Some Thoughts on the Future of Buddhism

By Kyabje Lama Zopa Rinpoche

Lama Zopa Rinpoche wrote this article at the request of Renuka Singh for her anthology, The Path of the Buddha, published by Penguin Books India in 2004. Edited from the Lama Yeshe Wisdom Archive by Nicholas Ribush.

Lama Zopa Rinpoche teaching at Nalanda Institute, France, 2010. Photo: Thubten Kunsang (Henri Lopez).

In order to hazard a guess at the future of Buddhism in the world, we need to look at how it has survived and spread since our precious founder, Guru Shakyamuni Buddha, first turned the wheel of Dharma 2,500 years ago.

How and Why Guru Shakyamuni Buddha taught

Guru Shakyamuni Buddha revealed the path to enlightenment so that all sentient beings would be happy and free from suffering. Having experienced the bliss of liberation and enlightenment himself, he realized that all beings had the seed of enlightenment within their minds and could attain that ultimate goal by following the same path that he had. Therefore, starting with the four noble truths, he began to give teachings according to the various levels of mind of those who came to him for instruction.

Under his guidance, his disciples began to practice, and many were able to gain the same realizations that he had, proving that others could attain the enlightenment he himself had attained. As his students became teachers, their own disciples gained realizations of the path, showing that Guru Shakyamuni Buddha’s teachings were indeed transmissible and thus beginning the oral tradition that survives to this day.

For fifteen hundred years, Buddhism flourished in India and spread from there in all directions, to South-East Asia; Sri Lanka; China, Japan and Korea; countries to the west; and Nepal and Tibet.

Around 650 CE, the king of Tibet, Songtsen Gampo, married Buddhist women from Nepal and China and under their influence, began to introduce Buddhism to Tibet. One hundred years later, the king Trisong Detsen, invited the great Indian monk-scholar Shantarakshita and the tantric yogi Padmasambhava to firmly establish Buddhism in Tibet. Shantarakshita, the “Great Abbot Bodhisattva,” introduced the monastic tradition to Tibet, ordained the first five Tibetan monks and inspired the construction of Tibet’s first monastery, Samyé. Padmasambhava, “Guru Rinpoche,” pacified hindrances to the establishment of Buddhism and introduced the practice of Vajrayana to Tibet.

Over the next century, the practice of Buddhism spread gradually throughout Tibet, until the anti-Buddhist king Langdarma ascended to the throne and began a violent campaign to destroy Buddhism in Tibet. Within a few years, the Dharma had all but disappeared from Central Tibet, but survived to a certain extent far to the east and west.

Thus fragmented, the practice of Dharma began to degenerate, and many corrupt practices and ideas were introduced to Tibet. Despairing at the situation, the king of Gugé, in Western Tibet, invited the renowned Indian pandit Atisha to Tibet, to re-introduce the pure practice of Dharma.

I can’t talk much about Atisha’s life here, but a detailed description is given in Pabongka Rinpoche’s book, Liberation in the Palm of your Hand. Here we see how, like Guru Shakyamuni Buddha, Atisha was born into a royal family but abandoned his inheritance in favor of Dharma practice. He studied with many teachers and realized the central importance of the loving, compassionate bodhicitta in the practice of Dharma. In order to further his study and practice of bodhicitta, Atisha undertook a long and dangerous sea voyage to Indonesia, to meet Serlingpa, the pre-eminent teacher of bodhicitta of the time.

When he went to Tibet in 1042, Atisha carried with him the two crucial Dharma lineages of method and wisdom, and when we talk even now about the survival of Buddhism in the world, we have to talk in terms of these two lineages.

The wisdom lineage passed from Guru Shakyamuni Buddha to Manjushri and then down on through great masters such as Nagarjuna and Chandrakirti to Atisha. The method lineage passed from the Buddha to Maitreya and then down on through Asanga, Vasubandhu, Haribhadra and, of course, Lama Serlingpa, also to Atisha. Thus, combined in the holy mind of the great Atisha, the two lineages of method and wisdom arrived in Tibet.

In Tibet, Lama Atisha wrote a very short text entitled A Lamp for the Path to Enlightenment, which for the first time presented all the teachings of the Buddha in an organized, step-like path, making it very easy for the individual practitioner to get an overview of the entire path and to understand what practice might be relevant to her or him. Of course, the benefits of Atisha’s coming to Tibet are infinite, beyond measure, but even if the only thing he’d done was to write this text, that would have made it worthwhile.

Atisha’s work was the original lamrim (steps of the path) text, and over the subsequent centuries many lamas from all Tibetan traditions wrote commentaries on Atisha’s Lamp, and the lamrim genre is one of the hallmarks of Tibetan Buddhism. Perhaps the most famous of all lamrim commentaries is Lama Tsongkhapa’s Lamrim Chenmo—the Great Treatise on the Steps of the Path to Enlightenment. Lama Tsongkhapa was a great yogi and scholar who wrote many profound texts on all aspects of sutra and tantra, including several lamrim commentaries of varying length, but his Great Treatise is a work of unparalleled genius.

Lama Tsongkhapa also founded the Gelug tradition, one of the four great schools of Tibetan Buddhism. He and his disciples also founded some of the greatest monasteries in Tibet, including the three near Lhasa—Ganden, which he founded himself, and Drepung, Sera—and Tashilhunpo, Kumbum and Labrang, in other parts of the country—which were founded by various of his disciples and were like small towns, housing tens of thousands of monks.

In the Gelug monasteries, the monks followed a rigorous schedule of memorization, study, debate and practice. Often they would forego sleep in order to debate all night. One of my teachers, Geshe Rabten, has written in detail about life in the monasteries (Life of a Tibetan Monk), and his book is well worth reading to find out what an impressive and intensive schedule the monks followed.

By some estimates, more than twenty percent of Tibetan men were monks. This is an important fact to note when thinking about the future of Buddhism, because the viability of the Dharma in a certain country or place is determined by whether or not the lineage of the monastic ordination exists there. These days there seems to be a tendency, especially in the West, to downplay the importance of the ordination of monks and nuns in the survival of Buddhism. Suffice it to say that wherever one cannot be ordained, Buddhism is dead.

Many Tibetan practitioners, however, were not monks but laypeople, and some of these led amazing ascetic lives high in the snow mountains of Tibet. Perhaps the most famous of all is Tibet’s great yogi, Milarepa, who reached enlightenment under the guidance of his guru, Marpa the Translator.

In his early years, Milarepa studied black magic, and at the insistence of his mother, in order to avenge harm done to his family after his father had passed away, he caused a building to collapse, trapping and killing many of his mother’s enemies inside. Later on, realizing the terrible mistake he had made, he sought out a Dharma teacher, and eventually found Marpa. However, instead of receiving teachings from his guru, Milarepa received what today people would call abuse. Marpa never missed an opportunity to publicly humiliate Milarepa, openly kicking him out of any teachings that he might manage to sneak into, and forced him to do unbelievably backbreaking work, building and tearing down a stone tower. Marpa instructed Milarepa to build a nine-story tower out of rocks, and when, after a great deal of effort carting the rocks from the remote location where he found them to the building site, Milarepa finally finished and proudly showed Marpa his handiwork, the guru shouted angrily, “Who told you to build this tower? Put every rock back exactly where you found it.” When Milarepa had done this, Marpa then angrily demanded to know why he had taken down the tower he’d been told to build. This happened three or four times. Each time, Milarepa humbly accepted his guru’s criticism, and with unshakable faith and devotion did exactly as he was told.

Eventually, Marpa sealed Milarepa into a cave and told him to meditate on impermanence and death and other important Dharma subjects until he had realized these topics. In this way, having essentially abandoned sleep, Milarepa’s wisdom grew. After a few years, he had a dream that he should return home, which he did, to find his mother dead and the family home in ruins. Generating great renunciation, Milarepa then fled to the snow mountains, where he meditated in icy caves, wearing nothing but a simple cotton cloth. There he realized the nature of mind and attained enlightenment. He had spent so much time sitting in meditation that his buttocks were thick with calluses.

Why am I telling this story? It’s simply to show how hard one has to practice in order to make serious spiritual progress. In Tibet there were many practitioners like Milarepa, which is why Buddhism flourished in Tibet. If it is to survive, let alone flourish, in the world today, this is the type of practice that must be done in order for the as yet unbroken lineages to continue.

When we talk about the propagation of Buddhism, we have to remember that there are two types of teaching—the words and the realizations. Of these, it is the latter that makes the difference. It is easy for the words to continue for centuries—all we need are a few good libraries. But without the living experience of the meaning of the words that comes through purification, creation of merit and effective meditation, the words are dry and tasteless and cannot be a vehicle for Buddhism to continue into the distant future. For this to happen, we need serious meditators spending years, if not their entire lives, in retreat under the supervision of experienced masters. Is this happening today?

Jan Willis’s book, Enlightened Beings, tells the inspiring sacred biographies of six prominent tantric meditators from the Gelug School of Tibetan Buddhism, including that of the great Gyälwa Ensapa. Reading his story, we can understand the kind of practice required to ensure the survival of the lineage of the teachings. From an early age, he took teachings from many great masters; he studied the vast treatises of sutra and tantra; he became a monk; he undertook prolonged retreats in isolated places. As a result, he attained enlightenment in his lifetime. And of course, he was not the only one. Countless other practitioners in Tibet also followed similar courses of action and gained realization. How common is this in the world today? Even in Tibet, it no longer happens.

All this, then, is the answer to the future of Buddhism on Earth. Even though there may have be an upsurge of interest in Tibetan Buddhism over the past decades, mainly due to China’s brutal occupation of Tibet and the resulting exile of His Holiness the Dalai Lama and more than one hundred thousand other Tibetans, which has brought Tibetan Buddhism to the attention of others in the world, my impression is that it is almost totally devoid of the depth that characterized the Buddhism of Tibet and other Asian countries in the early centuries of its introduction to them, and therefore, it may not last that long.

The future of Buddhism notwithstanding, what is the reason for this heightened interest in Buddhism, especially in the West? One would have to say, people turn to Buddhism because they want to be happy. Why Buddhism? Because they find through experience that ordinary methods, such as family, friends, money, material possessions, work, art and so forth are not inherently satisfying.

The great secret, if you want to call it that, is that happiness, which we all want, and suffering, which none of us wants, come primarily from the mind, and if Buddhism is about anything, it’s about the mind. As Lama Yeshe said,

When we study Buddhism, we are studying ourselves, the nature of our own minds. Instead of focusing on some supreme being, Buddhism emphasizes more practical matters, such as how to lead our lives, how to integrate our minds and how to keep our everyday lives peaceful and healthy. In other words, Buddhism always accentuates experiential knowledge-wisdom rather than some dogmatic view. In fact, we don’t even consider Buddhism to be a religion in the usual sense of the term. From the lamas’ point of view, Buddhist teachings are more in the realm of philosophy, science or psychology.

He also pointed out that,

In Buddhism, we’re not that interested in talking about the Buddha himself. Nor was he. Lord Buddha wasn’t interested in people believing in him, so to this day Buddhism has never encouraged its followers simply to believe in the Buddha. We have always been more interested in understanding human psychology, the nature of the mind. Thus, Buddhist practitioners always try to understand their own mental attitudes, concepts, perceptions and consciousness. Those are the things that really matter.

In other words, Buddhism is not about blind faith, scriptural reference or blaming others. It’s about mind as the principal source of happiness and suffering, personal responsibility and compassion for all sentient beings.

When Guru Shakyamuni Buddha taught the four noble truths—the truths of suffering, its cause, its cessation and the path—he made it clear that anybody can totally eradicate suffering and, as I mentioned before, countless practitioners since then have accomplished this great feat. These days, many people understand just from hearing or reading teachings that Buddhism offers a better path to happiness than anything they’ve yet tried, so they start to put the teachings into practice. As they gain experience, they find it works the way it’s supposed to, so they have confidence to proceed further along the path.


I think it’s wonderful that people are prepared to try something radically different when they discover that everything they’re doing doesn’t lead to satisfaction and, recognizing that there might be something else that will bring them the happiness they seek, open the door to their own, inner wisdom. This is, of course, the door to the ultimate happiness and cessation of suffering that Guru Shakyamuni Buddha explained when he spoke about the cessation of suffering; the door to the practice of Dharma; the door out of the prison of wrong conceptions.

What is Dharma? In general, it means holding, or protecting, like the fence or rail that stops people from falling over a cliff. However, Dharma is an inner method that requires the practice of meditation. And since we have thousands of different problems in our mind, there are thousands of meditation techniques for solving them. One method cannot solve all problems. We study Dharma in order to understand which meditation technique should be applied to solve which problem.

The modern world also has inner methods for helping people solve problems—psychiatry, psychology and so forth, but even if people spend their entire lives applying these, they can never solve all their problems. Only the Dharma can do that. There is not a single method missing from the Dharma that cannot solve sentient beings’ problems.

Therefore, Dharma is a complete method for protecting ourselves from problems and their cause and making our lives meaningful. When we know how to practice Dharma, we can protect ourselves from suffering. That is Dharma. Even from this brief statement, you can see that the Dharma is not a limited method, like simply going to a temple or church. Dharma is something that we can practice day in and day out, no matter what else we are doing in our everyday life—working, eating, talking to people, sleeping and so forth—something that constantly guides us away from our delusions, the cause of suffering.

However, even though it is easy to practice Dharma, to transform all our actions into Dharma, to escape from suffering and create the cause of ultimate happiness, we have to know how. If we don’t, then of course, Dharma is very difficult to practice. And again, the first thing to understand is that happiness and suffering do not arise mainly from external factors but from the mind. We may not be able to see this upon hearing about it for the first time, but it is simply a matter of being aware. Although we experience suffering all the time, we’re not aware of how or why we’re experiencing it. We always think happiness and suffering arise from external factors, which is opposite to our own experience; they come mainly from the mind.

For example, say a person has enough material possessions—a place to live, enough food and clothing and so forth—but with attachment, starts thinking, “This is not enough; I want better; I want more,” making his mind worried, unhappy and dissatisfied. If, then, he changes his mind and decides, “Actually, this is enough. I’m content with what I have,” that determination can be enough to counteract the previous unhappiness, dissatisfaction and suffering of attachment and bring peace into his mind. At the very moment he makes the decision, happiness enters his mind; that is Dharma happiness, and shows how Dharma can bring happiness the moment we start to practice. Anger can be stopped in the same way, by recalling, for example, the previous kindness of the person who has upset us. If we do this effectively, our mind relaxes and the anger subsides. This again is Dharma happiness, and protecting ourselves from the consequences of anger in this way is practicing Dharma.

The main point of these examples is that suffering comes from the mind and can be stopped by the mind; happiness can arise simply from a change of mind. Other life problems can also be stopped like this, by changing the mind, not the object. If, for example, we’re in a foreign country and are suffering because we miss the food that we’re used to, if instead of obsessing over what we’re missing we think of those who are starving in various parts of the world, we can feel lucky that we have anything at all to eat, and in this way overcome the suffering we were experiencing from missing the food we like. Similarly, whenever we are experiencing any kind of suffering, all we need to do is think about those whose problems are far, far worse and our own suffering can simply fade away. Again, this shows how happiness arises from the mind.

However, it is not enough to just focus on solving the problems and suffering of this life, because after death, the mind continues, and we need to ensure the happiness of our future lives as well.

We can also appreciate how happiness does not come from external phenomena by stepping back and observing the way in which our world has developed. Since human beings have been living on Earth, they’ve been steadily, even frantically, developing externally and the world has been getting more and more busy, both physically and mentally. However, despite all this, people’s problems have not stopped; ultimate peace has not been attained. The only effect of all this has been to make people busier and busier, less and less peaceful, especially over the past century.

At the very beginning, human beings were very relaxed and not fixated on external development, machinery and so forth like we are today. However, rather than decreasing, world problems are increasing, getting worse. The world is becoming a more dangerous place. That means that there’s something missing in the method that people have been using from previous times until now.

What’s missing? It’s a method that decreases problems, that brings peace to the mind. That’s the method that’s missing. The method that increases peace and happiness in the mind; the inner method, the method that has to be developed within the mind. Why is it missing? Because of ignorance, not knowing or recognizing the method. People cling strongly to the wrong conception that only external development can bring happiness. That’s what has been keeping us constantly in problems, preventing our minds from becoming more and more peaceful.

Also, the person who has everything, every material thing, whatever he wants, is still not satisfied, still wants better and more, still gets bored with what he has. Things to which he was attached become objects of aversion, things he liked now bring discontent. All these things, these problems and sufferings arise from the mind; suffering arises from the mind.

We can see how things are by looking at kings and beggars. If happiness depended on material conditions alone, a beggar who didn’t have enough food for even a day should have incredibly more problems and difficulties than those who have everything, all material comforts, whatever they want. Such people’s minds should be much more peaceful and happy than those of beggars; more satisfied.  If it were up to external conditions alone, the richer you were, the more satisfied you should be.

However, when we look into it, even if one is the most famous or wealthiest person in the world, even if the person has a title such as president or king, he still has so many troubles, so much to worry about, so much fear of losing his power, reputation or possessions. He is very worried that he will not get more; worried that others will become richer than him and gain control over him; worried that his guards will be unable to protect him and his family, possessions and power. He can’t relax his mind at night; can’t get a comfortable sleep. People are always criticizing and complaining about him. When the whole country doesn’t like you, it’s very difficult to relax. It doesn’t matter how rich you are, how beautiful, how wonderful the food you eat and the clothes you wear, that your feet never touch the ground. When your mind is filled with worry, you can’t enjoy what you have; you can’t even taste the food you eat.

The beggar, on the other hand, doesn’t have any responsibilities, has no wealth, no material possessions. Others don’t criticize him. As long as he gets lunch and dinner, he’s satisfied. He can sleep with a comfortable mind. Of course, it may not always work like this, but this example, too, makes it clear that happiness and suffering come from the mind, not external circumstances.

While one thing about Buddhism that appeals to the well-educated seekers of the present day is its rational approach to psychology and the nature of the mind, another is the clear structure of the path of Tibetan Buddhism, which serves as a kind of road map to enlightenment. Looking at the outline of the entire path a practitioner can see clearly the entire range of practices that must be undertaken and accomplished in order to reach the final goal of all sentient beings’ enlightenment.

The path taught by Guru Shakyamuni Buddha and presented by the great Atisha in his Lamp for the Path is a complete path that allows any sentient being to attain the full enlightenment that the Buddha himself attained. It’s a Mahayana teaching that was clearly expounded by the great propagators Nagarjuna and Asanga, a profound teaching whose essence was explained by the great Atisha and Lama Tsongkhapa. It contains the essential points of the 84,000 teachings of Guru Shakyamuni Buddha, with nothing missing, and is set up in such a way that any individual can follow it gradually to enlightenment.

The root of the path is devotion to the guru; without a guru, there’s no way to progress efficiently along the spiritual path or to attain enlightenment. Once we’ve found the right guru, we need to persuade ourselves to extract the essence from our perfect human rebirth, the human life that affords us every opportunity to practice Dharma in the best possible way. Once we have decided to make good use of our life, we have to train our mind in the paths of the three types of being—those of least, middling and greatest capability.

The lower scope path teaches us to focus more on the happiness of future lives than that of this, and to train ourselves to do this we meditate on impermanence and death and on the suffering of the three lower realms of existence—the hell, hungry ghost and animal realms. Then, having become persuaded that future lives are more important than this one, we need to practice the methods for benefiting our future lives—we go for refuge to the Three Jewels and dedicate ourselves to following karma by avoiding actions that lead to suffering and engaging in those that bring happiness.

The intermediate scope path leads to complete liberation from cyclic existence. On it, we meditate on the sufferings of samsara in general and of each realm in particular and practice the three higher trainings of morality, concentration and wisdom.

The highest scope path explains the benefits of bodhicitta, how to generate it, and how to engage in the deeds of a bodhisattva. This is the Mahayana path, which leads to enlightenment, but success in attaining this goal totally depends on the two lower levels.

Bodhicitta, the principal cause of enlightenment, can be developed through the seven-point cause-and-effect technique, the technique of exchanging self for others or a combination of the two, which was developed by Lama Tsongkhapa. Whichever technique we use, its foundation is the equilibrium meditation, in which we equalize our view all sentient beings by abandoning discrimination of friend, enemy and stranger.

The six causes are seeing all sentient beings as mother, remembering the mother’s kindness, the thought of repaying her kindness, love, compassion and the special intention, where we take personal responsibility for the enlightenment of all sentient beings. The effect that these causes lead up to is the development of bodhicitta. The meditation on exchanging self for others has four sections: reflecting on the disadvantages of cherishing oneself and the advantages of cherishing others, actual exchange of self for others and the technique of giving and taking (tonglen).

While bodhicitta is the principal cause of enlightenment, it has to be developed along with the two other principal aspects of the path to enlightenment, renunciation and the right view of emptiness. The well-educated seekers of today appreciate the clear, scientific approach that the lamrim path offers. They are not asked to accept anything they don’t understand and, having gained a clear intellectual understanding of the path, are happy to put it into practice. Once they do so, they achieve the results predicted, which gives them the confidence they need to proceed further and undertake more advanced practices. I think this is one reason why Buddhism has become so popular today.