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Tibetan Buddhism in the 21st Century China and Beyond

Some people may think Tibetan Buddhism is only a receptacle to place one’s faith in. But actually the wisdom of Buddhadharma is unfathomable. If you practice it, you will find that it is a philosophy of life and a profound subject with its value surpassing everything in our life—it’s the path of truth seeking.

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“In the 21st century, we can see that wealth, power, high status and so on can only satisfy people’s physical desires, but does not bring them ultimate spiritual benefit and happiness. So, it is obvious that we should pay more attention to gaining inner happiness.”

Speech from Khenpo Sodargye

The Profundity of Buddhism

Introduction by Professor Bogin

I would like to introduce Khenpo Sodargye by speaking about his name as a way of introducing who this figure is exactly. Khenpo is actually not a name but a title. It is the name of the degree that one earns in the Tibetan Buddhist tradition when one achieves the highest level of scholastic training. In that sense, Khenpo Sodargye, as a result of his training at the Larung Gar Buddhist Academy, has become renowned as one of the foremost scholars of the traditional scholastic tradition of Tibet. He is both translating Tibetan into Chinese and writing extensive commentaries, for example, on Shantideva’s Bodhicharyavatara. Those of you in my Introduction to Buddhism class will be reading that book and will see that this is someone who is a true master of that text. He’s a very learned commentator and explicator of the Bodhicharyavatara. He has also written on many other topics related to the Buddhist monastic tradition. Those of you in my Tibetan Buddhism class have been studying the history of the Larung Gar Buddhist Academy and of Khenpo’s teacher, H.H. Jigme Phuntsok Rinpoche, and you already know that as an institution, it was based on the idea of purifying conduct and embodying the qualities of virtue. As a monk, Khenpo is truly a leader in embodying those aspects of the tradition through all of his work.

The final part of his name “dargye” refers to the verb for spreading, flowering and increasing. It really means flourishing, and in that sense, he has perhaps been responsible for the flourishing of Buddhist teachings to a degree unimaginable in a previous age, through his widespread teaching and the use of many different forms of technology, including social media.

Many of you may be familiar with Weibo, which is the Chinese equivalent of Twitter. Khenpo Rinpoche has over a million followers on Weibo in China. Just to give you a sense of his following in China, that is about the number of followers that Jay-Z has on his Twitter account. In fact, their numbers are quite similar.

He is indeed a very prominent figure, and it is therefore our extraordinarily great fortune to have someone with us who is responsible for spreading the teachings of the Buddha in such a vast way, who also embodies the virtues and the merit of the tradition and who is a Khenpo who is truly learned in all of these various aspects.

I am absolutely delighted to be able to welcome Khenpo Rinpoche Sodargye here today. I’m sure you’ll benefit from hearing his brief comments on Tibetan Buddhism in China. Later on you will have the opportunity to engage in some dialogue with him. So, please join me in welcoming Khenpo Sodargye.

Expression of Gratitude

Thanks to Professor Bogin for his help and making all the arrangements. I’m so glad to be here today and be able to engage in a scholarly dialogue with all of you. For me, it’s a very good opportunity. It was 20 years ago when I first came here to the U.S. Although we wanted to have scholarly dialogues with professors, students and intellectuals, at that time we were focused only on Buddhist centers and having intellectual exchanges with practicing Buddhists.

Today, I am here at Georgetown University, which is a world-renowned university. I have heard that the former U.S. President Clinton, the former president of the Philippines, Arroyo, and many other well-known figures graduated from here. They have undoubtedly made great contributions to the world and in a similar way, Professor Bogin and the many other professors here, are helping to spread and propagate Buddhism, and especially Tibetan Buddhism, to many Westerners. For your support and attention, I’d like to express my sincere gratitude.

The Profundity of Buddhism

Although I have lectured in many Chinese universities, as the professor just mentioned, I’m aware that the ways of thinking and studying in the East and the West are quite different. Nevertheless, it is of great importance, for each of us to study religion. In our lives, no matter what one majors in, whether it is law, architecture, business or any of the many other subjects, as a human being, understanding and studying religion is of essential importance. Why is that? Everyone is free to choose whether or not to believe in a religion. As a matter of fact, religion is, in itself a body of knowledge that is necessary to learn about theoretically. In addition to theoretical knowledge, the practice of a religion is also indispensable in the journey of our lives. Without it, the way of seeking the truth is incomplete.

Ever since I was young, I have had faith in Tibetan Buddhism and have for many years been studying it deeply. Having been a monk for these many years, I have spent most of my time listening, reflecting and meditating on the Dharma. This is how I live my life. From my understanding, any religion in the world, and to my way of thinking this is especially true of Tibetan Buddhism, is a vast treasury of wisdom. Although all of you here are obviously intelligent and highly educated, if you study and practice Buddhism with the sharpness of your wisdom, I am sure that you will still be impressed with its profundity and vastness.

When I was in school, I thought Biology and Chinese Literature were not so important and actually seemed kind of simple, so I didn’t spend much energy on them. Later on, as I delved more deeply into Buddhism, I found that all Buddhist subjects such as emptiness and logic were unfathomable to me at my level of knowledge. Therefore, I believe that Buddhism is not as simple as some people think. It is not merely an answer to the search for a receptacle in which to place one’s faith. It is, in fact, a philosophy of life and a profound subject, the value of which surpasses everything else in our lives.

In our lives, no matter what one majors in, whether it is law, architecture, business or any of the many other subjects, as a human being, understanding and studying religion is of essential importance. Why is that? Everyone is free to choose whether or not to believe in a religion. As a matter of fact, religion is, in itself a body of knowledge that is necessary to learn about theoretically. In addition to theoretical knowledge, the practice of a religion is also indispensable in the journey of our lives. Without it, the way of seeking the truth is incomplete.

Importance of Buddhist Studies for Young People

The Impression of Georgetown University

You are enrolled in Georgetown University and, as such, have the opportunity to study and receive instruction from many excellent professors. I believe this is a result of your great merit. Earlier on, Professor Bogin mentioned that I have great merit. What I possess is just nominal and not meaningful in a real sense. I am very sure about that. In contrast, you are studying at this university in the capital of the USA, Washington D.C. This indeed, is not nominal but real fortune. I truly think so.

In Tibet, going to a high-quality university is something that everyone yearns for. Even going to universities in an average city is not easy. Some may have financial difficulties and others may not be qualified. There are many kinds of obstacles.

I am truly impressed with your university. Whether it is the architecture of its buildings or the inner quality of its people, just thinking of the university and its students, arouses in me a great desire. Coming across such a university with all these great conditions for learning, when half of my life has already passed, makes me feel that it would be wonderful if I were 20 years old again and could come here to study. That is how I feel deep in my heart.

Importance of Buddhist Studies for Young People

Although you are in such an amazing university, you still have to deal with the different pressures of your studies. After graduation, in marriage, work and other aspects of your life, you will still face many different problems. Similarly, everyone in the world has to face their own life issues. In this regard, Buddhist views and practices are very important.

Why is this so? In the 21st century, we can see that wealth, power, high status and so on can only satisfy people’s physical desires, but does not bring them ultimate spiritual benefit and happiness. So, it is obvious that we should pay more attention to gaining inner happiness. Aside from the Buddha Dharma, there has been no other body of scientific knowledge throughout the course of human history that contains such complete teachings to dispel and eradicate inner suffering. Therefore, studying the Dharma is very important to help young people deal with sufferings and worries in their future lives.

The Spread of Buddha Dharma in Recent Years

Personally speaking, I have been teaching Dharma to Chinese students for over 20 years, from 1987 until today. Initially, I primarily gave Dharma teachings and then after 10 years, I began to get more involved in translation. From what I have seen and heard, these days more and more urban people are becoming interested in Buddhism, and especially in Tibetan Buddhism. The number of people who believe in, and are studying Buddhism, is increasing at an ever accelerating rate, and presently, among business people and people of many other professions, interest in Buddhism is proliferating around the world.

Entering into the Dharma does not mean to rule people through religion, or an invasion of one religion by another, or even to rule one religion with another. The aim of Dharma practice is to benefit all sentient beings and to help everyone in their lives. If we can tame our mind through the Dharma, great confidence and courage will arise in our hearts and that alone can bring us enormous benefits.

An Earnest Encouragement

Uninterrupted Lineage & Notable Study System

When compared to other religions, the doctrine of Buddhism is vast and profound. Within Buddhism, there are different lineages such as Han and Theravada Buddhism and so on. Among them, Tibetan Buddhism has complete teachings in Tantrayana and Sutrayana. Translators have been translating sutras and tantras in an accurate and elegant way for centuries. With the blessings of the lineage gurus, such translations have been guarded and kept by accomplished practitioners throughout history. These translators have demonstrated great ability, greater in many ways than many university professors, as their lineage of knowledge has never been interrupted.

From the perspective of academia, the approaches to the study of Tibetan Buddhism are notable. These days, although some U.S. universities are considered to be among the best in the world, as regards their approaches to the study and content of this material, my feeling is that if they would be willing to learn from Tibetan monasteries, they would gain great benefit. I am sure that if they were aware of the teaching methods used there, that they would most likely appreciate their unique features.

An Earnest Encouragement

Within Tibetan Buddhism, great Dharma masters such as the late H.H. Dudjom Rinpoche, H.H. Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche, H.H. Penor Rinpoche, as well as Trungpa Rinpoche, etc., have all guided numerous people onto the path of the Dharma and helped them attain true happiness. In Tibet, for instance, there were such great masters as H.H. Jigme Phuntsok Rinpoche and the late Panchen Lama, who, while they were still in this world, gave blessings to thousands upon thousands of people within a day by touching the top of their heads.

The minds of those who had been blessed would then be instantly transformed. This kind of blessing is a special energy that exists within a Buddhist perspective but is not recognized by Western science. Therefore, I encourage the young audience here to study the Dharma to enrich yourselves. I am not praising it just because I am a Buddhist, nor, like many modern worldly people, am I advertising it for my own sake. I have devoted my entire life to Dharma practice; it’s just like eating a great meal, I really enjoy it, so I’d like to recommend it to you. It will benefit your body and please your mind. I have no other motivation other than to share it with you.

These days, in India, France, the U.S. and other countries throughout the world, there are many great lineage holders of Tibetan Buddhism living and propagating the Dharma. Every one of them can potentially lead thousands upon thousands of people into the Dharma.

Entering into the Dharma does not mean to rule people through religion, or an invasion of one religion by another, or even to rule one religion with another. The aim of Dharma practice is to benefit all sentient beings and to help everyone in their lives. If we can tame our mind through the Dharma, great confidence and courage will arise in our hearts and that alone can bring us enormous benefits.

This is a time when every aspect of traditional Tibetan Buddhism has been in decline. In contrast, many western scholars are learning, studying and working to preserve Tibetan culture, and have made unremitting efforts in these directions. I hope that in the future, many of you young people will pay close attention to the teachings of Buddhist philosophy, and especially to those of Tibetan Buddhism. It needs everybody’s help to protect it. This is my first and strongest hope.

Secondly, since this is the Internet age and Buddhism is 100% compatible with science, as it has never been refuted by science, if you can benefit people by spreading the Dharma through the Internet or other modern technology, it will be of great value to the whole world. Once again, I hope that you will all make some amount of effort to study the Dharma.

Thirdly, among Tibetan intellectuals, some disparage the teachings of their own tradition. They know nothing about the Dharma, but nevertheless, view it as nothing more than superstition. They have judged it as useless and therefore have abandoned it. What a shame this is. Some Westerners, on the other hand, are so passionate about Buddhism that they have devoted their entire lives to researching its many aspects. Their steadiness and devotion are characteristics that are very admirable. Therefore, I hope that in the future all of you can put Tibetan Buddhism into actual practice.

Lastly, if you become aware of any other culture in the world that is in danger of decline, please put forward your efforts to protect it like a wish-fulfilling jewel. This is also my sincere hope.

Question & Answer Session

Buddhist Movements for Environmental Sustainability

Professor Bogin

It would have been wonderful to hear Khenpo Rinpoche speak for many more hours, but I have rudely cut him off in order to have a chance for us to have some dialogue. I know he’s also very interested in your questions, so if there are any questions about anything from Khenpo’s comments or from your own studies, you all have a chance to ask him about it now.

Khenpo Sodargye’s Personal Studies

Question #1:

Having researched you a bit before coming, it seems that you’ve mastered just about everything in your tradition through the people who were the most knowledgeable on the subject. Unfortunately, almost all of them have now passed on and you seem to be at the top of who is left. So how do you personally pursue your own studies when there is no one to teach you anymore?

Khenpo Sodargye:

In Buddhism, we begin with relying on gurus. Gurus can clarify your doubts and solve your questions. I had been relying on H.H. Jigme Phuntsok Rinpoche for 19 years. He was a marvelous guru. We wouldn’t bother him with every single question that we had, but after debates and discussions, if there were still some unsolved questions, we would go and consult him.

It was intended that I become a teacher after graduation, but later, I became a monk instead. Since I was ordained, I no longer live a worldly life and have plenty of time for studying. Sometimes questions and doubts arise, but during the past several decades, I have studied the general Buddhist philosophy and have come to satisfactory answers to most of the questions. Sometimes if new questions or hesitancies arise, I can consult not only my guru’s commentaries and teachings, but also with the commentaries of many other gurus and teachers.

In Tibetan Buddhism, we start with listening, then after reflection, we question and debate. Next is the meditation stage. Although my practice is not very good, I don’t have any suspicions or doubts about the Dharma because of my many years of listening and reflection. This never worries me.

Buddhist Movements for Environmental Sustainability

Question #2:

One of the approaches to solving issues of sustainability, is to implement early Buddhist teachings. There are now movements, modern Buddhist movements, that are taking into account the implementation of Buddhist teachings into solving sustainability issues. From your experience, do you think these movements will continue to grow and that we’ll see an international collaboration of modern movements for sustainability issues?

Khenpo Sodargye:

The current world trend, especially in the U.S., is that people have a strong awareness of environmental protection and other issues. Nevertheless, in some other countries, people still waste their resources, such as through mining, and so forth; these may be the result of a flawed industrial policy. According to scientific research today, it may not take that many more years to exhaust all the resources of the earth. Moreover, it appears that with the increasing human population, our lives will become even more difficult. This has been demonstrated by science.

If this is true, we Buddhists can hardly solve this problem alone, through giving a few seminars or holding a few conferences. In terms of what our future will be like, I’m not able to foretell or foresee it. But we can infer that if everyone were to gain an awareness of protection and everyone takes responsibility, then regardless of whether they are Buddhists, other religious people or nonbelievers, everyone can do something to protect the environment and save its resources. With such joint efforts, our earth can become our green home once again, and its life can be extended. Many scholars are studying this. I also believe this is really important.

Otherwise, through the power of Buddhists alone, being that we comprise only a small portion of world’s population, we cannot make enough progress to change the face of this issue. But if each individual, regardless of their religious belief, would pay close attention to it, there would no longer be a crisis.

Ethnic Differences in Buddhism: Matters or Not

Inter-Religious Dialogue Initiatives

Question #3:

In this country, we’ve had a number of Buddhist-Catholic dialogues that have been very fruitful at looking at the monastic life, how to respond to suffering and violence, and also ecology. I’m wondering have you been involved in Buddhist-Christian dialogues, and how do you see the relationship between the Buddhist and the Christian traditions?

Khenpo Sodargye :

I’ve planned to hold a symposium in Hong Kong this July, which will be attended by Christians, Muslims and other religious people. We hope to invite people from eight major religions to discuss some of the same current issues that you just mentioned. They will express their ideas on the issues that are closely related to human interest. Our aim is, firstly, to promote religious harmony and secondly, to exchange on features of each religion. This is our plan for this year.

These days, Christianity is spreading quickly throughout the world. We, of course, feel that the Buddhist view, meditation and conduct are also profound and precious. Regardless of which religion we choose to look at, there are profound insights that are beneficial to humanity. For both believers and nonbelievers, it is crucial to learn about the ideas of any religion that may be of benefit to mankind.

Having said that, individuals should first have a good foundation in their own religion and then learn from others. This will not only benefit society, but also promote world development and help people to achieve inner happiness. It cannot help but be very useful in every aspect. Otherwise, there will only be a continuation of the same disputes among religions as we have had before. If each religion only cares about its own propagation and denies others, it won’t benefit itself or others.

I haven’t read much Christian scripture, but I have some sense of Christian charity, like the building of hospitals and spreading the ideas of helping others. So I appeal to Buddhists to learn these ideas from Christians. A great example is the Nobel Peace Prize winner, Mother Teresa, who is a Catholic. I always speak of her humility and merciful attitude to Buddhists everywhere I go.

 

Ethnic Differences in Buddhism: Matters or Not

Question #4:

Tashi Delek, Rinpoche. What do you think is the main difference between Han Buddhism and Tibetan Buddhism? You have a lot of Han Chinese students, so I was wondering whether they face any kind of tension with Tibetan Buddhists while they are studying and if they do, what has been your advice to them?

Khenpo Sodargye:

Within the world of Buddhism, there is Han and Tibetan Buddhism and now, there is also Western Buddhism. Specifically speaking, all of the Buddhist teachings are intended as an education of the mind, whose teachings can truly dispel suffering and enhance happiness. So, there is nothing unsuitable for Chinese disciples to practice in the teachings of Tibetan Buddhism.

Additionally, there are very few obvious differences between Han and Tibetan Buddhism. When Indian Buddhism came to what is considered as China, it took on some Chinese characteristics. Similarly, when it came to Tibet, it integrated with Tibetan features. My teachings are solely based on the Dharma, which addresses such concepts as altruistic bodhicitta and loving-kindness. Loving-kindness is required for any human being. Also teachings like not-killing, not-stealing and not-lying, whether one is in the East or the West, are all acknowledged as part of Buddhist supreme discipline. Following these principles, I personally haven’t encountered any obstacles.

These days, many Chinese are studying Tibetan Buddhism. Although Chinese Buddhism continues to exist in the Han area, there are very few masters or great scholars who are able to expound the deep meaning of the Dharma. In Tibetan Buddhism, however, many wise men continue to emerge through the various aspects of its rigorous training, such as debates. Meanwhile, there are many great practitioners who have integrated the teachings into their mindstream. So many pith instructions for practice still exist.

As for people today, most don’t care about history, but are really only concerned about what will benefit them right now. So, as an example, if there is something for sale that is of good quality, and of a high standard, then people will all buy it. But if something has an appealing name, but its quality is not up to standard, after examining it, people will turn away from it.

Given the current situation, Tibetan Buddhism has attracted many Chinese disciples. Although I don’t have many disciples in many cities, the number of people learning Tibetan Buddhism in any particular city may reach 5,000 or 6,000. This is only the number of those that have registered; there are many more who haven’t registered.

What they need most is something that can benefit their body, mind and their life. Buddha Shakyamuni once said that the Dharma is like water, which is something that everyone needs to drink. Similarly, in terms of Dharma study, we do not differ from each other as a result of age, ethnic group and nationality in this way: everyone wants to be free from suffering and to obtain happiness. All of us have the ability to cultivate this kind of wisdom. So, we should earnestly seek for it through Dharma study.

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