Spirit Grooves Blogs

Published on January 19, 2015

I have written on this before, but apparently I am not done with the topic, which has to do with the dharma and its trappings. Let me give you an example.

It is traditional when greeting a Tibetan rinpoche or monk to offer a white scarf, called a Khata. Generally the khata is draped over our two hands, palms up, and the hands are slightly extended to the rinpoche, who receives the khata and either keeps it or, more often, puts it around our neck as a blessing. American students do this, well, religiously.

So it came as a bit of a surprise for me when many years ago a close Tibetan friend of mine, a translator for great rinpoches (including H.H. the 17th Karmapa) told me that we westerners had it all wrong. And he explained that to the Tibetans the white scarf is like what here in America we would call an empty envelope. It is supposed to have something on top of it, like an offering, usually some money or a flower, etc. It was embarrassing for him to see us endlessly offering these great teachers empty envelopes. Americans obviously didn't know any better.

He also pointed out that when Tibetans have a white scarf placed around their neck by a rinpoche, they immediately take it off, fold it, and put it away. It is considered arrogant to leave it on, as if we are giving added importance to ourselves. And, of course, we have rooms full of Americans with blessed scarves on standing around, some wearing them all day long. Culture kind of stumbles forward as best it can.

My point here is not to make fun of Americans, but to show how easily traditions are misunderstood or altered, yet blithely passed on as if they were authentic, when actually something has been lost, and, as the bard wrote, "… you don't know what it is, do you Mister Jones?" We don't. Our intention is good, but something has been lost in the translation of the transaction. Another friend of mine, a swami, would call this the "soup of the soup of the soup," meaning the original soup is cut with water, and successively cut again, etc., until it approaches a homeopathic state.

I find this equally true of the dharma itself. In a word, the "dharma" is the method that the historical Buddha used to enlighten himself, how he did it. It is also how we can enlighten ourselves. I have had some problems in the past myself (and still do) confusing the authentic dharma (the method) with the Tibetan trappings it comes wrapped in.

The teachings point out that we should respect all sentient beings equally. However, if a sentient being also carries the dharma within him or herself in a realized form, that being (perhaps a rinpoche or a monk) is to be accorded even greater respect. It is not that a monk or a rinpoche physically is more respectable than any of the rest of us, but it is the dharma that we respect as realized in them, to whatever degree that may be, i.e. think the message and not the messenger.

The fact that Buddha Nature is within each one of us kinds of thickens the plot a bit, which is perhaps why Buddhists feel that all sentient beings should be accorded respect. We all carry within us the precious nature of our own mind.

My point here is to remind myself not to confuse the wrapper with the wrapped, to the degree that they are different. In the case of the Khata, the traditional white scarf of the Tibetans, it is only the wrapper and nothing else. In day to day life, things are not so cut and dried. It is easy to confuse the sacred with the profane. Of course, perhaps we should consider everything sacred, in which case I have no point here at all.

"Keep your eye on the prize" as the old folk song says. Remember what is important. It is the dharma that is the prize; that is what is important. Offering an empty white scarf with sincere intent is more important than misunderstanding a traditional Tibetan ritual.

And I have pointed out before that, as more Americans realize the dharma and discover the nature of their own mind, so will they lay aside the Tibetan wrapping in which it so carefully came and emerge just as they are, realized American Buddhists. Then it will be American Buddhism with all its trappings.

"Keep Your Eye on the Prize."

[Drawing done by my brother Tom Erlewine for a dharma catalog we produced years ago.]