Does our appropriation of Tibetan Buddhism make our practice Vajrayana or is it something else?

I taught myself how to read Tibetan so I am just as guilty as anyone of my generational cohorts when it comes to our sad preoccupation with the purely cultural elements of the Vajrayana Tibetans have encouraged us to take up over the past decades.

Here at Chicago KTC we did so for purely local reasons.

We felt the need to differentiate ourselves from the local Dharmadhatu by being more Tibetan at a time when Trungpa was going in another direction.

For me personally I learned Tibetan because I wanted to translate for myself the Tibetan pujas that became a thing for us at the time.

I’m a critical thinker.

I just had to drill down into the pujas I was reciting when we gathered.

It was also cool.

I liked getting granular with the text.

But we went in this direction as a sangha because it was the total opposite direction than Trungpa’s which was really what we were about at the time.

We wanted to be different from them.

Dharmadhatu was preppy.

Yuppie scum.

We were the hippies by comparison.

These were things that mattered to us in our twenties.

And of course it goes without saying that we thought we were on the right side of history.

We believed that over the course of time we would all be lamas of a flourishing sangha here in Chicago and that nobody would even remember what Dharmadhatu is, which is in fact how our little competition played out.

I did became the lama Khenpo Karthar Rinpoche saw in me when I took refuge with him as did three other people I came up with here at Chicago KTC.

The notable difference being they paid for the privilege.

None of us but me lives in Chicago anymore.

To their credit though none became teachers of Buddhism, the worst of outcomes for a lama.

One is still at Karme Ling with Rinpoche.

He became a monk.

One is in hiding.

The other is apostate.

He hates Khenpo Karthar Rinpoche, and so on.

I’m flourishing here.

And there is no KTC in Chicago anymore either.


It’s true that in 2017 nobody remembers Chicago Dharmadhatu.

And those hideous polyester three piece suits Trungpa made the men wear.

And those stupid lapel pins by which they distinguished what level of enlightenment they had attained.

Or whatever that was about.

At this point they were making it all up as they went along it seems.

On the other hand we can’t say that our going Tibetan as we did, each went in own way, benefited anyone but Tibetans.

OTD in 2017!owns a piece of real estate in Cicero, Illinois.

He can add this to his billion dollar net worth.

You can’t get to Chicago KTC from Chicago without risking your life but none of this is about us.

More to the point I submit for your consideration that we were both wrong about the future of Vajradhara in Chicago.

We faired no better than Chicago Dharmadhatu in this regard.

We both made the same mistake.

We both relied on Tibetans.

Thus Vajradhara is no longer in the house.

Long after we had received that which we needed from Tibetans to become Karma Kagyu in our own right we balked at doing so, each for our own personal reasons.

When a teenage OTD made it known that he wanted a building a building and none of us really question the wisdom of doing so.

That being said in retrospect it didn’t have to be this way.

All that really matters is that it did happen.

And that if we are so inclined we are today in a position to strip it down to the studs, to the Vajrayana, what we began with as Buddhists, lose the Tibetans, lose their Chinese Buddhist Mahayana spiritual materialism, and get back to Vajradhara, the primordial disruption which animates us all as true Karma Kagyu as such at least here in the West, why we became Karma Kagyu in the first place.



Filed under Buddhism

18 responses to “Does our appropriation of Tibetan Buddhism make our practice Vajrayana or is it something else?

  1. nikolas kaugon

    as i have made obvious i think trumpa is proof you can sell anything to americans if you flatter their egos and their sense of entitlement. that being said yeah i know quite a few karma kagyu and shangpa kagyu who feel those who trained well or did three year retreats were not given the support that would have led to a better quality and size of sangha.

    i will say for the nyingma i have been with the well trained have been given important and hekpfull roles that grew the sangha.

  2. Ramsey


    Have you ever looked into Chia-Chen Wu, one of the other legs in the Kagyu Monlam Wikileaks scandal? This is who she is:

    She appears to be one of the illegal financial backers of the monlam. Ironically she also lives here in the US.

    Be careful not to rule out Malaysia as a source of these hidden funds too.

    Worst of all is Lama Chodrak:

    Here is his official cleaned up bio:

  3. Sam

    Cultural appropriation?
    I think we borrow from other cultures when we need terms to describe concepts not addressed in our own culture.
    Of course most people who practice meditation at some point approach Tibetan Buddhism.
    The colorful exotic bits of tantric Tibet have always appealed to me – the art, chanting, and use of elaborate ritual draw your meditation into sensually stimulating heights.
    Yet, I continue to exist in an almost two dimensional culture where I need to adopt a particular attitude to work, survive and simply get along with others. It’s difficult to wed the two, so I live an almost secretive life, hiding what interests me from people in my own environment.
    My perception of Tibetan Buddhism in the west is of a culture that has adopted aggressively materialistic methods to disseminate itself in a world of big business and financial pursuits. It’s no different than Catholicism in this regard. It has caused serious damage and gives a bad flavor to people seeking relief and alternatives to this stale flimsy materialistic America.
    Add to that modern Chinese culture, whose materialism grows by leaps and bounds – their middle class with values similar to 1950 america. I see Tibetan lamas catering to the predominantly moralistic atmosphere of China because the money is there.
    It’s become a disneyfied safe materialized dogma promising salvation to those who can afford it.
    Yet as I’ve said already, the message and context is relayed to those paying attention, without regard to the authenticity of the message bearer.
    It’s what you make of it, so to speak.
    There will be no qualified teachers from that portion of the planet in the near future, but there will always be those who meditate, who pay attention and understand.
    Since you’ve always and will always be on your own it hardly matters.

  4. Dear Bill,

    You cannot appropriate what has been freely given. Since the Tibetan exodus out of Tibet lamas like the 16th Karmapa have freely given the Buddha dharma to all those who were interested.

    Bill you keep talking like you and your friends were the only ones who were active in the US practicing Karma Kagyu Buddhism. You were not and are not now the only ones. Please remove your blinders. There are many many who as you have alluded to have already cast off the chains of Tibetan culture that we westerners could not either understand, appreciate, or otherwise. Many of us did not want to be too churchy or cultish. We have kept things that were essential to the practice and still have the genuine appreciation of our teachers without who we would never have met the teachings. There is a middle way that has for the last 40+ years functioned well and continues to grow.


  5. Oh and one more thing it might be interesting to see once in a while what the trolls say. If it is so bad it will be obvious what they stand for or support.


    • As with all bloggers I have my trolls.

      These people are not welcome to post comments here, a privilege they have abused in the past.

      I read their comments and benefit from their obsession with me as a blogger.

      They can be interesting.

      If not for their obsession with me I wouldn’t have an issue with them here.

      For every one comment posted here they post ten comments.

      They can go on for days at a time.

      And they are creepy, too.

      The last thing you want to do is read this people before going to bed.

      There have been times here in the past were one of these people was stalking me.

      I deleted their comment.

      While I was at breakfast with friends they called me up to threaten me.

      I’m perfectly okay with my present arrangement with these people.

      They keep me on my toes.

      For this I acknowledge their contribution by not deleting their comments outright but just their text.

      I acknowledge their presence but that I as far as I’m prepared to allow them here.

  6. Nothing is really separate in terms of our own experience. So, Vajrayana would have to include anything. What you can’t do, is impose experience on anyone. Just like you can’t impose culture. Just learning a language does not mean the essence of a culture/experience is ascertained. It was an awkward assumption to think that just by doing what they did in a purely physical, mechanical manner that an “outsider” would achieve enlightenment or, minimally, that it would preserve their culture.

    My issue has always been that we already know it, that’s the nature of it, it is just waiting to be identified, and if they wanted to transmit it, they would find it within our culture and point that out to us. Traleg Rinpoche was the closest I’ve seen come to this. Pema Chodron speaks to our minds but not quite in the same way as Traleg Rinpoche. Chogyam was just experimenting.

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