In my Tibetan and Himalayan Peoples class, we had a guest lecturer come to talk to us about the appropriation of Tibetan Buddhism by Westerners and how it can be a potential snare. His lecture made me stop and look at myself critically and what my mind and imagination is doing with this culture I am consumed with on a daily basis. This is the whole goal of mediation, isn’t it? Being able to watch ourselves think…
He was an interesting character to begin with: a shirt buttoned tightly over a barrel belly and he was the first of our lecturers not to sit cross-legged on a pillow under the window. Instead he perched on a chair, knees slightly drooping open, and arm posed casually. He looked like he could be posing, but he wasn’t. Big boiled nose and a scraggly ponytail (like 95% of the white western men who hang around Kathmandu into their old age). His method for delivering a lecture was unlike anything I have ever heard… long pauses as he looked down and off into space. After a few words, he would let them linger. He wasn’t necessarily following a rhythm, but I could sense the timing.
The main thesis of the lecture was the risk of getting trapped in Tibetan culture, the allure of the “other,” and imagining this Buddhism preserved in the rooftops of the planet as being something that could save us by replacing the culture we had left behind. In the west, we do not blindly accept authority or take anything for granted unless we can test it with science or our own experience. This ability ‘to remain skeptical as long as possible,’ is not something we should relinquish swiftly. As a scholar of Buddhism, he argued that the real truth to this tradition is to find the base of our own inherent karma, and that adding another layer by adopting a foreign culture would only increase our struggle toward enlightenment. Instead, Buddhism can give us a methodology for finding our own way, by learning to still our mind, discovering what roots us, and how to find a base without attachment.
But for this, he said, we do not have to come half way around the world to Nepal. There is something else magnetic about this place, another reason we are here in Nepal. I was reminded of the parallels between western Buddhists coming to Kathmandu and trying to be Tibetan and the adoption of Native American culture by westerners in the United States. Maybe what we romanticize is not based purely on illusion, but rooted in an inherent magnetism that even we cannot explain even as it draws us to the heights of the Himalayas. Perhaps this attraction serves a genetic function: to preserve the best of humanity’s ideas from extinction and maybe we aren’t caught, trapped in a delusion, but are trying to hold on to what we sense is true.