A conversation with Jamgon Kongtrul Rinpoche October 1988
Question: The question always seems to come back to the same thing, which is how an ancient tradition, which grew up in a certain cultural environment and comes from a background entirely different from our modern world can come into the modern world, with all the forces at work here that are so different from—and even against—the spiritual search. What adjustments need to be made and how do you see the particular problem of modern people? Modern civilization with its technology and economic situation has created an entirely different atmosphere than the tradition that you grew up in. What do you see as the specific first steps that need to be taken for us, for modern people?
Answer: It is very true that the whole of our world is becoming modernized. However, we have also to understand that Buddhism first developed in India and adapted itself to the cultural tradition there. And later, when Buddhism was brought into Tibet from India, it also had to adapt itself to the Tibetan tradition. But the essential Buddhist teaching has remained very much unchanged. The essential quality of Buddhism and the meditation practices never really changed in going from one country to another.
So, therefore, Buddhism emphasizes two aspects of the teaching: the “view” aspect, and the “practice” or “meditational” aspect. The “view” aspect of Buddhism teaches the ultimate nature of outer phenomena and the ultimate nature of ourselves. That ultimate nature never changes, whether considering ancient times, a thousand years ago, or the modern era. So Buddhism speaks philosophically about the ultimate nature of external and internal being, and about that ultimate nature remaining unchanged.
Therefore, what is made available to the new generation of the Western world is that very essential, or ultimate, part of Buddhism, which is called the Dharma. And again, speaking from experience, if the Dharma were false or if the new practitioners in the West had to adopt a Buddhism which included the Tibetan culture, then it would become conflicting and could create considerable misunderstanding and confusion in the minds of the beginning practitioners. This has been the case since ancient tunes.
So what seems proper is for the Western mind to adopt the essential nature of Buddhism, the Dharma, and not necessarily the cultural aspects. And it seems important for all of us to maintain a responsibility not to mix the Dharma with a culture or tradition.
One must not look at the Dharma as belonging to somebody or some nation; if one does so, this can be the beginning of the greatest confusion. So Rinpoche believes that the Dharma can be adapted to any culture, but one cannot make the Dharma into a culture.