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Teaching Buddhism in American Universities — A Conversation with Professor Bogin

Buddhism can bring you real happiness and much more. What is the actual goal of Buddhism? How has Buddhism developed in history? The conversation between a professor of modern western mind, Professor Benjamin Bogin, and a professor of traditional Buddhist wisdom, Khenpo Sodargye, unveils the inexhaustible treasure of Buddhism and its sensible theory and practices.


“Although it is a tremendous value that one may choose to learn more about Buddhism during college, whether one chooses to believe in Buddhism or not, one must understand that Buddhism itself is a science of the mind, as well as a profound enlightenment for people’s minds.”

Main Part of Conversation

The Actual Goal of Buddhism

The Actual Goal of Buddhism

Professor Bogin: First, I’d like to say what an honor and a pleasure it is for Georgetown University to welcome Khenpo Rinpoche to join us for a discussion about the study and spread of Buddhism in the West. I’m fully in admiration of all of Khenpo’s work at the Larung Gar Academy, and hope that this can be the beginning of a fruitful collaboration between Georgetown University and Larung Gar.

Yesterday evening Rinpoche spoke about Buddhism in terms of the Tibetan Code of Happiness. These days in the West, however, there are a diverse range of activities that offer people happiness: one can take a yoga class, or meet with a psychotherapist, or one can even take antidepressant pills to maintain the illusion of happiness. That brings me to my first concern, as Buddhism spreads to the West, it is commonly taught as primarily a method for gaining happiness. This perception, however, may ultimately lead to confusion about the actual goal of the Dharma, in which case, rather than new students in the West understanding the Dharma to be a philosophy for attaining buddhahood and the alleviation of the suffering of all beings, it is being instead interpreted as yet another Bohemian method for quickly attaining a superficial sense of happiness. So, I want to raise this issue before Rinpoche and ask for your insight.

Khenpo Sodargye: Here is my thinking. Nowadays the trend is that Buddhism is spreading in both the West and the East. What you described, however, does not actually seem really like a characteristic worry or concern. In most Western countries, it is of course true that newcomers tend to see Buddhism as a means to ease their personal difficulties or suffering, like the proliferation of “get well quick” antidepressant pills you alluded to. This superficial learning process can nevertheless be their initial gateway into the Buddhist teachings, and so, in that sense, it is not necessarily a detrimental notion.

Essentially, if they are able to systematically continue Dharma study and persistently devote themselves to Dharma practice, they will gradually gain the understanding of the vast and profound realm of the true Dharma and appreciate its superior logic and precepts. They will then realize that the Dharma cannot only free them from temporal difficulties or sufferings, but also guarantee them positive outcomes for this life and the next life, and ultimately bring them into the sphere of omniscient buddhahood.

In general, the concept of attaining buddhahood, or having positive karmic attainment in the afterlife, is somewhat too religious for most Western beginners, and as such is not so readily accessible. Thus, it’s better to introduce beginners to some of the more entry-level teachings. Having said that, it can also be said that learning Buddhism is undoubtedly a prolonged, but fruitful, process.

I have been teaching Buddhism to Han Chinese students for more than 20 years. At first, I observed that they were just curious, and didn’t know much about Buddhism. Then after a period of learning, some of them actually developed bodhicitta for the purpose of attaining ultimate enlightenment, rather than just for temporary or immediate benefits. Those who began to appreciate what they were delving into actually tended to aspire to higher realization. So, it must be stated that this is not a short-term process; indeed, it’s a long-term project for us as much as it is for a tree to flourish into wizened trunks and branches. Initially, most Han Chinese sought empowerment for the purpose of becoming wealthier or other mundane physical requirements. And now the Westerners you speak of may be in a similar predicament. However, I believe that through following a systematic study of the Dharma such motivations can, in fact, be gradually changed and brought closer to the ideal concept of true spiritual aspiration.

The History of the Three Vehicles

Professor Bogin: Maybe we can shift from the popularizing and the teaching of Buddhism more broadly, to the academic study of Buddhism. For example, I teach a course called Introduction to Buddhism, in which I present a survey of the history of Buddhism and the foundations of Buddhist thought, similar to the way it is taught in most American universities. We teach students that there’s a foundational period in the development of Buddhism, of which probably the closest representation is in the Pali Tripitaka. Then, at a later time, there’s the development of the Mahayana sutra tradition. Then, even later, there’s the first appearance of tantra in India. This historical way of understanding the development of Buddhist literature and practice through these different stages is really central to the way that we teach and think about Buddhism.

In a traditional context, however, it is understood that all of these three vehicles were taught at the same time. I wonder if Rinpoche has any thoughts about how a modern scholar of Buddhism, who takes into account the development of Buddhism in relation to the different types of Buddhist texts over time, can find a way to understand the fundamental harmony within traditional Buddhist teachings, and consider all of these texts as authentic teachings of the Buddha?

Khenpo Sodargye: Regarding this question, we can say that at the ultimate level, the Buddha never taught any Dharma, yet on the conventional level, he manifested in different ways in front of different people. Such manifestations may even be different for people in the same historical period.

We know that Shakyamuni Buddha set the Dharma wheels in motion one by one, and this is accepted in all vehicles. So, when we explain the development of the Dharma from the point of view of all vehicles, we need to do so with the notion of linear time. On the other hand, however, the Buddha shows specific manifestations for uncommon vehicles in which the teachings were kept secret within the ranks of disciples of specific capacities.

People generally accept that the Buddha taught the Theravada teachings first, then the Mahayana teachings, and lastly the Vajrayana teachings, such as the Kalachakra, the Sutra of the Condensed Meaning, and many other supreme tantras. His Holiness Dudjom Rinpoche composed the history of Buddhism in his book, The Nyingma School of Tibetan Buddhism, Its Fundamentals and History, in which he first explained the meaning of the twelve enlightened deeds of the Buddha, and then introduced the Six Ornaments and Two Sacred Supremes, and then focused on how the Buddha’s teachings spread and developed in India, and later how the Vajrayana teachings were brought to and flourished in Tibet. In the Vajrayana portion, Dudjom Rinpoche specifically discusses the kama and terma in a separate way.

Mr. Liu Ruizhi, for instance, translated this book into Chinese before, yet it’s transcribed mostly in the ancient classical language, and today most Chinese people might actually find it difficult to understand its context. As a result, I have spent over five years translating it again into a more modern language which has then been published by the Tibetan Ancient Books Publishing House. Hopefully this version is easier to understand for most modern people. In my translation, I also included times and dates corresponding to the universal calendar. As we can see, without these dates and years, it would be difficult for modern scholars to validate the corresponding history.

I believe that if one really wants to understand the history of Tibetan Buddhism or any of other Buddhist traditions originating from India, it may be of great help to study this book. My goal was to objectively provide solid evidence of the evolution of Buddhism. And briefly speaking, as a manifestation in front of ordinary human beings, the Buddha taught the Dharma gradually, rather than simultaneously. However, from an esoteric point of view, we can still say that all the teachings were disseminated spontaneously and simultaneously.

Professor Bogin: If we put aside the esoteric tradition, and merely look at the Mahayana tradition, in many of the Mahayana sutras, it says Shakyamuni Buddha was residing at places such as Vulture Peak and giving these same Mahayana teachings and texts which are presented as the teachings of Shakyamuni Buddha. We can date that historically at around 500 BC, but we have no record of these texts until many centuries later. So most scholars now think that these Mahayana sutras were written by someone else much later, around the period of the 1st century BC or the 1st century AD. There have been very thorough studies, for example, of the study of the Perfection of Wisdom Sutras of varying lengths to determine which one is earlier or later. So with some precision, we can actually date when this text first appeared, which is very different from what’s said in the text that was known to have been taught by Shakyamuni Buddha at that place many centuries earlier. So, on this exoterical level, I wonder how we can ultimately solve that contradiction.

Khenpo Sodargye: First of all, we do have some really clear histories of Buddhism. For instance, we generally accept that Shakyamuni Buddha appeared in this world about 2556 years ago. But there are still some arguments about the exact time of his arrival. In fact, this is so not only in reference to the history of Shakyamni Buddha, but it’s also unknown exactly when Jesus Christ’s appeared, and Confucius as well. In short, there seem to be contradictions and disagreements involving many historical figures; this appears to be quite a common phenomenon.

In Buddhist history, when the Buddha gave teachings, no literal recordings were made. Only after three Buddhist Councils were the Buddha’s teachings preserved literally. When we study sutras, we will notice that, “Thus have I heard at one time,” always comes first. There are no actual years, months or dates in sutras. Why? Because in the Mahayana teachings, “at one time” indicates that the teaching is going to be filtered through different perceptions and chronological points of reference relative for eras of varying students.

This is not something that modern people can easily accept. Yet from a historical point of view, we can more readily believe that the Buddha indeed gave such teachings during his lifetime. This is somehow similar to the biographical writings of renowned people. As long as he or she once said something, these words can be included in his or her biography, often without any doubts from the reader. Thus, in the same way, as the Buddha required that his teachings should be well preserved, the arhats and other followers gathered all his words and teachings and recorded them literally. What the Buddha taught was preserved without any alteration or loss. Even in this day and age, the Buddha’s teachings can still be validated through any investigation or analysis.

Some claim that the three Buddhist Councils were finished within 300–700 years after the Buddha’s parinirvana, but I would speculate these gatherings might have happened earlier than that. Although we don’t have the actual time or date of the gathering of these councils, as a matter of fact, historically this kind of phenomenon was rather common. The Christian Bible, for example, has no exact time and date for when it made its debut. However, Christian brothers and sisters still practice it without a speck of doubt and consider it to be the only authentic teaching from God.

Initially, most Han Chinese sought empowerment for the purpose of becoming wealthier or other mundane physical requirements. And now the Westerners you speak of may be in a similar predicament. However, I believe that through following a systematic study of the Dharma such motivations can, in fact, be gradually changed and brought closer to the ideal concept of true spiritual aspiration.

Buddhism and College Students: a Comparison Between China and Abroad

If I Were a Student at Georgetown University

Professor Bogin: So Khenpo Rinpoche, being 20 years since your last visit to Washington D.C., I wonder what your current impressions are of visiting Washington and meeting with professors and students at George Washington University and Georgetown University?

Khenpo Sodargye: True, it’s been 20 years since last time I visited Washington D.C., and in fact yesterday I visited George Washington University and of course today I’m here at Georgetown University. First of all, I can say that I am thoroughly enjoying the beautiful campus and am positively delighted to have the opportunity to talk with avid and open-minded professors and students.

Firstly, I’m happy to see that many people in American universities are interested in the study and practice of Tibetan Buddhism. Secondly, as science has more recently become even more highly developed, it has become more necessary to exchange ideas between the modern mind and ancient Buddhist wisdom in order to maintain a balance and link to our past before the future of technology consumes us. As for myself, I’ve had the opportunity to converse with many professors and they have kindly helped enrich my thirst for knowledge and understanding of the modern technologically-evolving world which is changing daily at an exponential pace that even I’m hard pressed to keep tabs on. So I must express my gratitude and elation.

Professor Bogin: If you were a student here at Georgetown University, what kinds of classes would you be interested in taking? What field of study might you major in?

Khenpo Sodargye: When I was very young, after my middle school years, I went to a normal school and intended to be a teacher. So if I studied here, I would likely major in teaching subjects that are related to Buddha Dharma and other types of philosophy. If there existed or exists a subject wherein the study can benefit not only groups of people, but all human beings, and promote their inner value, I would major in it.

Buddhism and College Students: a Comparison Between China and Abroad

Professor Bogin: I know that you have visited and spoken at many of the most prestigious universities in China. And as you say, the world is becoming more and more interconnected. With that in mind, I wonder in what ways you view similar concerns in the present day between the American universities you’ve been able to visit and corresponding universities in China. And from your personal perspective, what differences generally exist between them?

Khenpo Sodargye: Yes, I have visited many universities in China. Talking about the viewpoint or the mindset of Chinese college students, I think they are quite influenced by their professors and their university curriculums, but diversity does, nevertheless, still exist among different schools in China so it’s difficult to say for certain what the differences may be other than culture and language. So generally I don’t think there is a big difference between universities in China and in the U.S. But this is my first time visiting American universities, and I just started my trip yesterday, so I cannot honestly answer this adequately.

Though I had been here for about three months many years ago, and learned a little about the western mind, in terms of western universities, I’m not sure if the academic world has gained a level of consistency with the notion of western ideology in general. Speaking overall, as a matter of fact, either in the East or the West, it is obvious that many professors and students have discovered, surprisingly, that Buddhism enriches and benefits their minds through the process of practice as much as it does through the attainment of knowledge. So if we carry on more studious dialogues on Buddhism in the academic world, I imagine that there would be tremendous spiritual gains as well.

Professor Bogin: Many of my students here don’t specialize in Buddhist studies as their primary field of study, and seldom go on to study Buddhism at a more advanced level. But many of them feel that studying Buddhism will help empower them in whatever field they pursue, such as law, politics, business, science, or any other academic study. I therefore wonder, from your perspective, what kind of benefits studying Buddhism might offer these students who won’t practice Buddhism necessarily, and won’t pursue it in so far as they would other areas of their life?

Khenpo Sodargye: College study is a big turning point in people’s lives in the way that college education has influential impacts on people’s thoughts. So although it is a tremendous value that one may choose to learn more about Buddhism during this period, whether one chooses to believe in Buddhism or not, one must understand that Buddhism itself is a science of the mind, as well as a profound enlightenment for people’s minds. For instance, Buddhism teaches people to be kind and altruistic, which is not necessarily a religious topic, but more so to do with moral ethics and relevant discipline that applies to everyone.

Meanwhile, no matter whether or not one believes in Buddhism, it is important that one has an objective and an open-minded attitude towards Buddhism, regardless of what career he or she will choose in the future. There are some westerners or easterners who know little about Buddhism but who are immediately ready to refute it. Even for some neophyte Buddhists, they don’t take the notion of religion as a belief system seriously and refuse to engage themselves in systematic study and practice of the Dharma in the way that it is authentically taught. I think for non-Buddhists it is important that they don’t have a lot of resistance but try to keep an open mind towards Buddhism just as they do about the darkness of outer space and staring at distant stars and universes they may not completely understand.

As I’ve visited many Chinese universities, I notice that many of these universities set up meditation classes, which is fundamentally of great importance on many levels. As a matter of fact, in both eastern and western school systems, it is known that students are mainly influenced by their teachers, and in this way teachers are more readily able to shape their students’ minds with knowledge and shared wisdom. So if teachers have an objective attitude towards Buddhism, they can then actively influence their students and mold their receptivity so that when students enter college and more formative study, they are far more accepting of corresponding Buddhist thought, as it is then essentially a less foreign concept.

I think for non-Buddhists it is important that they don’t have a lot of resistance but try to keep an open mind towards Buddhism just as they do about the darkness of outer space and staring at distant stars and universes they may not completely understand.

Do You Accept Reincarnation?

Passion for Studying Tibetan Buddhism

Khenpo Sodargye: I know that you’ve been studying Tibetan Buddhism for a very long time and you also speak Tibetan very well. I am very touched by this. Yet I wonder why you are so intrigued and seek to learn and practice Tibetan Buddhism. And, in fact, I asked the same question of Professor Aviv yesterday. Before you answer, I will interject that, sadly, I have observed a contradiction of interest among some Tibetan scholars who believe that studying Tibetan Buddhism and Tibetan culture in the context of today’s modern world serves no real purpose or value, and as a result they have begun to abandon their traditions. Therefore, I have made it a goal to reintroduce Buddhism to contemporary Tibetans within the framework of ideologies they might relate to. So back to my initial question: Why are you, as a westerner, studying Tibetan Buddhism and how do you feel such study and practice has benefited your life?

Professor Bogin: Objectively speaking, I think there are as many different motivations for studying Tibetan Buddhism as there are different people who study it. Within those groups, if we generalize to a degree, I think there are some people who at least are initially drawn to the practice of Tibetan Buddhism through the encounters with one of the many teachers who teach or have taught in the West; and through their interest in the practice of Tibetan Buddhism, they have then found themselves drawn into further study, perhaps to learn the language better, or to develop a more sophisticated understanding of the Tibetan Buddhist tradition. So one of the primary initial starting points for many people is their own practice, their interest in practice.

And I would say a secondary general area of motivation for many people is having a sense that Tibet has a very rich and valuable cultural tradition. Through the dramatic changes in Tibetan culture throughout the 20th century, some of those traditions are becoming endangered. So there is an innate desire to help preserve that culture as it undergoes all of these very dramatic changes and the perceived detriment of the people within that culture. So I think most people who may or may not know anything about Buddhism are motivated by a sense of participating in an attempt to help preserve some of these things before they are lost forever.

And then perhaps a third and final area concerns those people who are very intelligent and mostly motivated by finding a field of study that will not be easily exhausted by a lack of questions to be answered and in which they won’t readily lose interest. So many other subjects that we study have had thorough studies done and hence are limited in what can be newly discovered. If you want to study Shakespeare, you can find lots of books covering every play that Shakespeare wrote. However, when we look at Tibetan literature, there are thousands and thousands of texts that have never been translated and that people outside of Tibet have not yet studied. It seems that the treasury of material yet to be studied is still vast, deep and profound enough, so that people who are drawn into this field find it still so inexhaustible that they could explore just a fraction of it for at least one academic career, or many lifetimes without even feeling that they’ve learned enough.

Then, personally, from my own perspective, I was very fortunate that my mother’s elder brother was someone who became a student of the Surmang Trungpa Tulku here in the United States and had a very close relationship with him. When I was a child, I would hear stories about my uncle and his guru, which was very different from anything else in my world. I became really fascinated by those stories and always tried to imagine what this person must be like.

Then, when I became older, I started to read books that students of Trungpa Rinpoche had published from his teachings, and for everything that I read, the more I thought about it, the more it made sense to me, more so than anything else that I had read before. In one sense I was inspired to learn more because the need to solve the puzzle was simply too alluring.

When I was a college student, there was a period in my life when I was very confused about what I wanted to study; I ended up being very fortunate to participate in a study abroad program, spending one semester immersed in Tibetan studies, in which I traveled and lived with a Tibetan family in India, started to learn how to speak Tibetan, and began to really study Tibetan culture. From that point, what had initially been a curiosity became a fire within, and I was completely consumed with the desire to learn much more as my questions increased exponentially. Again, I glimpsed the vastness of the Tibetan Buddhist tradition and Tibetan culture as a whole and found it to be akin to the vastness of outer space and inner space. That was what motivated me and I really wanted to study the language to be able to learn more, to read texts and to speak with the teachers. So that was my motivation. More than the pursuit of academia as career, it was the means to be able to learn more about a subject I was thoroughly in love with. Then after a number of years, I found my professional qualifications were either to teach Buddhism to university students or to wash dishes in a restaurant. I really didn’t have any other qualifications. So of those two, teaching seemed a much better livelihood, and also more satisfying to my mind and soul. I suppose it wasn’t a very difficult decision to make.

Do You Accept Reincarnation?

Khenpo Sodargye: I realize when it comes to the study of Dharma, there are many diverse motivations that people bring with them; yet, if a person wants to study and practice Buddhism authentically or genuinely, there comes a point that one has to accept the truth of reincarnation. However, genuine faith in reincarnation is based on thorough investigation and analyzing what we learn about the Dharma. Undoubtedly you do believe in reincarnation as a Dharma practitioner, yet from the perspective of a university professor, I am curious to know what reasons you personally have for asserting reincarnation as a valid truth?

Professor Bogin: This is a very interesting question. I think in a way there are two different questions within that that are important to distinguish. One is how do I effectively present and teach reincarnation in the classroom to students, and the other pertains to what my own belief about reincarnation might be. I think this is one area where teaching Buddhism in an academic setting is different from teaching Buddhism in a traditional setting. Personally, I’m not teaching my beliefs to the students. Instead, I try to present the tradition in a theoretical manner as accurately and completely as possible. So it is not the representation of my own beliefs, but rather what we find in the texts and practices of the traditions that we study. It’s important to distinguish those two.

In terms of teaching in the classroom, I try to explain to the students that it doesn’t matter if they believe in reincarnation or not, because it is irrelevant to what we do in the classroom. However, in order to understand Buddhist traditions, it’s necessary to be able to imagine a theoretical world in which reincarnation is true, in which it is a universally accepted fact. So one way that I try to help students who have difficulty imagining such a world is to point out the uncertain foundations of their own beliefs about the world around them, like how every day we accept the reality of that which we don’t fully understand. For example, students use mobile phones all the time yet they don’t really understand the science of how that works. They couldn’t open it up and take it apart and put it together again. They probably could not explain with any precision exactly what happens when they dial their friend’s number and call someone. So they don’t really know how that works yet they use it all the time and don’t have doubts about it.

Likewise, historically, for many Buddhists throughout the world, they might not know every detail about the Abhidharma theory of how reincarnation exactly works; they may not have great certainty about that, but without any hesitation, they accept it as a fact of their existence and of the world around them. So I try to use different methodologies to compel students to reflect on their own assumptions in order to understand that, in Buddhist cultures and traditions, the acceptance of reincarnation is not necessarily the same as discovering a scholastic or scientific proof of reincarnation. In fact, although we label many things in science, how many do we fully understand? For most Buddhists throughout history, accepting reincarnation is much more important in the pragmatic day-to-day sense than in any theoretical way.

Khenpo Sodargye: It’s not hard to scientifically prove reincarnation and I’ve actually been doing quite a bit of research in this area.

Professor Bogin: From my perspective, regarding the concerted belief in reincarnation, maybe Khenpo Rinpoche can correct my shallow understanding of Buddhism. I often believe that reincarnation is a conventional truth, and not an ultimate truth. All of these lives, births, rebirths and deaths are a kind of illusory play in some way.

However, the decision to choose to believe in reincarnation has a pragmatic point at its core, because it creates the foundation for decisions about conduct. For me the key point is the belief that actions have consequences that must be grounded in the notion of reincarnation, and it therefore does not matter whether there’s scientific proof or not. I know Khenpo Rinpoche feels strongly about the scientific evidence, but for me, what’s more important is whether the belief in reincarnation leads to more compassionate conduct and less suffering for beings. If the answer is yes, then I accept that belief on a conventional level. That’s my sense and sensibility on this topic.

In Buddhist history, when the Buddha gave teachings, no literal recordings were made. Only after three Buddhist Councils were the Buddha’s teachings preserved literally. When we study sutras, we will notice that, “Thus have I heard at one time,” always comes first. There are no actual years, months or dates in sutras. Why? Because in the Mahayana teachings, “at one time” indicates that the teaching is going to be filtered through different perceptions and chronological points of reference relative for eras of varying students.