An Interview with Acharya Lhakpa Tshering

Acharya Lhakpa is much loved by those of us studying and practicing in the Nalandabodhi sanghas of  Connecticut, New York, and Philadelphia. Recently we interviewed Acharya, asking him questions that went right to the core of the way Western Buddhist students approach the path to awakening. Acharya spoke very beautifully about making the Buddhist teachings part of your life.

What is it like to teach to Western students? What’s different about teaching Buddhism here in the West?

It’s totally different than it was when I was growing up in Asia, where Buddhism is taken as a granted. When we were taught about Buddhism, we just accepted that “These are the teachings of Buddha and the great scholars,” and that’s how it is in Asia most of the time. But with Western students it’s completely different. They are very inquisitive. They always want to know, “Why is it this way?” and “Why do we have to do it like this?” So they start with questions.

That is how Buddha started his journey, with questions. When he went out from the palace for the first time he saw a sick person, an old aged person, a corpse, and a meditator. On each occasion he asked a question to his guide: Who is this? Does this happen to everybody including me? and so on. So I think that questioning is very interesting and unique in the western audience.

And Buddhism itself is also very unique, very clear. It’s like Ponlop Rinpoche says, it’s like clear water, and if you pour it into different containers — if you pour it into a Western container — it will just take that shape.

Westerners often think they need to do a long silent retreat in the mountains to be able to practice Buddhism. What do you think?

Well, maybe in the beginning it’s useful to begin in a quiet place, perhaps in the center where you go to meditate. But later on, you have to bring the practice into every area of your life. We often think we need to be in a quiet place to be able to practice. But if that’s the way you look at it, then the teachings become like a burden, rather than an inseparable flavor in your life.

Sometimes Westerners get inspiration from the stories of great masters of India and Tibet, like so and so had done six months of meditation in a cave and so on.  And often Westerners think they have to take a 6-month break from their work to do a certain practice. But whatever it is, the practice has to be internalized. If you think the practice has to be separate from your day-to-day lifestyle, then you’ll approach your practice and your personal life as two different things. But it has to become part of your life, inseparable.

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