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An Analysis Of The Traditional Interpretation Of Self Within Tibetan Mahayana Buddhism

Updated on June 3, 2015
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Missing Link is originally from rural Ohio. He currently lives in Hillsboro, OR. with his Wife and two Sons.

The following was originally a paper that I wrote in the latter part of the 1980s. The World has changed a lot since then. I also am quite different now as opposed to then. I was quite idealistic back then. I over-idealized Tibetan people back then which is a danger I want to caution you about. Do not over-idealize any group of people as you can be very hurt and taken advantage of as a result. There are Tibetans that are criminals, liars, users, etc. just as they are in any group of people. Names have been changed in certain places to protect the privacy of people and locations.

Living among Tibetan people from September to late December of 1989, I noticed a big difference between how they view life and how people in the country in which I live, the United States, view life. While Americans are known to have a selfish, I-Me-Mine philosophy concerning life, the Tibetans exemplify a more selfless, generous attitude towards life. This attitude stems from their religion, Mahayana Buddhism. References to experiences I had while living within Tibetan societies will help to convey this point.

My Tibetan amala (mother) and pala (father) in Dharamsala, India, Tashi and Tenzin, were materially very poor, lived in a tiny house, made very little money, and yet, were extremely generous and kind to me. They often took time from their day to help me learn spoken and written Tibetan and would often explain cultural phenomena which seemed strange to me. Ani, a 65 year old nun living in Boudhanath, Kathmandu, said in an interview I had with her, "I feel that I should help all those who need or who are in trouble. I try to be kind to all people because that is how I would like to be treated". In America, many people would simply not want to take the time out of their day to help someone else. They would be too busy working; after all, time is money.

Something else I noticed while in Dharamsala was the neighbor children seemed just as much Tashi's and Tenzin's as their own child was. Without thinking twice or expecting any reward, Tashi and Tenzin would feed or look after their neighbor's children or any other child who wandered into the area. In America, we call this babysitting or daycare and not only is it seen as a hassle, but most people expect and do get paid for it.

Dharamsala, India

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Dharamshala, Himachal Pradesh, India
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Another thing which struck me as incredible about Tashi and Tenzin was their level of patience and tolerance. For example, their 2 year old daughter, Dewa, is what most Americans would describe as a monster or menace, a very atypical quality for a Tibetan child to have. She would purposely knock things over, would throw chewed up food at her mom and dad, and would throw horrible tantrums over the most trivial of things. At times, it really got on my nerves and, likewise, would have extremely irritated most parents I know back home. Tashi and Tenzin would just laugh at their daughter and would gently correct the little girl. For Tibetans, patience is a valuable virtue to have because as the Dalai Lama said in an audience I attended, "Patience will give us tolerance and that will give us inner strength".

It struck me how great an appreciation Tashi and Tenzin had for their own life as well as for the lives of other living things. Often, an insect would fly into their tea or into their food and they would go to the utmost effort to save the insect's life. A moth or spider would be clinging to their wall and they would gently remove the insect and place it outside the house. Actions such as these derive from their belief that all sentient beings, that is, beings with mind, want happiness and do not want suffering. "[A]n ability to identify, with sympathy and feeling, with all sentient creatures--lies at the heart of Tibetan values, and as such it figures prominently in the socialization of Tibetan children" (Nowak 1984:92).

Many Tibetans look at all sentient beings as their mother because in a past life, or in a future life, there is the possibility that the pesky fly in this lifetime was their mother or a friend in the past or will be their mother or friend in a future life. Tsering, a 34 year old monk at a monastery in Boudhanath said "When we are young and feeble our mother shows us much compassion; she takes care of us in every way and shows us much love and compassion. Because of this, we show compassion to all other sentient beings because they might have been our mother in our past life". In the U. S., we often smash insects with a newspaper, step on them, or spray them with Raid, not thinking twice about the life we are extinguishing.

I noticed this type of attitude among Tibetans elsewhere as well. On my way to the top of Tso Pema (a mountainous area in northern India made famous by the wanderings of Padmasambhava, a famous Indian guru), Tibetans, whom of course I had never seen in my life, were asking me into their house for tea. In America, especially in the large cities, this would be looked upon as very suspicious and even a bit dangerous.

Several times while in Kathmandu, I wanted to purchase things from Tibetans only to find I had forgotten to bring my money or I did not have enough with me. Instead of being angry or turning my business down, the Tibetan proprietor in question smiled and said she trusted me and told me to bring the money whenever I could. In America, this is unheard of and when it does happen, it is usually between people who know each other very well.

This same type of attitude was also present among my homestay family in Kathmandu. Just like my homestay family in Dharamsala, my parents in Kathmandu, Ama and Dorje, were very generous, kind, and always eager to help me out. They had many more material possessions than did my family in Dharamsala, but their attitude towards life was much the same. At night, Ama's and Dorje's TV room turned into a place where it was not uncommon for 15-20 people to show up; some of them neighbors, others being Tibetan and Nepali acquaintances. In America, many people are into privacy and usually expect something in return when they are kind to someone. With Tibetan society, as is noted above, this is not so much the case.

One can see Tibetans exercising the qualities I have mentioned above in all aspects of their lives. Their religion dominates their lives and is with them during work and leisure. Every Tibetan dwelling I was in had an altar decorated with religious paintings, statues and pictures. Whether it be reciting Om Mani Padme Hum, spinning a prayer wheel, doing good works, doing prostrations or circumambulating a stupa or holy place, one thing is for sure, the teachings of Mahayana Buddhism are prevalent and important within the lives of Tibetans.

In November and December of 1989, I carried out a series of interviews with Tibetans in and around Kathmandu, Nepal. My objective in carrying out these interviews was to learn more concerning the interpretation of self within Tibetan Mahayana Buddhism. Throughout the interviews, words like compassion and kindness came up again and again. When asked "As a Mahayana Buddhist, what is your purpose in life?", the overwhelming response was "to help others". Most said they realized everything was inherently nonexistent, but also said they did not have enough discipline to live by this understanding. Palden, a 42 year old layman living in Boudhanath, Kathmandu, said

"Like most everyone, I cling to the thought of self. I often find myself doing things for myself even though I try not to. I try to work for the benefit of all sentient beings, but still I cling to my self. I know one hundred percent that my self does not exist."

On November 25, 1989, I went to a Monastery to see the Rinpoche and to ask him questions pertaining to my research. I entered the audience room and presented him with a piece of silk cloth called a khata. According to Tibetan tradition, this is how one greets a high lama. I told him I was a student from America and that I was studying the interpretation of self within Tibetan Mahayana Buddhism and that I had some questions I wanted to ask. Unfortunately, I never got to ask my questions because Rinpoche started talking about many other things.

At one point, he told me to point to John Doe and of course, I pointed to the chest region of my body. Rinpoche then said "that is not John Doe, that is your chest". I finally told him I do not know where John Doe is which sounds like a very silly thing to say. I quickly realized however that he was teaching me that I really do not exist. He then gave a further example of the non-existence or emptiness of material objects. He explained (as did the Dalai Lama in our audience with him in Dharamsala) that a table, as with all other things, does not inherently exist, but is dependent upon the coming together of other elements whose existence depends upon the coming together of yet smaller elements and so on.

I subsequently thought it would be interesting to visit a Tibetan school and investigate how Mahayana Buddhist teachings are transmitted from the educational system into a Tibetan child's life. I went to a boarding school in Kathmandu on November 30, 1989 and asked the principal, Venerable Jampa, if I could spend some time at the school in order to learn how Mahayana Buddhist teachings are incorporated into Tibetan children's education. He said yes and I studied and observed there on December third and fourth, 1989. Approximately one-third of the 450 students there were boarding students. Students are taught a wide variety of subjects including acting, history, geography, English, Nepali, Tibetan, math, science, singing and dancing. The age of the students ranged from 4-13 years old.

The classrooms were filled with many encouraging and wise proverbs, several of which were by His Holiness. "The reason why we seek to behave in a good manner is that it is from good behavior that good fruits are derived" (Dalai Lama). Most of the proverbs found within the classrooms expounded wisdom, common sense, kindness and compassion. In their exiled status,

"Both the form (secular rather than monastic) and the content (modern rather than traditional syllabus) of this type of cultural transmission have changed drastically, and all of this can certainly be related to the general problem of refugee adaptation. Yet these schools also emphasize some traditional cultural elements as well; and, as in the case of Tibetan religious history and language, these are positively and deliberately enshrined in the curriculum" (Nowak 1984:47).

Throughout the classrooms, several pictures of Buddha and the Dalai Lama could be found. Besides this, the classroom settings were much like one would find them in the United States except the facilities themselves were a bit more crude. Nevertheless, the educational facilities served their purpose well.

On my second day at the school I was lucky enough to witness an organized quizzing contest, the questions being asked in English, Nepali, and Tibetan. There were three teams with four people on each team. I thought it interesting that for every right answer, the rest of the student body would applaud regardless of the team or person who answered.

"Westerners often comment on the wonderful behavior of Tibetan children, and let it be added that Tibetans who have visited Britain and the USA in recent years have been astounded at the waywardness and rudeness of our children. Tibetan children behave well, simply because all members of society with whom they come in contact insist on it, seldom with compulsion because this is unnecessary where no one questions the traditional order of things. We may prefer our theories about the need for self-expression, and so must be ready to accept the logical consequences. Tibetans have preferred to keep to older ways, and who would dare declare them wrong (Snellgrove and Richardson 1968:258)."

After the quiz, the results of the respective teams were announced but no more attention was given to the "winning" team than to the "losing" team. I noticed this type of interaction elsewhere as well.

Kathmandu, Nepal

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Kathmandu 44600, Nepal
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In the classrooms, I did not notice the usual talking, note-passing, or sleeping as you would find in many elementary schools in the United States; instead, the students were attentive, cooperative, eager to learn, and hard working. At recess, the children played together very well and I did not notice any scuffles or violent games. I am sure I would have found activities such as these had I been at a school in the United States.
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Upon talking to and questioning several of the teachers, I found in reference to Mahayana Buddhism, the main teachings incorporated into the children's education is what the teachers referred to as the supreme virtues. The teachers had difficulty elaborating on these virtues but informed me that I could learn all about these virtues in a book called The Opening Of the Wisdom Eye by the Dalai Lama. This book was written "keeping in mind the needs of people, both living in the East and those in the West, who wish to find the right way and gain knowledge of the teaching (Dharma) of Lord Buddha" (Gyatso, T. 1977:vii). I went and purchased this book and found what I believe the teachers were talking about.

The Dalai Lama uses the term "Ten Refraining From Unskillful Precepts". These teachings are quite similar to "The Ten Commandments" in that they espouse virtues which make for a more orderly society. I believe it is the teachings of these precepts, along with what Tibetan children are taught by their parents, that form the foundation for young Tibetans' lifelong relationship with Mahayana Buddhism.

I found the following words of wisdom on a bulletin board located just outside the principal's office:

If a child lives with criticism,

He learns to condemn.

If a child lives with hostility,

He learns to fight.

If a child lives with ridicule,

He learns to be shy.

If a child lives with shame,

He learns to feel guilty.

If a child lives with tolerance,

He learns to be patient.

If a child lives with encouragement,

He learns confidence.

If a child lives with praise,

He learns to appreciate.

If a child lives with fairness,

He learns justice.

If a child lives with security,

He learns to have faith.

If a child lives with approval,

He learns to like himself.

If a child lives with acceptance and friendship,

He learns to find love in the world.

These words seemed to summarize the educational atmosphere at the school and also seemed to convey the love, compassion, and wisdom aspects of Mahayana Buddhism.

The interpretation of self within Tibetan Mahayana Buddhism and Buddhist views concerning emptiness are obviously at a marked variance with many American views. For instance, most Tibetans seem very happy and content with most of the things they do. This is because they look at many things or tasks as a challenge which if they accomplish well, will bring happiness to others and will at the same time help them to accumulate merit for the next life. Americans on the other hand, especially the middle class, tend to identify themselves in terms of their social role in the occupational structure. "This is what makes being unemployed or 'just a housewife' intolerable to many people..." (Bock 1988:204).

"The basic purpose of man in the West is neither to honor a deity or deities, nor to be the servant of any small group, nor to sacrifice the individual for the advancement of some social institution such as the national state. Ours is a humanistic view. The masterpiece of man is 'better man,' living in a 'better society,' partaking of a 'fuller' life, and producing and enjoying more of what we consider to be the 'finer' things of human existence" (Clough 1960:15).

As one could guess, many aspects of Mahayana Buddhism clash with aspects of American ideas and beliefs. For many Buddhists, as mentioned earlier, "it is not wealth that stands in the way of liberation but the attachment to wealth; not the enjoyment of pleasurable things but the craving for them" (Schumacher 1973:57). Aspects of Mahayana Buddhism such as these have been embraced by Mahayana Buddhists for centuries, being passed from one generation to the next.

The value of wealth for many capitalists springs from the Calvinist notion that wealth makes one somehow virtuous and that God loves the virtuous. The Bible helps perpetuate individualism by teaching that God created people in his/her own image and that one can attain salvation by one's own efforts. In the United States, wealth is often the measure of the individual. He/she who is wealthy is often seen as an example of one who has attained the "American Dream" and who is therefore just, good, and deserving. Many times, those people in America who are economically poor or disadvantaged are considered lazy and undeserving of assistance. This attachment to wealth connects very well to the concept of self. Mahayana Buddhism explicitly states that the self is nonexistent and that those who are attached to the concept of self are ignorant.

"The Western conception of the person as a bounded, unique, more or less integrated motivational and cognitive universe, a dynamic center of awareness, emotion, judgement, and action organized into a distinctive whole and set contrastively both against other such wholes and against its social and natural background, is, however incorrigible it may seem to us, a rather peculiar idea within the context of the world's cultures" (Geertz 1984:126).

Devoted Buddhists spend a good amount of their life trying to follow the teachings of Mahayana Buddhism and attempting to realize the inherent emptiness of all things. Many are striving for the enlightenment of all sentient beings and are not so much focused on this life in itself but look at this life as a chance to improve their, as well as other people's, positions in future lives. For many Americans

"that which we sense or know according to man-made rules of logic, is; and that which is beyond my apprehension, beyond my sensing or cognition, is fiction, that is, it is not. The self is the measure of all things. Art and metaphysics and religious experiences are barely tolerated on the fringes of our culture" (Lee 1950:138).

From the aforementioned information, one can gather how important Mahayana Buddhism and the interpretation of self is to Tibetans. In short, Mahayana Buddhism is the foundation upon which their entire culture is based.


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    • Missing Link profile image

      Missing Link 2 years ago from Oregon

      Hi Larry, I appreciate your visit and comments! When I was in college I was VERY interested in Tibetan Buddhism specifically but am less interested now. Nevertheless, I still keep an eye on a number of things per the topic.

    • Larry Rankin profile image

      Larry Rankin 2 years ago from Oklahoma

      I have always had an interest in the Buddhist philosophy. Very interesting read.