(download into iTunes)
Agnes: Are there differences really between Buddhism as 500 BC versus Tibetan Buddhism? Or is it just... Why do you call it Tibetan Buddhism, just because it is from Tibet, rather than Cambodia Buddhism or others?
Ken: Well, this is a very interesting point. When you look at Buddhism in China, Tibet, well I was going to say Japan, Vietnam, Sri Lanka and Thailand, to the outside observer you’re dealing with really different religions because you’ll find almost no forms that are common.
In terms of rituals: in Thailand they have the bathing of the Buddha, unknown in the Tibetan tradition.
In the Tibetan tradition you have these lama dances, unknown in the Theravadan tradition; it just looks like demon worship.
In Zen, in Japan you have people going around hitting each other, unknown in Theravadan, not unknown in Tibet, but done very differently in Tibet, nothing like the precision and formality in Japanese.
So they really look like very, very different religions. Yet when Buddhists from those different countries start talking with each other they find that they’re working with very, very similar material, some of it more elaborate and some of it less elaborate, but with very similar understanding, virtually the same understanding.
When you contrast that with Christianity, Islam and Judaism, which are totally comparable because they all stem from Abraham. They are one religion and yet there is these tremendous difficulties and tensions among them in the way that this does not exist among the Buddhist traditions.
So the reason that we call things Tibetan Buddhism and Cambodian and things like that is primarily because of the geographical isolation that these different Buddhist traditions experienced for hundreds of years, thousands really.
And now that geographical isolation has ended, there is a great deal of interaction taking place, which is very interesting. So we’re seeing different forms emerge. But that’s the primary reason is because these are the ones associated with different countries.
Agnes: What you’re describing, the differences seemed to be more the ritual. What about the essence, the dharma itself? Does it have basic differences between these countries?
Ken: Not in my experience.
There are some people who would say that Dzogchen and Theravadan are different religions; I don’t buy it. I think they’re different ways of talking about the same thing.
The rituals and the forms that go with them are very, very different. To a certain extent the spiritual ideals are different. That is, you have a different picture of what they look like, but in the actual experience and everything I don’t find those differences.
I have a colleague who is very, very similar to me except that his training was all in the Theravadan tradition. Whereas I know Tibetan, he knows Pali. He’s put a lot of thought into translation and we have very, very interesting discussions.
Because Theravadans are all set up as straw dogs in the Mahayana — you know, it’s the “Hinayana” [lesser vehicle]. And I discovered much to my amusement that the Mahayanists are set up as straw dogs [ed. in the Therevadan tradition].
He said once, “Oh you Mahayana essentialists!” which is like, you know, a terrible thing to call a Buddhist, an essentialist. But we have virtually no differences in our understanding of what Buddhism is actually about and what the aim is. He’s evolved a way of teaching which is quite unique, which is different from — but is analogous to what I’ve evolved. There’s just that kind of commonality.