How does Lama Shenpen tailor her teachings for a Western audience?

A student asks: 

“Why don’t you emphasize the Four Thoughts that turn the mind from samsara and especially the traditional teachings on karma very much in your teachings and training programme?”

Lama Shenpen replies:

The traditional Four Thoughts that turn the mind from samsara are the precious human birth, impermanence, karma and suffering.

In a culture where everyone believes in the idea of karma and the six realms of rebirth in samsara and in the idea of the Buddha who delivers us from the suffering of samsara, the only reason people do not practise Dharma, the path to Awakening, diligently with all their heart and energy is that they forget their beliefs and let laziness lure them away from the path.

So, given that conceptual framework and those strong beliefs that are already in place, all the teacher needs to do to motivate his students is to tell them to really think long and hard about the implications of those beliefs. That is a sure way of getting them to get up off their backsides and get on with the practice!

However, I am not teaching people within such a cultural framework. To begin with we do not live in a mono-culture where everyone thinks the same about life and death issues such as whether there are future lives or not.

A person first needs to be motivated to practice the path to Awakening and then they may start to open up to the possibility that awareness is not of the nature of something that dies.

But students have to discover that for themselves. Otherwise one is simply asking them to accept a belief because of the authority of the tradition. To start with there is no particular reason for students to think that the tradition has it right. So, first they need some common ground, something they know that they believe in and with good reason.

So I start where people are. I start with what is motivating people to come to learn about Buddhism in the first place. They are looking for a spiritual path, for meaning, for truth, for peace of mind, for a path to happiness, for a way of overcoming their feelings of hopelessness and lack of direction in life.

They are looking for something that will make their life make sense to them and enable them to live out their deep wish to be of benefit to others and to the world.

This motivation is the one that I am getting them to home in on and deepen. This will keep them on the meditation cushion and at the practice in general long enough for them to gain some experience of what the path is all about.

The Living the Awakened Heart courses then give students the opportunity to explore their whole world view and open up to new possibilities in their own time.

I don’t try to sell them some kind of doctrinal package deal that they have to accept or give up. It is not necessary to do that.

The important thing is that people are living good lives that will bring them good karma. Generally speaking, I don’t see my students failing to do this. Generally speaking, they do not kill, steal, lie, abuse others sexually or use substances irresponsibly.

If they do any of these things, they already consider these actions problematic and are seeking to stop doing them. That is why they are seeking to become more open, clear and sensitive. The immediate suffering such actions bring is already motivating them to give them up.

This is not to say that there are not subtleties introduced by linking right action to karmic results, but these are not really what the Four Thoughts are all about. Such considerations are not really a means of galvanising one to practise Dharma more diligently.

Most of the thrust of the four thoughts is about giving up making bad karma and putting all one’s efforts into making good karma and about not being complacent, thinking such considerations can be left for later. There may not be any later.

One can die at any time. To make sure the student doesn’t take the attitude ‘well, I can always practice later on in my next life’, the first thought is that it is not that easy to get an opportunity such as the one we have now.

That is the key to the whole approach. Traditionally your typical ‘lazy’ practitioner feels that there is plenty of time in future lives to gain liberation. In the meantime it’s good to make some good karma to help oneself and one’s family and friends to have good lives. This is a very prevalent attitude in traditional Buddhist cultures.

It is therefore beneficial to deliberately unsettle people by pointing out what a good opportunity they have now to practise and how suddenly all this can come to an end and actually just how uncertain it is what will happen next.

This kind of scare-mongering is delivered to people who actually have complete faith in the saving power of the Buddha. The more you tell them they are likely to go to hell, the more they will feel gratitude for being safely held in the saving grace of the Buddha.

It does not scare them rigid because they have no doubt about the Buddha. So as they hear about hell, their thoughts turn immediately to the Buddha with a sense of gratitude and commitment. It works perfectly.

It doesn’t work on a person who is not convinced by the world view that is implied by all this or on someone who is convinced that they are destined for hell and that nothing can save them. You would be surprised how many Western practitioners I have met who tend towards this second way of thinking.

Often the effect of telling Western practitioners that it is uncertain they will ever get a human life again is to think ‘well, I may as well give up then, since I am not going to make it to Enlightenment in this life, that is for sure.’

That is why I end up stressing inescapable heart connections rather than karma, rebirth and the precious human life. I would stress the preciousness of human life more if I thought people were really convinced by the world-view implied by it – but that world view is quite complex actually.

So with one simple idea of inescapable connections, I am able to motivate and reassure people in one go. It is our connections with others that gives our life meaning and as soon as we stop to consider the possibility that our connections with others do not disappear just because we reject or cut ourselves off from them, it becomes obvious that it really matters how we treat others.

All that is necessary is to be open to the idea that in some way or other we never lose those connections and we are automatically motivated to take care of how we treat others. At the same time it gives us the sense that our existence is meaningful, powerful and workable. It satisfies our intuitive sense of what life should be about.

So here we have my reasons for teaching as I do. This way I do not get into doctrinal tangles of trying to prove that what the Buddha said about the six realms is true and if indeed he did say that and how would we know any of this anyway.

I can proceed directly by tapping into a much more immediate and a much deeper motivation that comes directly from the Awakened Heart itself. I appeal directly to each person’s Buddha Nature and somehow that seems to really work!

The very last point in the four thoughts that the student is asked to reflect on is, in fact, the most important and the most difficult. Having considered the sufferings of samsara in general, the student has to focus on the sufferings of the god realms.

Here we come to the crux of the matter. The states of joy, love, wisdom and peace attainable in the god realms sounds like the very things that we came to the Dharma to find.

So what exactly is wrong with practice that is focused on attaining such states? This is not a simple question to answer. Its implications are deep and vast. My whole training programme is about finding the answer to this question!

Lama Shenpen Hookham

 If you are interested in finding out more about Lama Shenpen’s Living the Awakened Heart training, which brings the profound teachings of Mahamudra and Dzogchen to Western students through experiential ‘spiral learning’ distance study programme in meditation, reflection and insight, visit