Lama Ole Nydahl on 30 Years of Dharma Activity in the West
Buddhism Today: For 25 years, you have traveled all over the world as a Buddhist Lama and started Buddhist centers. Who empowered you to do this?
Ole Nydahl: The honor and privilege of doing this work was given to me in slices between the years of 1969 and 1980 by my teacher, the 16th Karmapa. Knowing that he could trust me completely, when he decided I had learned more, he increased my activity both geographically and what concerns the depth of the subjects. Above all, he wanted me to eventually teach the Great Seal, Mahamudra, Buddha’s highest view. Therefore he gave Hannah and me his direct transmission of this specialty of our lineage in Denmark, France and Sikkim. He also insisted that I learn the Phowa and at our last meeting before his death in Colorado, during the solstice in 1980, he very much deepened our responsibility. There he told Hannah and me to take care of the four young lineage holders. Later not all of them have enjoyed the way we did that, but it has been excellent for the honesty and pure transmission of our lineage. Probably the only one of his wishes I was not always able to fulfill was to teach in the U.S. twice a year. There were times when I could only come once.
BT: In the 1960s the 16th Karmapa had already sent some Tibetan Lamas like Trungpa, Akong, Chime Rinpoche etc. to teach in the West. What do you think was the purpose of sending you, a westerner?
ON: For years, Karmapa was under friendly but constant pressure from Gelongma Palmo, an English nun. She had a close bond to Indira Gandhi and due to her, the Indian government supported the Rumtek community. This nun wanted to transfer four young monks from her Tulku-school in the Western Himalayas to the West. Karmapa voiced his misgivings about the idea several times, saying that they were much too young, but in the end he gave in. When we chatted with him about them later, he only felt good about the Buddhist example given by the one you don’t mention, Ato Tulku in England. What concerned the others, he was disturbed by their alcoholism, power hunger and irrelevance, in that order.
It was probably also a far bet to send me, with my wild past and many clashes with police and authorities, but I was well educated and apparently nobody better was at hand. Also he knew I loved him so much that I would do everything he said. In addition there was not even a shadow of a doubt in Hannah’s and my minds as to what we had to do in this life, and he was too much of a yogi to want to stop such a rush of energy. Instead he guided us step by step and during the last years he often let us look over his shoulders and share in the way he made his decisions.
BT: What style have you been introducing in the west? What is ‘lay and yogi Buddhism’?
ON: Buddhism – and especially the Great Seal and Great Perfection teaching is like a diamond. Although transparent and indestructible, it at the same time reflects the color of what it is placed upon. It changed markedly in expression on its way from India to the neighboring countries, and also today Buddhism is finding forms which fit the educated and independent West. This does not mean that anything new is invented or added to the teachings. Europeans are acutely conscious of the superficiality, which results when mixing different cultures and traditions and I could never allow that. With 84,000 teachings to choose from it also isn’t necessary. It is simply a question of finding the key to benefit beings most, at the given time and place, and for the West today that clearly means the way of lay people and yogi accomplishers.
The way of renunciation is less attractive to modern people, who frequently see Western attempts of avoiding life’s fullness as a sign of weakness. When Tibetans do it, things are different. Robes are then experienced as a way of preserving their heritage. Doing things for the benefit of all, however, and observing one’s mind in every situation sounds like and will eventually develop into lots of fun. There are churches for the meek, Moslem prayer halls for the fanatics, Hindu Gurus for those who prefer their spirituality sweet and personal, and New Age seminars for those who do not discriminate. Where but in Buddhism, however, shall sharp and critical people find the same transparency and effectiveness in their practices as from their computer? Those who will only trust what they can analyze logically and are embarrassed by exotic lifestyles especially need us to be bright. We simply have to keep a level of mental freshness these people can identify with, because where else can they go? It is always a pity when people end up with Nihilism, political correctness or drugs because they cannot find a spiritual way they can trust.
BT: Why is it so important for you to establish a Western Buddhism?
ON: I want the exciting and attractive people who come to get proper tools for their development. They must find human examples, teachings and methods they can respect and use. It is an immense and constant job to keep Buddhism alive and close to life, to secure that it won’t disappear into a museum, once again seclude itself inside an ivory tower or otherwise become irrelevant.
BT: You and your wife Hannah were appointed as Lamas although you haven’t done a three-year retreat. You now appoint teachers who travel the world and support 200 growing centers. Is there a danger that the conveying of the Dharma will be diluted in the West?
ON: Hannah and I were recognized by Karmapa as lamas because of our former lives but we were also well-versed in different ideologies and had a lot of life experience. For 26 years after that, we have exclusively dealt with the Diamond Way and how it can best benefit the West. I have come to trust my lucky hand in recognizing and training competent future teachers and I sky dive with some and travel with others for weeks to check that they are solid and will let nobody down. Additionally, I make sure they learn as much as possible from traditional teachers like Kunzig Shamarpa and Lopon Tsechu Rinpoche. Everybody matures the most, however, through the human exchange in the centers. Nothing makes people independent faster than that. Thus idealism, close friendship and trust vividly complement the effective methods of the Diamond Way. Combined with exciting shared growth experiences during courses or the building up of groups – all under the view of the Great Seal, Mahamudra – they offer an unrivaled potential for both the teacher and the student. Thus the latter find that their strength and work develops broadly and well.
The raw human material has never been better than in our countries today. There were never more educated, critical and aware people – I have no doubt about that. On the basis of proper Buddhist knowledge, the repeated ‘resting in that which is aware’ during daily meditation is most effective. Spiced with courses and retreats, if possible, the Karma Kagyu way of lay and yogi accomplishers applies countless useful methods to benefit all. Ultimately Buddha’s teaching is nothing but healthy common sense, and that is expressed more convincingly by mastering life than by avoiding it.
BT: Many practices, like extensive Diamond Way rituals, Yidam practices, and the Six Doctrines of Naropa, cannot be learned very easily. How can one make sure that such things do not die out?
ON: All Tibet’s old knowledge must be preserved. This is what increasing number of idealists are now cooperating to do around the world. Each time a transmission dies out it is a great loss for humanity and supports the Communist Chinese goal of obliterating our kind of Buddhism. The entire ‘Way of Means’ of Naropa, however, requires long retreats. It is kept alive in appropriate centers but it is barely possible to integrate it in peoples’ daily lives. On top of that, some of it appeals only to a few while other teachings like the Phowa and some clear-light practices are important to very many. That is why we focus on the Guru Yoga as Karmapa wished, while Kunzig Shamarpa, who is allergic to cults, advises most people to use Maitripa’s ‘Way of Insight’. At present we create a healthy foundation so that communities of lay people and accomplishers can develop, and western students and friends of mine collect important experiences about their minds right now. This help is essential, as the Tibetans have no chance to preserve their legacy alone.
BT: The pujas, which are meditations sung in Tibetan, are ‘the specialties’ of the 3-year retreatants. In your centers they have little prominence. Why is this?
ON: The Tibetans very quickly translated Buddha’s teachings from Sanskrit, Buddha’s own language, into Tibetan. They did not make the medium into a holy cow. The only thing they kept in Sanskrit was the mantra-vibrations. For that same obvious reason, we now translate the Tibetan texts, but also keep the mantras the way they were. People must know what they are doing. Since the first impression is so important when one first encounters a teaching, we must avoid exoticism and the translations should appear as soon as they are well done and carry blessing.
Our manner of meditating together is first-class, by the way! Much praise to the guided meditations we use! Due to the well-educated Westerners’ great ability to focus and understand, one experienced person can benefit many massively. Reading the meditation texts in peoples’ own language with the appropriate pauses, opens a wide range of possibilities. Even newcomers can follow, without getting lost in unknown texts. Around some bigger centers there are also groups who meet privately in order to sing Tibetan pujas and in the centers of most eastern lamas, chanting is the main activity, like with Naropa’s ‘Way of Means’. Please rest assured that the art will not be forgotten. However, I simply don’t want the gifted and critical people who discover us to step right into a puja, as has repeatedly happened in the past. They then think that they landed with the Catholics or some sect, and we won’t get a second chance to benefit them or their like-minded friends. New people should generally first get to know why they might want to become Buddhists. This is indispensable! If one day we shall be represented by people who only want to chant and feel good, we will be New Age at once. Without human experience and a clear insight into what we are doing and why, Buddha’s teaching will quickly lose it’s power and good name. The more unusually one behaves in the world, like when singing pujas in foreign languages, the more one has to know why one does it and be able to explain one’s behavior in an understandable way. Otherwise Buddha loses face.
BT: One of the main pillars of your activity is the Phowa, the practice of conscious dying. You teach it in large public courses with often over a thousand participants. Can you talk about the importance of this practice.
ON: Nothing is more democratic than death. In winter 1972, Karmapa connected Hannah and myself with the phowa master Ayang Tulku. He wanted us to learn the practice and later pass it on to our countless karmic connections. That is what I’m doing now, by request of the highest Karma Kagyu teachers. I have the necessary strength for the job, and I am glad that whoever learned this practice did not become egotistic and stop doing things for others, as mercantile minds sometimes expect, instead, a feeling of surplus appeared – a sense of ‘noblesse oblige’. Those people today share the confidence and power they found with their surroundings. Phowa frees very positive human qualities. The 27,000 people, to whom I brought this experience through over 100 courses during the last 10 years around the world, completely prove my point. People are much greater and more capable than sellers of self-doubts and dependent lifestyles will admit. And once again, correctly explained to those of the necessary maturity, even the highest Buddhist practices are nothing but applied common sense.
BT: You have established more than 200 centers around the world. How do they differ from the places founded by Tibetan lamas?
ON: The communist controlled Buddhist organizations in the East, such as those in red China or Vietnam today, have a dreary uniformity, but probably all free Buddhist centers around the world differ in many and healthy ways. Their wide range of expression is an immense richness and arises from their members’ favorite teachings and search for fulfillment. From the English speaking world alone, the magazines Tricycle and Buddhism Today give a taste of the width and depth of the striving involved, and they are eye-opening reading. My work is for the Karma Kagyu Lineage, which means that the centers I start are dedicated to directly recognizing mind. The impression people seem to form of our Western way makes me glad. In letters, e-mail and remarks to our website, they are thankful for having met a kind of idealism that works. Some mention meeting an uncomplicated lightness and others find a powerful motivation to be of use to others. Many are amazed that the experience of space as bliss can be transmitted so directly and with so little cultural ballast. Continuing a blessing stream, which lived for 2,500 years in the East while staying committed to our uniquely valuable western culture is probably our main accomplishment.
BT: Who is setting the guidelines for your centers’ activities and making the important decisions?
ON: All grow through establishing the groups and they should therefore supply ample elbowroom. Whatever is learned while working for an idealistic goal is deeply character forming, and though one makes the centers for others, those who work there are the ones who develop most. Aspects of every center are continually in an experimental phase and what is experienced or purified through a given situation will be useful also for others. Therefore what concerns the inner functioning or our groups, I bring people together, give general guidelines but rather watch than direct the events.
When it comes to foreign affairs, however, I expect all students to obtain and examine the relevant information. That is essential to be able to work intelligently and in unison. That is also why I give an interview like this, so people can understand what is going on. Such an open approach has already paid off, as you will soon learn from Tomek Lehnert’s book, Rogues in Robes (Blue Dolphin Press, Nevada City, CA.) During the early nineties our centers repulsed a communist Chinese attempt to take over our lineage and brought the real 17th Karmapa to freedom, all because we trusted each other. We stood shoulder to shoulder, even when it hurt, and therefore we won.
BT: Even in the wake of the recent controversy in the Kagyu Lineage you have made statements like, ‘Every few years we need a new major scandal to shake people up and get rid of the hypocrites’. Can you comment on this?
ON: First, I’m Danish, and we know the emperor has no clothes. Also, such expression soothes situations which Buddhism apparently cannot avoid. I refer to the juicy stories so frequently bequeathed upon us by famous teachers whose supposed celibacy so many consider holy. If one cannot avoid scandals anyway, it is better to laugh than to cry while doing what is necessary. There is also a most useful aspect, however. The dramas involved supply an exact gauge for the inner development of a person or a group. Peoples’ behavior while facing confidence-rattling information clearly shows the level of independence they have reached.
BT: The guidance of the centers seems to always lie with close students of yours. Do you insist on that or is that a natural development?
ON: Both. Today, more than ever, our work grows on the basis of friendship and trust. They are the ‘idealistic glue’ which keeps things together and at the same time these feelings ensure that we won’t become stiff and institutional. Actually, especially during the first years, we had to fire the bureaucrats several times. Since the Karma Kagyu teachings aim to bring freedom and independence, it is people who already have those qualities who are generally attracted to our centers. After a necessary period of learning and feeling their way into the groups’ living hearts, the newcomers will be acknowledged by the other members and often quickly become very competent. Around the world, groups of my students travel with Tomek, Caty, Hannah and me. They learn from our daily exchange, make friends with the locals, sniff out the tricks of our trade, and distribute information between our centers everywhere.
BT: You appoint some of your students as teachers and send them out to other centers. What qualifications must those teachers have?
ON: First, about thirty of my students so far teach on the Diamond Way level. They are hand-picked for their life experience and Buddhist understanding and completely keep their bonds. They are not off the conveyer belt of some anonymous religious institution, and have not passed any minimum requirements to obtain a title. Rather, our centers offer a healthy ‘free-for-all’ under the direction of the more experienced members where different talents can develop. The ones who travel, however, must represent Buddha’s three ways in a transparent manner. Outwardly, they must harm beings as little as possible. Inwardly they must enjoy working for others. They must have compassion, and enough understanding of emptiness to see things as inspiring, dreamlike and in a broad context. To be convincing to others, this stability must not falter in the face of their own upcoming difficulties. Such teachers must always be willing to risk their skin for the benefit of others. Secretly they should have a firm conviction and at least some experience that space equals joy, and they should radiate this confidence into the world. Only then can one fully represent the refuge for others. I recommend my students to master these levels as they present themselves, all the time fitting their insights into the total picture of Buddha’s way and goal. Therefore, we have a round, relaxed style in our groups. Of course to be effective, the subjects taught must be blessed by one’s teacher and backed by some own experience. If one only repeats the words of others, no matter how venerable they may be, one might as well be honest and read directly from their texts.
BT: How dependent are your centers on visiting Tibetan lamas?
ON: We are glad when they come. As already mentioned, we enjoy Tibetans in robes, while we would rather avoid monastic Westerners. If our eastern Kagyu lamas are not bought by the Chinese Communists, they are very welcome in our centers. Actually, several of them would rather be there than at the monasteries in places like France. They feel more free with us, but of course it is difficult for our lay communities to house people with many outer vows for more than some days. Unless they are the highest level of Rinpoches, it cramps the centers’ style. Best are visits in connection with initiations and intensive courses. Here people come from everywhere, and all have massive benefit.
BT: Your bond to the 16th Karmapa was very strong. What is your relationship like with the 17th? Will he support the style of Buddhism you are introducing in the West?
ON: We were with Karmapa Thaye Dorje in the Eastern Himalayas less than two months ago, and he is developing wonderfully. Although he is of the vitamin-generation, and at 14 years he is already as tall as I am, he clearly sees me as his protector, and that I’ll always be. He is well informed about our western way of working. In addition to the news on the Internet, he hears an ear full of exciting rumors every day and has a lot of good laughs and knows well that those who complain are the ones who don’t work. When we are together, I always tell him about developing lay and yogi Buddhism, about our work style and life-embracing direction and ask him seriously for any advice, he might have. Every year since he was fled into freedom I’ve asked him if he wanted any changes in what we are doing and he only says, ‘Please do.’ There is no doubt that he trusts us and wants to come and visit. He likes to hear that we parachute and drive the curves on the autobahn at 140 mph on our motorcycles. Apparently the yogi side of our lineage still has the latitude for modern transparency and I’m glad we don’t need to waste precious time explaining what we do and why. There is a deep and close bond between us going back many lives and this time we will do great things.
BT: When you talk about the future, you frequently express a gloomy view. Is this good for business?
ON: No, but there is no long-range alternative to honesty and how can people trust me if I’m not straight with them? Look at the irrelevance of politically correct teachers. There is also another reason to avoid sweet talk, and this is the preciousness of everybody’s time. Many who belong to other Buddhist directions or even to Christianity, first come to us because of the excitement and blessing we emanate. We should show what we stand for so they can move on to their true karmic directions. This is one reason I gladly step on the toes of giants, joyfully transcend political correctness and tackle subjects that loom ever wider on the civilized world’s horizon but which few dare face. Catholics are disturbed when I say that the Pope is responsible for a billion children in the world’s ghettos of poor countries, who will never have a proper life. Most of all, however, many Europeans don’t want to know what is in store for them with Islam, what this theocratic system is openly doing to its women and opponents now, and will attempt to do to our free societies later.
Actually, I also mention such subjects because I have a constructive idea. It is both simple and humanistic: pay poor families around the world to not have more than one or at the most two children and help educate the ones they have. Machines do the hard work today and a life on a street corner and in and out of jails is what awaits more and more of the excess youth. Imagine the relief if one could visit Africa and meet healthy, free and educated people like in our societies today? What a burden off the world’s shoulders! As such problems are of a recent nature, Buddhism, of course, does not mention them. Buddhists, however, at least in the Great Way (Mahayana) traditions are advised to benefit others with their long-term insights whenever possible. I would say that the world needs us badly today.
BT: Is it a task of a Buddhist teacher to address political and social issues?
ON: The Buddha himself helped people against the Brahmins, the highest caste and power holders of ancient India. Though many don’t know it, he was of the Warrior caste, and definitely no sweet baby-face. If the people who can see further don’t speak, they are shirking their responsibility. I always say, ‘I don’t have to be popular, but I must be right.’ So far, I generally have been, and quite frankly I expect that to continue. The 16th Karmapa gave me his expressed blessing for being his advisor on world politics, and I know that the 17th Karmapa will also lean on me for that. As I travel around the world twice a year, I have lots of my own observations to add to my insights in meditation, the historical facts and the dry statistics which I balance to get the fullest picture.
BT: Many people today say that they especially like Buddhism because of its emphasis on peace. They understand it as expressed by teachers like Dalai Lama or Thich Nhat Hanh. Does a Buddhist teacher have to be a pacifist?
ON: No, although the feeling of anger must definitely be out. At least to a Great Way Buddhist, there are causes worth protecting and fighting for. It is a question of emotional economy and common sense. Thomas Jefferson put it somewhat like this, ‘I learned the art of war so my children can farm and their children can study philosophy.’ Of course I share the above mentioned great teachers’ wish to see a world where mildness is appropriate anywhere. In all honesty, however, I think they are wrong and that preaching a harmony, which only exists at religious meetings is misleading. I see great dangers in and around our soft and spoiled democratic countries. Islam and over-population often hand in hand, move ever closer, and if there is no willingness and foresight to protect our values, we will fall like earlier high cultures. This would be a vast step backward for humanity and is also unnecessary if decisive steps are taken now. By the way, if the Tibetan army had functioned, the Dalai Lama would certainly not have yielded to the Chinese aggressors. The weak parties are always for peace, at least until they can arm or re-arm. But peace without freedom is a jail for a German and a morgue for a Dane. For Americans it was often the reason to get on a ship or a covered wagon. There were never more posters for peace than earlier behind the Iron Curtain, with fat pigeons everywhere in the uniform gray-blue color of socialism.
BT: What many people do not expect from a Buddhist Master is the inclusion of sexuality in the teaching. Why do you touch upon a subject which is so completely omitted by most of your colleagues?
ON: Well, it’s important. I’m not a monk and probably sexual union is where non-meditating people get the closest to their Buddha-nature. It is also in my family genes. At the age of 76 my father still joked, ‘Women are the greatest gift to humanity’, and my mother clearly enjoyed the attention she got. All pure views and personal joys aside, however, like with the inclusion of politics, an important goal is the protection of our centers. They are doing a great job of representing Diamond Way Buddhism in the free countries around the world and must not be burdened by people who should be seeing a therapist. A robust, relaxed relationship to sexuality is a prime indicator of mental health and I consciously indicate to the more inhibited listeners that they are not in the right place with us. Of course everybody receives my blessing and best wishes, but people who have difficulties with our style should find a fitting institution for their needs.
BT: Do you think your vision of a free western lay and yogi Buddhism can be sustained for a long period of time?
ON: It is the wave of both present and future and nothing is more precious than inhabiting a universe, which makes sense. If we allow our work to ever become institutional or church-like, where should so many fine and independent people go? We must never lack spontaneity or be afraid to enjoy ourselves. ‘Holy’ comes from whole and fully functioning, not from dead or lacking, and a lively exchange on the level of the Great Seal view (Mahamudra view), in love, meditation and excitement, is self-liberating and ultimately enlightening. Hannah and I expect to be here for a long time, and when we do a stint in the Pure Lands and check to see if the world is exciting enough to return to, Caty, Tomek and many young lions around the world will make things grow even more. In the meantime, it is a healthy sign that my students think ever more independently and become increasingly critical towards any spirituality which is artificial and sugar-sweet. This ensures a clear and unshakable development and will attract other fresh minds. Finally, as long as my books and videos are used, we are always together. This is why I always try to find time to work on them.
BT: For 26 years now you have traveled all over the world and given public lectures in a new city almost every day. For the last decade, you have been teaching the Conscious Dying (Phowa) a dozen times a year. Why did you choose to live like this, and how can you keep up with this lifestyle?
ON: I must repeat the answer to one of your first questions; Hannah and I had little choice. Promises made in former lives can be very strong. How can I stand the wear and tear? Apparently protectors do that. Also I have Viking genes, melt together with the lama in meditation whenever possible and, which may be my ultimate strength, I keep my mind in one place while my legs run around.
– Interview conducted via e-mail in April 1998