Can Buddhism Continue to Flourish as the World’s Second Largest Spiritual Path as the Current Lineage Teachers Begin to Slow Down and Retire?
Buddhism may have grown to the second largest spiritual path worldwide, with 1.6 billion followers according to some experts, but can this be sustained? (Story on “Buddhism Second Largest” here>>) The current great teachers and lineage holders are aging, slowing down, retiring, and, ultimately, must pass on. It’s an issue that concerns most Buddhist schools, particularly those where practices are passed through lineages thousands-of-years-old. Tibetan Buddhism, in particular, relies on the purity of lineage teachings and teachers.
“Today some lineages of Tantric initiations and sacred teachings are dying and some of them will be extinct like the species of plants, birds and animals on the planet.”
These are the words of the most Venerable Zasep Tulku Rinpoche when Buddha Weekly asked about this issue. “Many lineages are already gone, passing when older Lamas masters pass.” 
Threats to Buddhist Lineages
Aside from political threats, and some modern-day schisms, perhaps the most pressing dangers are cultural:
- Online accessibility, while of amazing benefit to today’s students, also means information may be “false” or misleading or incomplete
- Underlying meanings and symbolism in the teachings may be lost through language translations, evolving into something different.
- In Tibetan Buddhism, some teachers are trying to transmit initiations online, a practice not necessarily as effective as in-person transmission according to traditional teachers.
- Many younger teachers are “Westernizing” practices. The demands of “hundred thousand prostrations” and “hundred thousand mantras” seems impossibly onerous in the modern age. Why not just condense it?
Tibetan Dharma Teacher AlejAndro Anastasio, director of the Boise Dharma Centre explains the risks:
“I have noticed the situation of many high Tibetan Teachers and Lineage Holders nearing “retirement” age and many others passing on into the next life. All too often we see great changes in some Buddhist organizations when this happens. Some organizations split apart while others lose momentum and others begin to dissolve.”
(From an interview on this topic, “Next Generation Teachers” by Buddha Weekly — full interview inset at end of this article.)
Can the next generation of Western teachers resist the temptation to “westernize” these well-preserved and sacred lineages? Will Tibetan Buddhism, for example, evolve into American Vajrayana Buddhism, losing the essence of the traditions and lineage over time?
Is this a bad thing? A strong argument can be made that Buddhism has always evolved as it moved from country to country, and that it takes time to “take root” in its new form. Japanese Zen evolved from Chinese Chan, which evolved from the teachings of the great Indian Teacher Bodhidharma.
Teacher Theodore Tsaousidis, interviewed by Buddha Weekly on this topic, explained:
“When we hear the Dharma is going to take a couple hundred years to fully root in the west we get confused. This does not mean there is no good Dharma in the west. It is just that we are a bit melancholy still for the good old days. We may be born here but we feel the longing of our “refugee” teachers who came here to spread the Dharma.”
Gen X Teachers Already Considering Changes
Some younger teachers are even reflecting on the need to change traditions, which may make the issue even more precarious. In a recent issue of BuddhaDharma, in a feature prophetically titled, “Gen X teachers… are transforming the vision and landscape of American Buddhism” several teachers spoke out on the need to Westernize Buddhism.
Nina la Rosa, in this forum of Gen X teachers, said: “Our teachers delivered a version of Buddhism very much colored by Asian cultural origins. None of us here are Asian teachers in an Asian Buddhist community, though of course they are also part of the American Buddhist landscape; some of those teachers who are part of Gen X have also attended the conferences. If we’re talking second- or third- generation Asian Americans who are coming to learn the dharma with us, they’re more likely to share the Western cultural lens, which is often a more psychological approach to practice.
Dave Smith, a “Gen X” Dharma teacher said, ” One thing I love about the Gen X community and the conferences I’ve been to is that when we talk, we don’t focus on our Buddhist lineages or teachers but on ourselves and our lives. I don’t really care what someone’s Buddhist tradition is.”  While this is an inclusive and enlightened attitude, does it also suggest that carefully preserved traditions may start to evolve in the West?
Another Gen X Teacher, Tenku Ruff, said, “I received the dharma from a very traditional teacher in Japan, and that training gave me a strong core of practice. But back here in the United States, I’m negotiating a very different training and teaching style. I have to bridge the difference between my seniors in Japan and my seniors in America as well as the generational difference, so it’s a complicated dance. I think the first generation of teachers in the West feels a great weight of responsibility for the dharma that they inherited, and maybe a sense of duty to keep things the way they got them, where our generation feels more freedom to share ideas with each other and integrate those ideas as needed.”
Cultural Clash: What’s the Rush?
Perhaps the biggest cultural clash in ‘Buddhism meets the West’ is the frantic pace of life. It’s difficult to find the time to practice the traditional way. How does one take a year off work for a retreat? This leads to pressure to shorten, abbreviate, truncate, the Readers Digest practice.
Zasep Rinpoche, a traditional teacher from a long lineage, explains it this way:
“There are some Westerners who are trying to take initiations and teachings to save lineages but sometimes they try to rush and make it easy. They try to simplify. Sometimes they make adaptions. When you are modifying, and changing the style, there a risk of losing the quality and essence. There’s too much dilution.”
Throughout its history, Buddhism has coped with change and cultural adaption. As Buddhism moved from one country to another, cultural influences changed practices. At the same time, we struggle with the need to preserve the original, sacred Dharma teachings. There is a risk of losing the integrity of the lineage. Again, this is perhaps more obviously an issue in Tibetan Buddhism, where lineage is crucial. And it is especially critical in the west, where Tibetan Buddhism tries to find a way to cope with the tight schedules of busy North Americans.
“The big thing today is we tend to make everything one big mish-mash,” said Venerable Zasep Rinpoche. “Older lineage holders are dying, and younger people tend to have no interest, no time. We can’t point fingers or blame somebody else. We’re part of it too.”
Advanced Teachings Adapted for the West Are Condensed and Compromised?
In the west, even the most traditional Tibetan Lamas tend to teach in a condensed format. Short sadhanas, weekend retreats, and minimal commitments replace tradition long sadhanas, years-long retreats and extensive commitments. After all, most of us are not monastics, and we don’t have the luxury of sponsors.
In an interview in Tricycle (Summer 2001), Alan Wallace, a teacher and interpreter for numerous Tibetan scholars, including H.H. the Dalai Lama, said:
“In the West, when Tibetan lamas offer teachings the format is altered because these lamas are usually on tour. It’s common for them to give weekend workshops, or one-night lectures. Or they may stay in a place for a longer time and give a one-week or a two-week retreat. But, for the most part, that’s as long as it ever gets. Then some are resident lamas with their own centers where more sustained training is given.”
When asked how this condensed format might impact practice, he answered: “In the West, it is very common that a lama will pass through a city and give a tantric Buddhist initiation and a weekend of esoteric teachings on visualization practices or ways of experiencing a state of pure awareness. What’s missing here in the vast majority of cases is the profound context: the theoretical context, the context of faith, the context of a mature spiritual community. The teachings themselves, though perfectly traditional, are being introduced in a radically non-traditional context. And this, I think, has on numerous occasions led to terrible misunderstandings and a great deal of unnecessary conflict, unrest, confusion and suffering.”
Aging Teachers and Western Adaptions A Problem?
Wallace went on to explain his opinion as to what he felt was the issue with Western adaption: “My own feeling is that Buddhist tantric initiations, practices, and vows are often given out too indiscriminately. All these practices entail taking on serious commitments, and if people with little or no background in Buddhism take such vows and so on without sufficient background, this can lead to disillusionment and confusion.” He explained that the reason some teachers feel compelled to give more advanced teachings is motivation: “If lamas confined themselves to teaching topics such as ethical discipline, renunciation, and the cultivation of loving kindness and compassion few people would come.”
Reliability of Teachings and Preservation of Essence
Tradition and lineage assure new students of the reliability of the teachings. If, for thousands of years, thousands of teachers practiced this way, developing important realizations, many obtaining Enlightenment, we can feel strongly that the practices work. However, newer generations of teachers, are not necessarily available to preserve those lineages.
For most traditions, such as the five Tibetan schools, where lineage is critical, the dilution of the teachings, or the cultural modification of the practices, may result, in irrevocable loss. Once gone, never to return. A lineage broken cannot be repaired by definition.
When Our Beloved Teachers Pass
The lineage teachers eventually will retire. Some will pass away in our lifetimes — a traumatic experience for any student.
Teacher Theodore Tsaousidis has this advice for students who lose a teacher: “It is human to grieve loss. The loss of a teacher, one who has nurtured us on a profound level, can feel overwhelming but it is important to remember that the Dharma transcends all teachers. At the end of his life the Buddha told his students the Dharma was an island. He cautioned against confusing the island for the boat, the teacher who brought them there.
“The love we feel for our teacher will continue as part of our own work. The seeds have been sown but it is our responsibility to nurture the teachings on the ground we walk until in turn they have matured to provide shelter and sustenance to others.”
Inset Full Interview with Teacher AlejAndro Anastasio
“As a practicing Tibetan Vajrayana Buddhist for the past fifteen years and an Authorized Dharma Teacher under the guidance of my Root Master, Dzogchen Khenpo Choga Rinpoche I have noticed the situation of many high Tibetan Teachers and Lineage Holders nearing “retirement” age and many others passing on into the next life. All too often we see great changes in some Buddhist organizations when this happens. Some organizations split apart while others lose momentum and others begin to dissolve.
My Teacher and his senior students are very aware of this situation and we have discussed the issue many times. Recently, one of teacher’s teachers passed away from this life and we had much to discuss. Often our teacher talks to us about what it will take to make sure our Lineage is stable enough to move forward after he dies.
Our Excellent Teacher Dzogchen Khenpo Choga Rinpoche has been working tirelessly on this situation for quite some time. He is both preparing his students as teachers and creating an organizational structure and foundation for the Tibetan Dzogchen Lineage to survive. “We do not want our Lineage to go extinct,” we would often say.
We have spent many years authentically and completely translating the Teachings of Buddha into English. Additionally, our Teacher is putting great effort into creating the next generation of teachers for The Dzogchen Lineage. And lastly, Dzogchen Khenpo Choga Rinpoche is spending a great deal of time with his senior students and teachers creating an organizational structure to ensure the Dzogchen Lineage he is teaching is stable and lives for lifetimes after his death. He has even put great effort into deeply and extensively learning the English language to help support this cause. Though my teacher is working diligently to bring and stabilize Buddhism in America he is very sincere in not “watering-it-down,” or changing any teachings to fit our culture.
Our teacher has put great effort into teaching us the authentic Dzogchen Lineage clearly and concisely. All too often we would not be allowed to move forward into more advanced ceremonies if we are unclear or uncertain. Or if we do not offer the ceremony properly we will do it again until we do it right.
We see the situation of Lineages being in danger of becoming lost or even “extinct.” We are aware of the changing times of Buddhism in America. We see the need for deeply structured Buddhist organizations and the need for a formalized system for authentically educating teachers. I am deeply grateful for my Teacher, our Sangha, and our Lineage in taking the steps my Teacher feels necessary in response to the current state of Tibetan Buddhism here in America by stabilizing our organizational structure and teaching system.”
 Interview on this topic directly to Venerable Zasep Tulku Rinpoche, January 8, 2016.
 Buddhadharma, Winter 2015, “The Road Ahead” Gen X Teachers from across traditions are transforming the vision and landscape of American Buddhism.”
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Author | Buddha Weekly
Lee Kane is the editor of Buddha Weekly, since 2007. His main focuses as a writer are mindfulness techniques, meditation, Dharma and Sutra commentaries, Buddhist practices, international perspectives and traditions, Vajrayana, Mahayana, Zen. He also covers various events.
Lee also contributes as a writer to various other online magazines and blogs.