The development of technology and urbanization in the contemporary society has set more people free from farm and traditional labor. Worries and concerns have been raised towards this rapid progress, yet many Buddhist teachers regard it as an advantage for the spread and practice of Buddhism.
On May 15th, 2016, His Holiness Chamgon Kenting Tai Situpa Rinpoche gave a public talk titled “The Relevance of Tibetan Buddhism in the 21st Century” at the Frederic Wood Theatre of the University of British Columbia. Commenting on those city-dwellers distanced from farm life, Tai Situpa Rinpoche suggested that most people in the 21st century have the intellect and time to learn Buddhism, despite those urbanites who may lack the common sense to know the milk they drink comes from cows rather than bottles, he joked. In fact, Tai Situpa Rinpoche finds that Buddhism is not only accessible but relevant to modern society.
The title Tai Situpa is one of the most important lineages of reincarnated lamas within the Kagyu school of Tibetan Buddhism. The current twelfth Tai Situpa Rinpoche is a renowned scholar, poet, artist, calligrapher, architect, and geomancer. He is also eagerly involved in the advancement of interfaith and intercultural humanitarian efforts.
In Defining Tibetan Buddhism
Tai Situpa Rinpoche began the talk by stating four categories of the Buddha’s teaching which constitute Tibetan Buddhist practice. He noted that the word ‘category’ is not an exact translation of the Tibetan term but would be used in the talk for the sake of communication. The first category of teaching, Vinaya, explains the four Noble Truths in great detail. It is the moral foundation of Tibetan Buddhist practices. The second category is Shunyata or Emptiness. The third is the right motivations and conducts of the Bodhisattva. And the fourth is about the transformation of what is relatively manifesting in each and every one of sentient beings into the primordial source form from which everything is manifesting. Tai Situpa Rinpoche explains that this primordial source is always perfect and cannot be contaminated. It is called by different names such as Buddha-nature, ultimate emptiness or primordial wisdom.
Against the concern of Buddhism losing its legitimacy in the modern time, he emphasized that Buddhism is always relevant as long as there exists one suffering sentient being. Each person will interpret the teachings differently but there is no doubt that the experience will be directly relevant to him/her.
The Process of Tibetan Buddhist Practice
In the next part of the talk, Tai Situpa Rinpoche explained the most fundamental steps in the Tibetan Buddhist practice which are the following:
The first practice is to shred our illusion of the world as being permanent. Our ego, which creates the illusion, is the reason of our suffering. Nothing stays the same. The world changes all the time.
According to the Buddhist teaching, Karma is the driving force behind the Samsara (World of Existence). Karma can be understood as cause and result. It includes both actions and intentions. Tai Situpa Rinpoche indicated that, as long as there exists the sense of “I” and dualism, there will be karma. Thus, karma is a relative truth. After overcoming dualism, there will be ultimately no karma.
Suffering of Samsara
Tai Situpa Rinpoche noted that the nature of samsara is filled with suffering which stems from not only misery but also from the desire to satisfy oneself. By understanding the imperfection of samsara, one will be able to adopt a right attitude to overcome suffering.
Tai Situpa Rinpoche made a comparison at this point to illustrate what genuine devotion is. He said, people with unhealthy devotion often had a low sense of self-worth. They are intimidated by the higher spiritual authority and dare not to do anything without permission. They avoid their responsibilities under the guise of devotion. He called it lazy devotion in this sense.
On the contrary, genuine devotion helps you know where you currently stand and what you can be. With it, you can compassionately recognize lesser people and show your devotional respect to people with more compassion.
To visualize oneself as a Buddhist deity is the next step in Tibetan Buddhist practice. Visualizing the good qualities of the deity helps practitioners to overcome the attachment to their own body and ego.
Visualization is followed by completion. In this stage, even the attachment to a deity or Bodhisattva’s image needs to be overcome as well. This last step is similar to the destruction of a sand mandala which symbolizes the ephemerality of the world, which encompasses both desirable and miserable things.
The Relevance of Tibetan Buddhism
Tai Situpa Rinpoche suggested that Tibetan Buddhism is more relevant to the contemporary society than before with its stage-by-stage practice method. According to him, more people in the 21st century have the intellectual capacity to understand Tibetan Buddhism; and the technology development and economic growth offer people with more time and conditions to practice accordingly. In addition, Tibetan Buddhism does not require people to devote vast amount of time to practice; hence it is more relevant in the 21st century than before.
Tai Situpa Rinpoche’s talk was a blend between Buddhist teachings, secular stories and analogies, effectively presenting the Buddhist contents to an audience of different cultural backgrounds. This talk was made possible by the generous contribution by the Robert H. N. Ho Family Foundation Program in Buddhism and Contemporary Society at the University of British Columbia.