Teachers who Helped Bring Buddhism to the West

Suzuki Roshi

220px-Shunryu_Suzuki_by_Robert_BoniAll of you are perfect just as you are and you could use a little improvement.

Nicknamed “Crooked Cucumber” by his teacher Gyokujun So-on Suzuki, Suzuki Roshi was part of the first wave of Zen masters who brought their teaching to the US. He first gained an interest in traveling to the west after serving as a translator in England. His employer, an english woman found an interest in Zen, and Suzuki became her teacher. The experience open his eyes to the idea that western students could break through their ignorance or prejudice and learn from the Zen tradition. Suzuki traveled to America for the first time in 1959, landing in San Francisco in the midst of a beat generation just starting to get interested in eastern religion. As the story goes, his growing fame was fairly low key. He began holding sitting in the mornings, and eventually his Sangha grew, and founded the San Francisco Zen Center and Tassajara retreat center.

His teachings emphasized Zazen (meditation practice) above all else, rejuvenating what he saw as a lax and americanized zen being practiced in the us. He also stressed that westerners could help rejuvenate Zen with a fresh beginners mind, without preconceptions.

His influence on spreading of Buddhism in the west is still probably best encapsulated in Zen Mind Beginners Mind, which introduced an entire generation to Buddhism and is still one of the best selling books on meditation in the west.

Khenpo Tsultrim Gyamtso Rinpoche

2First we have to remember desire and anger. Think of friends toward whom you feel desire and enemies toward whom you feel anger. Let desire and anger arise, but then remember that these thoughts are self-liberated, that they do not arise or cease, that their nature is beyond conceptual fabrication. Then thoughts of desire and anger will be self-liberated.

Khenpo is regarded as one of the most highly realized living teachers in the kagyu lineage of Tibetan Buddhism. He has been hugely influential in introducing the yogic tradition of Tibetan Buddhism to the west. Born to Nomads in the Himalayas, Trultrim Gyamtso, spent years wanding tibet as a wandering ascetic, doing solitary retreats in caves in the tradition of the famed buddhist yogi Milarepa. At times he lived in the charnel grounds, doing practices to that work with fear and understanding egolessness and emptiness. After years of intensive study he was awarded the title of Khenpo. Since he has taught around the world, famous for his intellectual acumen and debate skills. Although a famous teacher, Khenpo is still esentially homeless refusing property or money. Those who have seen him teach remember his songs of realization which he sings where ever he teaches.

The Vidyadhara, Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche after meeting Khenpo Rinpoche remarked, “More yogi than khenpo.”

“Know this life to be like a dream.

See the mind’s unborn nature.

Aspire to be of benefit to others.”

D.T. Suzuki

078fogofwarThe truth of Zen, just a little bit of it, is what turns one’s hum drum life, a life of monotonous, uninspiring commonplaceness, into one of art, full of genuine inner creativity.

No list of buddhist pioneers would be complete without D.T. Suzuki. In many ways, Suzuki was the first to spread Zen buddhism to the west. A highly regarded scholar in Japan, Suzuki sought to understand intellectually the zen experience. He was fascinated by how to introduce Zen into a western context, and dedicated his life to this pursuit. He first came to the United States as a translator and quickly made connections with the Theosophists and other groups interested in eastern thought. He attracted the interest of psychologist Carl Jung who wrote a preface to An Introduction to Zen Buddhism, the first book to introduce Zen in English.

Suzuki was a pioneer in Buddhism Modernism–Buddhism that emerged out of its engagement with western culture and psychology. He broke down Zen into its essentials, establishing how Buddhism would be taught taught for generations.

Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche

His_Holiness_Dilgo_Khyentse_Rinpoche's_broad_smile,_Seattle,_Washington,_USA_1976Instead of allowing ourselves to be led and trapped by our feelings, we should let them disappear as soon as they form, like letters drawn on water with a finger.

Kheyentse Rinpoche was a master of Vajrayana buddhism and headed the Nyingma school of Tibetan Buddhism. He is much loved by Tibetan Buddhists and was considered to be a master of the Dzogchen teachings, a tradition dedicated to cultivating and maintaining the primordial natural condition of wakefulness.

Recognized as a reincarnation of Jamyang Khyentse Wangpo, he spent 13 Years in silent retreat in the hermitages and caves of Tibet. At 28 years old he came out of seclusion and began teaching in India. Among his pupils were many of the most revered lamas of today, including the the 14th Dalai Lama. The tibetan tradition owes its preservation of its teachings to Rinpoche, who published a huge amount of teachings that were feared lost in the communist invasion of Tibet.


Thich Nhat Hanh

KONICA MINOLTA DIGITAL CAMERAFear keeps us focused on the past or worried about the future. If we can acknowledge our fear, we can realize that right now we are okay. Right now, today, we are still alive, and our bodies are working marvelously. Our eyes can still see the beautiful sky. Our ears can still hear the voices of our loved ones.

Perhaps adored as much as the Dalai Lama, Thich Nhat Hanh had a huge influence on the spread of buddhism in the west, popularizing mindfulness as a distinct teaching. He was also the first to coin the phrase “engaged buddhism” in reference to his peace activism against the vietnam war. He was born in Vietnam and began training as a monk at age 16. During the war, he traveled to the US and Europe to work with fellow anti-war activists including Martin Luther King Jr. His trip, exiled him from his home. However he continued his work in Europe establishing six monestaries and over 1,000 sanghas worldwide. He has been influential in bringing mindfulness training into schools, businesses and governments

His teachings emphasize mindfulness as a way to be happy in the present moment and to build peace inside and outside.

Dainin Katagiri

220px-Dainin_KatagiriYou cannot find any peace by escaping from human pain and suffering; you have to find peace and harmony right in the midst of human pain. That is the purpose of spiritual life.

Dainin Katagiri played an important role in bring zen to westerns living outside the cosmopolitan hubs of New York or California. Katagiri was born in Osaka, Japan and moved to the united states in 1965 to teach at Zenshuji mission in Los Angeles. He became Suzuki Roshi’s assistant until his death. In the early 70’s he moved to Minneapolis, MN with the intention of founding a sangha in place without access to teachers.  

Dalai Lama 

Dalailama1_20121014_4639Altruism has two aspects. Loving others does not mean that we should forget ourselves. When I say that we should be compassionate, this does not mean helping others at the expense of ourselves. Not at all. Sometimes I say that the buddhas and bodhisattvas are the most selfish of all.  Why?  Because by cultivating altruism they achieve ultimate happiness.

No teacher has has raised the profile of Buddhism in the west more than the 14th Dalai Lama. Tenzun Gyatso was born in Tibet and recognized as the Dalai Lama as a child. He is part of the Gelukpa school which has managed the tibetan government since the 17th century. As a Dalai Lama, he is considered to be  successor in a line incarnations of Avalokitesvara. He has headed the Tibetan government in Exile until stepping down in 2011. Following a lifelong interest in science, he has sought dialogue on what he considers the affinities between Buddhism and modern science. In the 80’s he established the first Mind and Life conference which has grown into an institution that brings together scientists on the cutting edge of neuroscience, quantum mechanics and psychology.

While advocating for the Tibetan people on the world stage, he articulates a Buddhist perspective on pressing global issues.

Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche

68896018Walking the spiritual path properly is a very subtle process; it is not something to jump into naively. There are numerous sidetracks which leades to a distorted, ego-centered version of spirituality; we can deceive ourselves into thinking we are developing spiritually when instead we are strengthening our egocentricity through spiritual techniques. This fundamental distortion may be referred to as spiritual materialism.

Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche is most famous for bringing Vajrayana Buddhism to the west and founding Shambhala Buddhism. Born in Tibet in 1939 he was recognized as an incarnate lama in the Kagyu school of Tibetan buddhism. When the Chinese invaded, he led a group of monks and nuns on foot across the Himalayas into India. During their journey he had a vision of Shambhala, a mythical paradise envisioned in buddhist and hindu texts, could be established on earth through practices that uncover one’s basic confidence and dignity. On a scholarship, he studied religion and Oxford and began teaching in England. A serious car crash made him re-evaluate how he was teaching dharma to western students. He took off his robes and vowed to present buddhism to westerners in an understandable and non-exotic form.

Moving to the US in 1970, Trungpa developed a network of Shambhala meditation centers throughout North America. Along with teaching from the Kagyu and Nyingma traditions of Tibetan Buddhism, he developed a program of secular mindfulness meditation called Shambhala training that is still taught today. Trungpa had a style that was outrageous and unpredictable. He constantly challenged his students expectations of how a guru should act. In Tibetan Buddhism this style of teaching is known as the “crazy wisdom” tradition.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *