Tim Olmsted is a Tibetan Buddhist dharma teacher in Colorado and the founder of the Buddhist Center of Steamboat Springs. In a recent interview in Tricycle Magazine, Olmsted spoke about his anxieties that, in an attempt to accommodate itself to a western context, Buddhist teaching is being watered down and losing its transformative power.
Here is a bit of the interview from the print edition of Tricycle Magazine.
Q. So you’re concerned that the heart of dharma is being jettisoned in favor of feel-good shortcuts?
A. If this presentation of the path is approached by people with enthusiasm—and it works for them—then I’m interested in what we can learn from that. Recently, I was talking to one of Tulku Urgyen’s sons about Buddhism in the West—about how the message has been repackaged in order to be palatable to Westerners. He said that he feared that the experiment might not work, because in this process we might run the risk of losing the power of the dharma.
Q. The power?
A. The power to transform. There’s a completely understandable desire to adapt the dharma to what Westerners can handle. But we run the risk of taking the heart and the power out of it. And if the power goes out of it, people won’t have the personal experiences that will carry them far along the path. Then the whole thing might simply collapse.
Q. Can you be a bit more specific?
A. The Buddhist tradition starts with the historical Buddha: he had a beautiful life, but he saw that it was utterly pointless. He was willing to give it all up and endure tremendous hardship to find out what was on the other side. That example of dedication and bravery is what this path is founded on. And so if we approach dharma on the basis of what is comfortable for us—what we like, what we don’t like, what fits into our lives conveniently without having to give anything up—that may be some kind of path, but I’m not sure it reflects the example of the Buddha’s own life. I also wonder if it will bear fruit.
Q. Do you think sacrifice is critical? We need to give up something. We can’t have it all. We can’t try to layer wisdom on top of confusion. The spiritual path is about what we give up, not what we get. We seem to always want to get something—spiritual insights or experiences—as a kind of commodity. We sign up for a retreat and expect that we’ll have this or that wonderful experience or this or that special teaching. But don’t these wisdom traditions teach us that, in essence, there’s nothing to get? We need to give up what obscures the abiding wisdom and the abiding reality—the wisdom and reality that is already here. That’s the gospel of the Buddha, but I wonder if we’re listening to it.
This exchange illustrates a fascinating tension with which any faith tradition must struggle and with which Christianity has struggled since its beginning with varying degrees of success and some disastrous failures.
How much accommodation to the prevailing culture is appropriate in an attempt to communicate the message in a new context? At what point does the shaping of the message to communicate constitute the loss of the message? What are the necessary parameters around a particular faith tradition, beyond which the tradition itself is lost? And, who gets to decide what are the non-negotiable defining characteristics of the faith tradition and what are the bits that can be reshaped in an attempt to communicate more adequately in a new context?
In the Christian tradition through the centuries, different people have come to different conclusions in response to all these questions. Tragically, rather than working together with the differences, our tendency has been to demonize anyone who draws the line in a different place. This is an unlikely strategy for deepening our ability to embody the transformative reality of the love to which our tradition is intended to bear witness.