“Not instant soup!”: Negotiating belief in a Tibetan Buddhist forum by Maria Sharapan

From Buddhism and Australia
Jump to: navigation, search

“Not instant soup!”: Negotiating belief in a Tibetan Buddhist forum
Maria Sharapan, MA,
Department of Languages and Communication,
University of Jyväskylä, Finland

The 20th and 21st centuries have brought an unprecedented dialogue and spread of Buddhism beyond Asia. The modern Western Buddhism is largely a fruit of collaboration between Western intellectuals on the one hand, and Asian modernists on the either. Therefore, the understanding of how Buddhism is re-envisioned in the West is largely formed by the adaptations of Theravada and Chan/Zen, and not as much of Tibetan Buddhism. McMahan (2008) speaks of the key features of the Buddhist Modernism, which are: privatization, detraditionalization, demythologization, and psychologization. Tibetan Buddhism is often expected to follow similar trends, often regardless of its different nature and scope. However, looking at how it is negotiated by teachers and students within an education program demonstrates the persistence of some traditional factors, such as authority, lineage, community, and faith. It also reveals a strategy, with the help of which the traditional scope of Tibetan Buddhism becomes recontextualized in the lives of its non-Tibetan followers. In this paper I am going to describe how the process of gradual indoctrination and recontextualization is reflected on a Tibetan Buddhist forum.

Empirical data

To obtain a holistic insight into what the 21th century global Tibetan Buddhism looks like, I approached a big and well-established organization transmitting the religion in the West, known as FPMT (Foundation for the Preservation of the Mahayana Tradition). The organization was created by two Tibetan lamas of the Gelug tradition in the 1970s, and was largely formed by their efforts and those of their disciples. Nowadays, FPMT has 161 centers around the world, a publishing agency, a magazine, an online store, numerous charitable projects, as well as educational programs, guiding people of all levels into Tibetan Buddhism, onsite and online. I looked into the closed forum discussion for students of one of the programs, which is Discovering Buddhism. The program is aimed at the people who are starting to take interest in Buddhism, but not complete beginners, since it requires some commitment and many topics in it can be quite advanced for an average Western Buddhist. The program's forum is a safe space where students of the program can communicate, exchange impressions and questions, and receive the guidance of Elders, who are also non-heritage Tibetan Buddhists, who have accomplished FPMT educational programs and often function as teachers in the Modules. The forum has been open since 2009, and I looked through every thread to incorporate the content of almost 1000 discussion threads into a table, stretching over 200 pages. I looked at the questions and issues that come up in discussions, not only in terms of what people say, but also of how their way of thinking manifests through their messages, and what practices and actions they report to engage in.

Among the methods of working with human subjects forums offer certain advantages to a researcher. Forum discussions are naturally occurring large data-sets, in which people may openly share some issues of their immediate concern that they would not necessarily share with someone face to face (Hayes, 1999). On ethical level, the issues of anonymity and acceptance are very important to keep in mind, so my access to the forum was first negotiated with the administration of the Online Learning Center, and no real names were used in the presentation of results. Whenever I needed to quote some post verbatim, I contacted its author to obtain permission to use those particular words. I mostly received positive and encouraging answers, some people even suggested I can use any of their posts, but some people never answered, and in these cases I had to use a paraphrased quote.

”Jigsaw puzzle” conversion

Unlike many world religions Buddhism does not have a distinct ritual of conversion. Some people claim one can be called a Buddhist after formally taking refuge in the Buddha, Dharma, Sangha, but studies have shown that it is not as straightforward as it sounds. The process of ”conversion” into Buddhism demonstrates to be not just an identity switch, but a gradual process of internalizing the Buddhist tenets in relation to one's life (Eddy, 2007). Non-heritage Buddhists can display very different types of commitment, and in fact, avoid labeling themselves as Buddhists, even despite having engaged in a lot of Buddhist practice (Danilyuk, 2003).

Conversion in the context of 21st century is more likely to be a process of gradual indoctrination, negotiation and internalization of Buddhism. The strategy of becoming Buddhist is reflected in the comment of one of the Elders: ”It is particularly relevant to our spiritual journey to take it one step at a time. The path to enlightenment is not ‘instant soup!'” The graded path to enlightenment is characteristic of Tibetan Buddhism in general, but especially of the Gelug tradition, which largely relies on the Lamrim text written by the founder of the sect, Je Tsonkhapa (Lamrim Chenmo, ”The Great Treatise on the Stages of the Path to Enlightenment”). Gradual understanding and practice seems to be a good solution to many students in Tibetan Buddhism. Forum users occasionally come up with pressing questions on philosophy, or encountering a seeming contradiction. Their inquiry is met with explanations from the forum Elders, as well as other students, accompanied by a re-assurement that difficult points will naturally become clearer when the student progresses in understanding the Buddhist doctrine. Dharma is often compared to a jigsaw puzzle that a learner has to collect. At first, many pieces seem odd, but as one takes the easy pieces and keeps the rest aside, the picture gradually becomes more and more clear, which allows to fit in the odd pieces better. This way the issues of near interest, be it ethical precepts or calm abiding meditation can be benefited from without accepting all other tenets, which may feel uncomfortable, such as deities and hell realms. Of course, being a religion Buddhism does not promise that everything will become clear by explanation and rational analysis. There are types of phenomena, which only Buddhas can congnize in their full richness, and such phenomena can be as basic as karma. In this way, a student is encouraged to be collecting the jigsaw puzzle with the help of their study, and also practice, because the only way to collect the whole of the picture of the Buddha Dharma is to attain full and complete enlightenment.

However, the gradual progress students make in their understanding can be evident on the forum. Not being enlightened, one is not expected to have an absolute conviction in any of the tenets, but instead see them as a working hypothesis. After some familiarization members of the forum display a change in their beliefs towards the Buddhist version, for example one man developed a whole strategy for overcoming a materialistic view of consciousness, which he had held before learning Buddhism: ”Now, my former view on reality, which was completely nihilistic, seems so improbable and lacking several explanations, while the ideas of no-self, and an ongoing but ever changing consciousness grow more and more real in my mind”. Another man shares how he overcame the belief in creator-God he was brought up with: ”I just started learning about Buddhism a while ago, I listened to some teachings a few years ago, and I definitely don't belive in God and creation any more”. The change in worldview can be a result of personal effort, but it can also happen quite spontaneously after a while: ”A light went on and suddenly reincarnation made a lot more sense to me. While I sat alone at lunch time today I thought about it some more and again reasoning out reincarnation seemed much more realistic.”

In general, a natural belief in transphenomenal concepts of Buddhism, such as rebirth, karma and enlightenment, is much more common than confusion about them. The questions users ask on those phenomena mostly refer to the details, not to the very plausibility of karma, rebirth and enlightenment. Some people demonstrate having had a belief in reincarnation prior to becoming Buddhist, as well as developing it from other sources, including their own experience and reasoning. One student refered to a study done at the Univeristy of Virginia: ”Some exhaustive research has been done by Dr. Ian Stevensen (very mainstream, not a quack) in which he collected about 20 cases of purported rebirth that had excellent evidence and were not explicable on any other grounds”. The forum data confirms and fortifies the data collected among students of an FPMT group in Sydney, Australia, (Eddy, 2013), demonstrating that karma and reincarnation are internalized with relative ease in case they are well-explained within the whole of Buddhist doctrine. This forms a real challenge to proponents of the so-called secular Buddhism, claiming that reincarnation and karma should not be taught as part of Buddhist doctrine.

Another approach to the ”difficult” pieces can be instrumentalization. The positions of Buddhist philosophy and the words of the Buddha, which form a clash with the student's worldview, can be seen as ”skillful means”. The idea of presenting a certain thesis, for example, that all beings have been our mothers in the past lives, is not to educate us informationally, but to create a certain state of mind, in this case to arouse loving kindness, compassion, gratitude and a resolve to bring them to enlightenment. One of the students offers his understanding: ”These concepts are "skillful means". They are leading us in the direction/path we should take. The concept is to develop Compassion for all sentient beings. Hopefully we would have much compassion for our mother. The literal gets us nowhere.”

Finally, learning something new presupposes certain contrast to what we have known and believed in before, and the clash between the two can therefore be celebrated as a learning result. One of the Elders offered a quote from Pabongka Rinpoche's book, which is one of his favourite quotes: ”They say you will get nothing out of the path if you only practice the portions that seem plausible to you” (Pabongka, 1997, p.203), adding: ”We're learning something new and, by most accounts, counter-intuitive. There is bound to be some grinding of gears. You need faith to persevere”. The word faith in religious discourse is often charged with connotations that not all people feel comfortable with. However, the concept of faith in the Buddhist context is discussed in the forum to mean rather a feeling of trust and confidence that inspires one to practice and achieve the results, and by no means does it stand for the blind irrational faith, often associated with Abrahamic religions. This feeling is also connected with the attitude of humble open-mindedness, which is much more common in the messages, than I could imagine.

On the level of practices people engage, it may be expected that formal, external and ritualistic aspects of the religion would cause some discomfort. But the bulk of the forum data does not suggest this. People are attracted to the program by different aspects of Buddhism, not only mediation, or philosophy, but also ethical code, chanting, art and architecture, charismatic personalities, or the atmosphere. As they are educated into the philosophical tenets of Buddhism, they are also encouraged to immediately start putting Buddhism to practice. This would mean changing one's lifestyle and behaviour in favour of more ethical ways, which can become a strong social challenge when it comes to an insect or rodent invasion of one's family home. Many people ask questions on ethical treatment of animals, which can be their half-paralysed dog, or a horde of sand fleas. Students establish a small Shangri-la at their homes, share pictures of pilgrimage journeys, and commit to preliminary prostration practice. The questions about engaging in practices, like 100,000 prostrations, rituals, establishing altar, or following the Buddhist etiquette, are not asked in the manner of why do it?, but rather how to do it right?

Tradition and community

The features of Buddhist modernism, such as privatization and detraditionalization are not manifest in the forum data. Although an online or home study education program provides private conditions for study, and does not impose any authority, both community and tradition are strongly present in the discourses. Users are grateful to the online modules, the forum community, which offers peer support, help and clarification, and companionship in practice, but most active users, who praise the online affordances also admit that they live far away from any Tibetan Buddhist centers they trust, or have other issues in connecting with a real-time community, such as a physical disability or unsociability. The desire to find a real-time community is voiced very often, as well as a need for a real-time teacher, whom students can approach. Traditionally the role of the teacher is presented as crucial in Tibetan Buddhism, and the Elders and module teachers are not encouraged to be seen as such, this may be seen as creating a need, which cannot be satisfied online.

The importance of authority is manifested in the students' respect for FPMT teachers, His Holiness the Dalai Lama, and Western teachers in the Gelug tradition as the key measure of authenticity. On the one hand, other lineages of Tibetan Buddhism are spoken of in a respectful and non-sectarian tone, and so are other traditions of Buddhism, be it Zen or Theravada, and mostly, even other religions and scientific disciplines. One the other hand, most explanatory references are given to sources within FPMT, gelugpa texts, the words of His Holiness the Dalai Lama, or established Western teachers, affiliated with those. To Elders and students, loyalty to the lineage appears to be not a matter of group labels, but rather that of trust and conceptual consistency. In fact, the only Buddhist formation that arouses apprehension among the users is the NKT (New Kadampa Tradition), another Gelug organization popular among non-hereditary followers, which detatched itself from the rest of Tibetan Buddhism on the issue of worshiping Dorje Shugden spirit, discouraged by the Dalai Lama. However, even in this case, not all people adopt a hostile attitude towards the group: ”I've been very fortunate to have access to teachings and a very kind sangha for the past year. I think perhaps down at the grassroots level, people are not nearly as fanatical as the publicity makes it appear”, one FPMT student confesses.

Shaping Buddhist postmodernism

Despite the trends of Buddhist modernism being still rather visible in the mediatized Western Buddhism, the FPMT forum discussions reveal a shift towards Buddhist postmodernism. McMahan (2008) names retraditionalization among its marks, and indeed, the kind of Buddhism negotiated in the forum discussions appears to be grounded in tradition and lineage. The virtual space and online communication may be enhancing factors, since they open wide opportunities for trying on a different lens. Gleig (2014) in her study of the online movement of Buddhist Geeks mentions the embrace of technology as another mark of postmodernism. Online communication and technology is not juxtaposed to spirituality, but rather employed to enhance it and to make it accessible to everyone. Unlike the ecumenical Buddhist Geeks, who ”hack Buddhism” (Gleig, p. 19) by transcending the borders of lineages, histories, politics and traditions, the FPMT online learning center maintains loyalty to a tradition. This seeming contradiction is another mark of postmodernism, which embraces converging trends without imposing a one-fits-all frame.

This result is achieved through negotiating Buddhism in a way, which would allow to focus on the aspects of immediate relevance, while putting difficult issues aside. Humble open-mindedness, practical application, and trust to the generations of practitioners, who walked the same path, brings about a gradual internalization of Buddhist tenets. Relying on the tradition and re-establishing Tibetan Buddhist elements in their own life, does not make the non-Tibetan students Tibetan. Instead, it simply shows the relevance of a reliable, well-tread path with distinct historical origins in forming the spirituality of modern Americans, Europeans, Australians, Asians, and others, who benefit from the FPMT programs.

Due to unprecedented population growth, literacy rate and spread of online media, as well as individual freedoms, this generation of global Buddhists might be the most numerous, educated, diverse and epistemologically sophisticated in the observable history of Buddhism. Speaking of a unified version of Buddhism in this environment would, perhaps, be absurd. Instead, we can witness a wide spectrum of manifestations, including traditional forms and practices being recontextualized on the level of individuals willing to discover their meanings and make them personal.


  • Danilyuk, A. (2003). To be or not to be. Buddhist Selves in Toronto. Contemporary Buddhism, 4(2), 127-142.
  • Eddy, G. (2013). How affiliates of an Australian FPMT centre come to accept the Concepts of karma, rebirth and Merit-making. Contemporary Buddhism, 14(2), 204-220.
  • Gleig, A. (2014). From Buddhist hippies to Buddhist geeks. The Emergence of Buddhist Postmodernism? Journal of Global Buddhism, 15, 15-33.
  • Hayes, R. P. (1999). The internet as window onto American Buddhism. In D. R. Williams, & C. S. Queen (Eds.), American Buddhism: Methods and findings in recent scholarship (pp. 168-179). Cornwall: Curzon Press.
  • McMahan, D. L. (2008). The making of the Buddhist modernism. Oxford University Press. New York.
  • Pabongka, K. (1997). Liberation in the palm of your hand. A conscise discourse on the path to enlightenment. Ed. Trijang Rinpoche (M. Richards Trans.). Wisdom Publications.