What is modern Buddhism for?


I watched 13th recently. And “I Am Not Your Negro”. (You can get them on Netflix and Amazon, respectively.) They are both such well observed and eye-popping documentaries that I now want everyone to watch them – well, especially if you are anything like me and have been living in a bubble of privilege, uncomprehending and shocked as to why the USA “suddenly” seems to be so racist and mean, suddenly seems to be going “backwards” (when perhaps it was never progressing quite as forwardly as some of us thought.)

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The questions stirring my mind these days are how I, as a modern Buddhist, can help bring an end to racism and all other forms of discrimination, selfishness, and intolerance – and not just in some distant, delayed Pure Land, but here and now in this world, given that we are all in this together. I know Buddhism has the ideas. I know some of these ideas, such as love and fairness, are of course shared by other traditions too. My questions are how to share these ideas wider, most effectively and appropriately.

It is a work in progress and I welcome your comments on how you are doing it – some of you have already shared some useful observations on the last two articles.  For me, I will contribute by chatting on this blog and to anyone else who may be interested. I have been listening most recently to people, both lay and ordained, who have brought Buddha’s insights into prisons, to great effect, and into the favelas in Rio and townships in Cape Town, and into film-making, and into brave new visions for renewing our broken social systems.

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Modern Buddhism is surely not about escapism; it cannot be about navel-gazing. I think we need to gain gradual experience of these teachings while sharing them in as many practical ways as we can. I know Buddhist software developers, social activists, doctors, healers, artists, directors, performers, prison officers, entrepreneurs, and so on, who are increasingly bringing these ideas into play to change their professions and their own and others’ lives, to change society, to reimagine our world.

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This may sound obvious — that there are Buddhist practitioners appearing in all fields — but it was not always so. When I first got involved with the Kadampa Buddhist tradition 36 years ago, it had just come out of Tibet, not surprisingly dragging along the cultural accretions of a monastic-oriented and somewhat archaic values of a very static society. I hate to say this, but there was a view for a few years back in the day that if you were not a monk or a nun, you were not a full or proper Buddhist. If you were not living in a Buddhist center, you were not a proper Buddhist. If you had a regular day job, you were not a proper Buddhist. And if you had children, goodness me, you had pretty much thrown your precious human life away.

Those anachronistic basically Tibetan notions all went out of the window a very long time ago and surprisingly rapidly, thanks in large part to the vision, skill, and courage of Geshe Kelsang Gyatso. Working closely with his students, he has modernized the presentation of Buddhism in umpteen far-reaching and radical ways, all while managing to keep the meaning of the teachings intact and flourishing the lay and ordained community. This means that there is an ever increasing number of good examples of how to be a Buddhist, Bodhisattva, and Tantric Yogi.

As a result, this tradition has exploded in size and relevance. And I believe this modern Buddhism is still evolving to catch up with Geshe Kelsang’s vision!

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Which of Buddha’s insights could be of benefit to help our modern world? If you ask me, all of them! They are all methods for purifying and transforming our minds and actions, and thereby purifying and transforming our actual world, including everyone in it. And they boil down to wisdom and compassion, as explained in this last excellent guest article. As Geshe Kelsang says:

Developing compassion and wisdom and helping those in need is the true meaning of life.

For example, wisdom can be seen to range from an understanding that happiness and suffering are states of mind whose main causes depend upon the mind, right through to an understanding that everything, even the tiniest atom, depends upon our minds. The things we normally see, vis a vis things outside the mind or independent of the mind, do not exist — everything is mere name, mere projection. Everything is dream-like, everything is illusion. Our ignorance veils the truth; we need to pull that veil aside. We need to help ourselves and everyone else overcome their ignorance on every level because ignorance is what keeps us trapped in systems that have never worked and never will.

Compassion ranges from an understanding that we are all equal and interconnected, breaking down the pernicious “us and them” mentality, through to a universal empathy that finds the suffering of all living beings more unbearable than our own and seeks to permanently dispel it.

All these ideas are rooted in the idea of our potential for change — our innate compassion and wisdom — a potential that is enormous, infinite, and that can start functioning right now if we let it. And if we add the transcendent vision of Tantra, we are able to bring about results very quickly indeed.  prism

It also seems to me that Geshe Kelsang Gyatso — in many ways the modern Buddhist master for our time – has been pointing for a long time to the possibility of Buddha’s teachings bringing about actual world peace. In his Buddha Maitreya teachings of 2009, for example, he said, as I quoted earlier:

If everybody followed this view — sincerely believe there is no enemy other than our delusions — all our problems that come from fighting and war will be ceased permanently. Following this view is the best method to make world peace. Unfortunately, everybody denies or neglects Buddha’s view, his intention. So we want world peace, everybody says, “World peace, world peace!”; but no-one understands how to do this.

My feeling is that it is on us to help people understand, alongside gaining experience ourselves. How? Through our own practice, example, conversations, and social engagement. Through not hiding away these ideas or ourselves out of modesty or a fear of offending, but engaging our bodhichitta into the world around us, sharing any experience far and wide in as many contexts as we can.

Not trying to make everyone into a Buddhist either — most people will not become Buddhists but they are still welcome to apply these ideas.

To finish, here is some food for thought from a comment on this last article:

Compassion that is based in wisdom is the only effective way to change this dreamlike world. Geshe Kelsang explains why so eloquently at the end of the Great Compassion chapter in How to Transform Your Life. Changing our mind directly changes the experience of the world because there is no world outside of our experience of it! With wisdom and faith, we can experience that change directly and others will experience it through our example and influence. World peace is possible if we change our mind today.

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More to come, including hopefully some of your comments and/or guest articles. Also, the Kadampa Summer Festival is about to start, meaning that thousands of lay and ordained practitioners from around the world will be sitting around chatting in cafes … maybe see you there.

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Author: Luna Kadampa

Based on 36 years' experience, I write about applying meditation and modern Buddhism to our everyday lives, and vice versa. I try to make it accessible to everyone who wants more inner peace and profound tools to help our world, not just Buddhists. Do make comments any time and I'll write you back!

32 thoughts on “What is modern Buddhism for?”

  1. I am so grateful to you that you posted this writing on the condition of racism in our country. The documentary “13th” shook my world! It was painful to watch and to comprehend how our government has purposely failed the Black communities since the Civil War! As a Dharma practitioner for eleven years, I can understand how to cultivate compassion for both the victims and the perpetrators. But I question how much compassionate love does it take to change the karma of this racist environment in our country? Maybe that means my faith isn’t strong enough or I’m grasping for changes and results that may take a long time! I’m still thinking about this, and about what I can do to bring about change! Meditation, prayer, dedication, conversation!!!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I love this article, it feels important and needed. I was talking with a Buddhist friend recently about how there is a vast, discernible difference between putting politics into Dharma and putting Dharma into politics. We have already witnessed the degeneration of some Buddhist traditions when politics is mixed with dharma. But what about putting Dharma into politics? What does this mean?

    I think it is an ongoing examination; conventionally we are ensnared within an economic system that seems to view the eight worldly concerns as deities, with racism, class injustice and environmental exploitation as natural by-products.
    While I was studying politics at Uni, I was fascinated to find out that most political Ideologies have at their heart, quite restricting beliefs with regards to human beings capacity for enrichment.
    Within a Conservative and Neo-liberal Ideological framework, for instance, there is a belief that ‘humans are naturally psychologically limited people who derive much of the comfort, safety and belonging they crave from knowing one’s place in society’! This belief denies a person’s ability to develop equanimity.
    What is the best way for me to challenge this? First, it is internal, through the practice of Dharma, then hopefully, externally I can learn a language that people from all walks of life can hear.
    When talking to oppressors (which I sometimes do), I first need to find commonalities otherwise I cannot be heard, thereby making any meaningful progress very difficult. There may also be occasions when talking is not an option and a more wrathful approach may be the answer (I’d like to hear thoughts on this.)
    When talking to people fighting oppression (which I often do), I feel it useful to have a basic political vocabulary to show that I am not some naive spiritual navel gazer, after this, its possible to have more meaningful conversations. For example, I can talk about the usefulness of separating a person from a person’s actions. This can be such a revelation for people experiencing the excruciating pain of anger towards people they view as architects of injustice.
    It’s only a small step, but I have a lot of faith in small beginnings.
    Thank you for your posts, they are so helpful.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I’ve been a student of Geshe Kelsang and Kadam Morten for the past 18 years and I’m an African American female. When I first came in contact with these teachings they seemed very foreign to me but I hung in there. I discovered how much anger and hurt was in my heart being raised in a country that had enslaved my people and taken away our history, our names and spiritual beliefs. These teachings made me realize that I needed to heal myself and open my heart. I’ve worked on reducing my anger by opening my heart with compassion. I realized who could teach about compassion better then someone who had not had compassion given to them. I’m so grateful that Geshe Kelsang has given me the opportunity to teach Dharma and share my experiences and how I have grown on this wonderful path. These teachings have taught me that we all want to be happy, and avoid suffering, we all have the same heart wish.

    Liked by 2 people

  4. Thanks for the article. I have found that many within our tradition are reluctant to bring up anything that could be interpreted as “political”, and so we rarely can have these kinds of conversations in Sangha. That, and the fact that many Sangha tend to be fairly homogenous in terms of race and socio-economic background. But racism, political hate, social injustice are things a Bodhisattva cannot ignore, as they are part of the larger-scale manifestations of samsara.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Yes, thank you, well observed. To me it makes sense that people don’t want to rely on the same old political or even simply external solutions to the problems of samsara — but I think this need not preclude focusing on what is appearing to us with a view to transforming it. We need the big picture, including that useful distinction between outer and inner problems. But at the same time, we need to apply this understanding and our compassion to the world that is currently around us, even if — or especially because — it is mistaken appearance.

      As for the homogenous Sangha, I think that’s changing. (I’d like it to change a bit quicker, personally :-))

      Liked by 2 people

  5. What a timely article! I recently got fed up with the Secessionists demonstrating in my city with the Confederate Battle flag and sat with them this weekend with my signs so that people going by would know not everyone in our city agreed with their views (I live in a big tourist city). It was very hard not to feel anger as I sat there but I set a peaceful intention and tried to keep mantras going as I sat. However, my issue is more with the city, who allows them to demonstrate on city property without a permit or paying a fee. As I continue to deal with the city, I find myself having a very unsettled mind. Thank you for this article. I will keep it handy as a reminder to work from compassion.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’m glad it is a helpful reminder. So many ways in which to generate compassion for people influenced by ignorance, but sometimes easier to do from the comfort of our cushion — being able to be out in the thick of it and stay calm and happy, now that is the practice 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  6. As a white man in England the film terrified me. I have to be honest and say it does seem hopeless to me. The whole system seems so stacked against success. I guess in effect I am saying my faith in dharma is not strong enough to imagine a solution.
    I found the dignity and courage of some of the people depicted was so inspiring and yet they made little difference or were killed.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I appreciate your honesty, Mike, and it is because it can be hard to imagine an end to suffering that I am writing all this. We do need more faith.

      The current system IS stacked against success because it is a system created by deluded minds. And that is why, rather than feeling stuck in the problem, we need to keep remembering and envisioning the solution — an end to delusions through wisdom and compassion. This is possible, why not? Shut your eyes and imagine it, Mike 😉 That is where it all starts for you and those around you.

      I also think that dignity and courage are never wasted. We will not see all the results of our actions straightaway but, as Buddha taught in karma, no actions are wasted.

      Liked by 2 people

  7. Thank you so much Madam Luna. Your article is keeping us from ‘disappearing’ into the safe enclaves of our caste system to ask the most important question: ‘what does my faith require of me in the face of this injustice?’ Human suffering can only end when we banish our personal ignorance by planting the seed of enlightenment. But as that seed in our souls grows fruit and turns into bounty, it spills over into our actions. I would submit that if we are not moved to action for injustices because of our bounty, we must ask if that seed of love has ever really taken root.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I agree wholeheartedly. There are many ways of being moved to action for injustices, spiritually and practically — and to me the key is being moved in the first place. Rather than just passively observing this world go downhill, for example, thinking that everyone is in too much of a mess to be helped. Complacency, inaction, and privilege are not the way of a Bodhisattva. And, to be honest, I am talking to myself here.

      Liked by 1 person

  8. This is what comes to my mind:

    What is the actual definition of world peace? Does it mean that every person on the planet is not physically or verbally fighting with one another? Does it mean that everyone feels calm and happy and peaceful inside? Does everyone need to be a Foe Destroyer, liberated from samsara? Or does everyone need to be a fully enlightened Buddha?

    And if at one moment in time everyone on the planet is completely peaceful, what happens when all of the other new babies are born? Is there still world peace then?

    When we think of world peace, are we only talking about human beings? If animals and insects are still killing one another and experiencing suffering, then can we truly say the world is at peace?

    Does world peace only apply to worlds we can see? What about beings in other realms that we cannot see? And even if every being on planet Earth is at peace, is that really enough? What about beings on other planets, throughout our galaxy and the universe?

    A lot of questions to be sure, and to me they all revolve around the words ‘universal compassion.’ The word universal implies to me something so incredibly vast and profound-far deeper than perhaps what many people think of when they hear the words ‘world peace.’ It also shows me that complete enlightenment is something so profound, so inconceivable, so beyond our small limited self. The words ‘happiness,’ ‘joy,’ and ‘bliss’ seem to not even come close to what we will experience when we become enlightened and liberate all living beings everywhere.

    In the meantime, we can of course work towards making the world a better place and benefiting others according to their capacity and to our own level of development, by practicing the Bodhisattva’s way of life.

    Thank you for this article, it really sparked something deep inside me. And thank you for spreading the Dharma to many people through the online medium. 🙏🏻❤️

    Liked by 3 people

    1. I love this, and you are spot on. It is huge, what we are trying to do. And I suppose that is why we need the confidence to make sure we are getting on with it by not ignoring the world that is appearing right in front of us, but engaging with it on some level to transform it, even though, like all worlds, it is mistaken appearance. I was thinking about all these temples we are building for world peace, for example. Geshe Kelsang himself has always been clear that we need to get out there.

      Liked by 3 people

    2. When humans are at peace animals will be at peace and stop attacking us and each other. They eat each other because we eat them and they attack because we do. When that cause is eradicated, babies will be born into peace and a new appearance and experience will arise for mothers having babies and the baby’s experience coming into the world. Peace begets peace. Animals are slaves to the humans who have the ability to control their minds.

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  9. I enjoyed your article and will look up the movies. Bringing Buddhism into the modern western world is still in its infancy but fortunately it has a foothold and a following. Wisdom to me means many things not the least of which is striving to present self in a compassionate way by my intentions, thoughts and actions every day

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  10. My friend was telling me, in a bit of a stressed out way, how her mother had just been on the phone upset that someone had been rude to her. Her Mother was at the other end of the country and it struck me how our state of mind effects each person we interact with, across a country and even the world, especially now that we are so joined up electronically.  I remember Kadam Brigit pointing this out,  saying how in a day we may meet 5 people and then they each meet 5 people and so on…all the more reason to have blogs like this one to inspire us to emit love through our interactions and therefore peace each day we are in this world!  Thank you Luna 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  11. As a black woman who practices Buddhism, I have had nothing but gratitude that you dedicated time and effort to write about racism and privilege in America. Matter of fact, it helped for me to feel a bit more connected and included within this tradition. I felt that you inspire the courage to address white privilege ( which seems to be very difficult to admit for so many people) and it’s connection to racism, discrimination and hate both overt and covert. Again, thank you so much for your heart of courage. Peace to you

    Liked by 2 people

  12. Thank you Luna Kadampa. What a fierce and wise article. I will take up the challenge: to examine my own modesty and reluctance to offend that keeps me from sharing the medicine of dharma wisdom with those who need it. Thanks for tackling this issue of racism and privilege head on.

    Liked by 2 people

  13. Brilliant! Thank you! Refreshingly honest – it particularly resonated – the ‘hate to say it’ bit. I have a feeling we may one day get as skilful as the Christians in reaching out further into ALL pockets of society to benefit others. This can’t happen soon enough as far as I’m concerned. At the same time, it’s essential we have the personal time to give our own practice strength in order to benefit others.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yes, thank you. In Buddhism, any outward action has to be nourished by our own inner authentic experience. That is why the meditation centers are so precious and need to be cherished and supported forever. At the same time as we each individually grow in spiritual strength, we can reach out further and further. And reaching out in itself, openly practicing and sharing the ideas in our hearts wherever we go and whatever we do, in and for society, will give our practice strength. Get the balance right, and I think it might be a win-win 🙂 Plus everyone is different of course, and needs to find their own ways of engaging their bodhichitta.

      Liked by 2 people

  14. I appreciate what you are saying. I think that the Buddha Traditions need to do much more outreach without fear. I and a friend of mind are starting a Sangha in a remote rural part of Colorado. Naturally we do this so that our friends and neighbors can come together in friendship and prayer. We Buddhist need to come out in the open. This is always a powerful experience. I spent many years attending ” Prayers for World Peace”, and in the city’, however I have since moved and are without a Sangha I feel a need to start one myself and with the help of others..

    I was at a Christian Church one day and when they called for joys and concerns, I said that I would like to include a prayers for World Peace. The pastor agreed, but the congregation dismissed this as not possible. One of great resistance to peace is fear that it is not possible. The idea that to cherish others is impossible , and that we can find peace is totally abhorrent to many people.

    Yet I see: ” With the intention to attain, The ultimate, supreme goal, That surpasses even the wish granting jewel, May I constantly cherish all living beings. ” This is often the biggest challenge for people in our country(USA) as it means giving up our tribal roots.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yes, thank you for this comment, that is true, the fear that it is not possible holds us back from attempting it, and then for sure nothing happens. That is largely why I am focusing on this at the moment.

      Do we each believe that world peace is possible?!

      Cherishing others, and equally, is good for our own individual well being as well as collectively. Buddha’s teachings on that are so helpful, allowing people to let go of cherishing those whom they perceive as “other” to them, showing that everyone is equally important for our happiness and enlightenment, and everyone is equally kind. And those teachings are not that complicated, either, and you don’t have to be a Buddhist to see the sense and freedom in them.

      Liked by 1 person

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