Have you seen those fliers resting in storefront windows and hanging from light poles all over town with the headline, "Buddhism in the 21st Century"? They are advertising a talk tonight
at the Winningstad Theatre by Lama Ole Nydahl
, the former drug dealer and street boxer from Denmark who now travels the globe lecturing on his unique, Western brand
of Tibetan Buddhism
, the "Diamond Way
As you might expect from somebody with such a rough and tumble past, Nydahl has his share of detractors. Some Buddhists are turned off by his skydiving, openly sexual, rockstar personality, in many ways the opposite of the common image of the Buddhist as a monk who stays above the sins of the world by retreating from them the meditate his life away in a temple. Others can forgive him the sex and motorcycles, but simply find his remarks about Islam to be xenophobic. But it's not like everybody's an enemy: you don't found 600 Diamond Way centers around the world without a devoted following.
Speaking with him, it's easy to understand why people flock to the Lama. He projects a kind of warm equanimity and, even over the phone, there is a palpable charisma
. He comes across as a friendly person who does really care for the person he's talking to. Perhaps this makes him the head of a cult of personality
. But then, what religious (or secular) leader is there who can avoid that charge? Does anybody remember John McCain's Obama-is-a- Celebrity ad
? It's not like the 67-year-old Nydahl hasn't done the work: he and his deceased wife Hannah studied for years in Tibet under the 16th Karmapa, Rangjung Rigpei Dorje
What follows is a Q&A WW
conducted last week with Nydahl, who was in Hawaii working on a new book.
Q: Why Buddhism? What about it called you?
It's all very natural to me. I think this is something I promised to do in the last life... Already as a small child, I was dreaming about protecting civilian populations in parts of the Eastern Himalayas which I saw, my wife and I later saw when we traveled secretly through that part. It was very interesting.
I had all these dreams about men an women in red skirts and protecting them, and painted mountains, which we don't have in Denmark, and all kinds of things... My wife and I, on our honeymoon, met some of the finest Tibetan meditation teachers and spent between three and four years with them in the Himalayas. And the in '72 we were asked to go home and see if our friends wanted to do meditation.
Why has Buddhism seen such an explosion in the West?
Well it's free. It doesn't tell you what to do, it just tells you to develop your potential. Buddha doesn't judge. He's a friend, giving advice, and that makes it easy for a lot of people to accept what he says. And you can experience it, you get methods, you don't just get words, you get methods. You can do meditations and you can feel that you don't just get older, but also wiser, which is also very nice.
And the Christians can't complain. For every five people in the East—in China and Japan and Korea, places like that—who become Christians, there's probably one who really decides to go the Buddhist way in the West. In both cases it's the same, though. [Christianity] got a bit too institutionalized, not so much feeling and experience anymore. And in the East, Buddhism got too stiff and ritualistic and nobody could understand anything in the end. People don't know what's going on. They see some monks and they're shuffling here and there in some very well-kept beautiful old places, but they've got no idea what's going on.
Buddhism has a very big weakness with that, because, when you have a religion that's watertight (and based on direct, mystical experience), and there's nothing there to believe, you just have to study more and you see...if you have something like that, well you meet with a few friends and talk some high spiritual things and enjoy that and wish everybody happiness. But if you have a religion that's a bit like a Swiss cheese, logically, where you have to believe a lot of things because you can't know them, then you try to convince others in order to convince yourself, especially if you have a terrible god like Allah making you do criminal things. Of course you have to make everybody agree, because otherwise you look bad. So that's more or less how it is.
It's difficult to be solid, you know, in philosophy because you forget about the ordinary guys. Actually, Buddhism in India was destroyed through two or three Arab invasions
a thousand years ago. They killed all the people who could read or write and the rest became superstitious.
In your view, is there a redeeming value within the Abrahamic religions?
The Abrahamic religions, the ones that follow our constitution, treat women well, don't blow up people, you know, who are not involved in their problems...Judaism and Christianity are fine. Islam, I warn against. I know the Koran, I know the life story of Mohammad and I think we cannot use that in our society today.
People like the Sufis
are different, right. They are usually being killed as soon as the mainline Muslims come in, they start killing the other guys. They want you to believe just because it's said, and you should not have any proof.
What other global issues concern you
Overpopulation. It is destroying the variety and multiplicity of different kinds of life which makes our world so rich.
What role can Buddhism play in fixing these problems? A criticism that has been leveled against the religion is that it can be a bit withdrawn.
Navel observing, and nothing else [laughs
]? I think we do have a role. Buddhists are non-political. Any political idea one has, is not because of Buddhism. It's one's responsibility as a citizen. We do not get involved as Buddhists in political things, but we do, as members of society, act as protectors of our constitutions and women's freedom and stuff like that.
How does one divorce those beliefs? Can a person really hold religious and political ideas separately without the one contaminating the other? Can you take a stance as a moral agent, and then claim you're not being political?
I know, it isn't easy, but we always say that. We always say that. Of course, you cannot divide your mind, you know, but it's just...Buddhism has no official politics. But Buddhists, right, they have their own politics. I can tell you for instance that I was asked to give statements about the war in Georgia, right? And I just had to say, even though they were possible donors and several good friends, I just had to say, "I'm sorry, I wasn't there, I didn't see it," you know? And if Buddhism gets involved with Buddhist statements to political things, it just doesn't work.
Even in America also, I think some of our young people were a bit too boisterous [about the presidential election].
What is a typical day like for you? How much time do you spend in meditation?
Actually, I do some practices in the morning where you sort of slide out to your full length and open up to your Buddha Nature. That's one thing I do and then I guide, usually in lectures every night, I guide the meditation also there. But the rest of the time, I sort of am in meditation because my mind doesn't change, because I've meditated 40 years and I've also had all kinds of little things in my head when I was meditating, proving that some unusual things happen there when I meditate. So I would say, actually, the reason I can be so effective, working as much as I am, sleeping as little as I do, is actually that I am sort of in meditation all the time.
What does that mean? Is there a certain awareness that you carry around with you all the time?
It means you are that which is between and behind the thoughts, and which is aware of the thoughts. You are the mirror behind the pictures, the ocean underneath the waves. The awareness which knows and understands what's going on. That is what one is.
What is your goal going forward?
I am doing what my teachers told me to do. I'm not making my own agendas or anything. The 16th Karmapa told me exactly what I should do. When my wife died sitting in meditation in my arms about a year-and-a-half ago, then I continued on by myself. I talked to the 17th Karmapa, and he said "Please, go on. Please, go on." And I continued, because I think I'm youthful.
How many schools do you have?
We have about 600 now, worldwide. Nothing in Africa because...well, they're probably not in an abstract mindset right now. And then also, none in the Muslim countries where people can be killed by leaving Islam, and so on. But except for that, North and South America, Oceania, Eurasia of course, above all, from Scotland through Vladivostok and a little bit in Japan, also.
Doesn't it become hard to have personal relationships with the students when you have so many?
Yes. We have been saved, actually. Science is our best friend, you know. We would not have been able to make Russians and Australians meditate the same way, you know, it we didn't have streaming. I'm on streaming nearly...not quite when I go to the toilet, but everywhere else (laughs
). There's so much happening with streaming. Every lecture, and it's around the world. It's so important, it's so important to keep everybody up and going.
Bonus: Here are some videos of Lama Ole speaking to his students:
First topic: Karma