means.

Is this true for both city centers and country centers and monasteries as well?

Yes. Also, Dharma center communities contain many artistic people who can create some kind of psychological reality. Musicians, for example, have the powerful means to manipulate any reality into sound. So we’re involved in transforming all energy in a positive way. We should encourage that kind of thing. Singing can express universal love, equanimity, the universal reality of nonduality. Then what’s the problem? What’s the problem in dancing? If somebody can express shunyata, nonduality, in song, why not? If we know how, we can transform the entire lamrim path, from beginning to end, all sutra and tantra, in song and dance. What a perfect way to transform Western culture into positive!

For example, for the offering of sound in pujas like Lama Chöpa, Tara and so forth, we can use Western musical instruments instead of the traditional Tibetan ones.

So anything that actually encourages a joyous energy for the offering should be brought in?

Yes, exactly. Absolutely, that’s all.

Thank you, Lama.


13 This conversation with Brian Beresford, filmed by the Meridian Trust. Available on the DVD Bringing Dharma to the West, on the LYWA YouTube channel and from the Meridian Trust as Extracting the Essence. [Return to text]