What has Buddhism to offer modern day Sweden and who is interested in it? by Allan Fotheringham

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What has Buddhism to offer modern day Sweden and who is interested in it?
The historical Buddha and his teachings

The fourth Buddha of our age, Buddha Shakyamuni passed away approx 2,500 years ago. During his lifetime he was able to singlehandedly free himself from all harmfulness to self and others, and to develop the limitless positive qualities of wisdom, love & compassion, joy, and freedom from suffering which many people long for, and many admire. He not only became a living example that this is possible but also proclaimed that every living being has the potential to do the same. The good news in Buddhism is that all sentient beings have this potential, and with lesser or greater effort can experience it to a lesser or greater degree. Fortunately, Buddha Shakyamuni was willing to share his experiences and practical advice with others. This he did for almost fifty years, slowly and carefully tending to the needs of his ordained students and laymen alike. Before passing away the Buddha told his followers that he had explained every aspect of the path he had travelled without leaving anything out. His final teaching was his exhortation that since he had shown the path in its entirety, it was now up to each individual to put it into practise if they wanted to get the results.

During the Buddha`s life as a teacher he never excluded a single person who requested advice, rather, he taught each and every individual according to their inclination and ability. These people included high caste, low cast, and outcast! All this information from a life of teaching is what forms the basis of Buddhism, the goal of which might be said to be the alleviation and freedom from all suffering.

An important message in Buddhism is that although it may seem that we are following a certain discipline which gives a certain result, it is rather that the result is already present. The path of Buddhism, when understood properly and put into practice, results in our innate potential being able to break through or manifest and develop, resulting in the qualities described above. If this were not the case, then any of the positive qualities developed would only be temporary.

As most people reading this will be familiar with the Buddha`s teachings we do not need to go into the details. One famous quote concerning Buddhism which is attributed to Buddha himself is:

“Avoid even the slightest harm,
Develop even the smallest virtue,
Tame your own mind,
This is the Buddha`s teaching”

The first two lines discuss the moral ethics of not harming others, but rather to be of help. The third line points out that in order to do so we will have to be able to understand how our mind functions as it is the mind that motivates how we think, speak, and act. Although these lines seem simple enough they are in fact the shortest explanation of Buddhism which contains vast amounts of informat-ion concerning the theory and practical application behind them.

Historically it is said that during Buddha`s lifetime he explained the complete path during three periods of time. In the Tibetan tradition these three periods are in direct connection to the practitioner`s development and are called the 3 Yanas or vehicles; Hinayana, Mahayana, and Vajrayana. (Here these terms should not be seen as pertaining to any historical or geographical aspects of Buddhism, eg Theravada etc.). During all three periods when Buddha taught, and at all the three levels of the individual practitioner, the Buddha emphasised the importance of two aspects; 1.Theory (or philosophy) and 2.Practise. Since that time until today there is an unbroken living tradition or lineage of philosophers and practitioners who have kept both of these subjects alive. In Tibetan these two are called; 1.That which has been taught, and 2.That which has been experienced. The first means the information or theory or philosophy concerning the practise of Buddhism. The second is experiential information and techniques from Buddha himself (and other practitioners after him). Is philosophy and practise both necessary? If we wish to travel the Buddhist path, attain freedom from suffering, and be of benefit to others then both are deemed important. With philosophy alone we will never be able to experience the freedom and qualities that we have learned about. This would be like a person describing a beautiful, huge, cosy mansion, and at the same time having to live in a dreary small apartment! With practise alone we risk wasting precious time and energy as we are not completely sure of what we are doing. The traditional example is of an archer shooting arrows at a target in a dark room. For sure one or two arrows will hit if you shoot long enough, but?! Though both philosophy and practise are deemed important we should not forget that Buddha said that he had given so many teachings in so many varieties as it was so important to inspire people to actually start putting into practise what they had studied!

In conclusion, Buddhism is a path containing both theory and practical techniques which are geared to bring about the awakening and development of the individual. This is said to be the most meaningful thing a person can do, and will benefit both the individual and his/her surroundings. Due to the unbroken lineages, we today still have experts in both the philosophy and the practise who can help us. It is from this simple context of theory/practise and the 3 -Yana principle that we will continue.

The spread of Buddhism

During Buddha`s lifetime his teachings spread throughout India. Around 200 BC they spread to Sri Lanka and Southeast Asia, to China in the 1st century, to Korea in the 4th century, and to Japan in the 6th century. Later during the 7th century Buddhism came to Tibet and formally to Mongolia in the 13th. As the teachings spread to the various countries and cultures, different parts of the teachings were emphasised depending on the needs, inclinations and abilities of the individuals and the nation. In some countries the tantric meditational techniques of the Vajrayana were not employed. The basics however (i.e. not to harm others, to help others, and to understand the functioning of one´s mind) were always present, as was the twofold system of philosophy and study.

Eventually, Buddhism arrived in the west in the beginning of the 20th century due to growing interest, and in Sweden in the 1950`s. With the arrival of qualified Tibetan teachers in the 1960`s and 70`s the then missing tantric meditational techniques of the Vajrayana were added, making Buddhism in its complete form finally available.

Has Buddhism anything to offer in modern-day Sweden?

It seems that all living beings have one thing in common; everyone appreciates happiness, no one appreciates suffering! Human beings have developed skills that have enabled them to establish varying levels of comfort and happiness, often by using things in their outer environment. Especially in the west and in particularly in a country like Sweden the resources exist (at least at present) to be able to do so. According to Buddhism this is not wrong per se, and one should not refrain from educating oneself or assisting in developing one`s country. In Buddhism however one sees reference made to 2 forms of happiness; material and mental, mental happiness being deemed the more important. In Sweden material comfort, if we compare to the rest of the planet, is on a very high level, with few conflicts or natural catastrophes and a high standard of living for the majority of its inhabitants. However, Sweden has very little tradition on how to develop mental happiness. Therefore, despite the material progress, or perhaps because of it, people are often wondering why they still suffer? According to Buddhism this is due to an imbalance between material and mental happiness, and wherever mental happiness is lacking suffering is a natural result. In so called underdeveloped countries we might think that the people live happily, content with what they have, and this is sometimes the case. The tendency however is often to reach out after more material happiness, neglecting to invest any effort in mental happiness even when a reasonable level of comfort has been achieved. So, in one way we might thank our lucky stars that in Sweden we have reached a high level of comfort, only to find that we do not have any real peace of mind. Many may disagree with this, but for those who do not, Buddhism may have something to offer!

Many Swedes when asked about religion answer that if they were to choose a religion it would be Buddhism, which, they say, is more like a way of life than a religion. Qualities such as non-violence, respect for others and the environment, fundamental equality, respect for other religions, moderation and peace of mind, all these are `commonsense down to earth´ values which the majority, both young and old, can identify with and appreciate. Buddhism not only has a philosophy and practical instructions on how to develop these qualities, but also has living examples; practitioners who have put time and effort into the practise and have thus become living embodiments of the teachings. One example is the Dalai Lama who often visits Sweden and always draws large crowds. His message is often simple, but his example is far from it! Buddhist teachers are also known for giving lectures on occasion to mixed or even non-Buddhist groups. This openness is also highly appreciated by the Swedish audience.

Since its arrival in Sweden in the 50´s, many Swedes have come to appreciate the teachings of the Buddha. Teachers representing the various traditions have been invited to start Buddhist centres, teachers from abroad visit these centres on a regular basis, a multitude of books on Buddhism are now available in English, some even in the Swedish language. For those who wish to adopt Buddhism as a part of their lives, the 2 lineages of `That which has been taught´ and `That which has been experienced´, are at present fully available in Sweden.

Slowly but surely the interest in the theory and especially in the practise of Buddhism has grown during the past decades. This shows that Buddhism has indeed something to offer!

Buddhism – for Buddhists, Buddhist practitioners….and non-Buddhist practitioners.

When asked why it is so difficult to become a fully enlightened Buddha one visiting teacher to Sweden replied that Buddhism is like anything else. “If you study & practise a little bit, you will get a little bit of a result. If you do it more, then the result will be more. If you put all your effort wholeheartedly into the project, then you will also attain great results”. Fortunately, the qualities of a fully enlightened Buddha are said to be so vast that even developing a small portion of them can be of great benefit to oneself and others.

When Buddhism came to Tibet the people slowly but surely took the teachings to their hearts, transforming them from a warrior-type to a peace loving nation.

Even today if one was to ask a Tibetan if they are a Buddhist, 99.99% would say they are, and that as Buddhists they try to live in accordance with the Buddha`s teachings to the best of their ability while going about their everyday life. Among these formal Buddhists there is a minority, often ordained but even laypersons, who are willing to put a lot of time and energy into the study and practise of Buddhism. In Tibet and in the Tibetan exile community these individuals are referred to as `practitioners´. In older times it would mainly be the ordained members of the society who would have time for this kind of undertaking, or laymen who were willing to live the life on an ascetic. Many of them dedicated themselves to the study, and in particular, to the practise to such an extent that they received high levels of results. This was something that was admired, supported, and encouraged in the Tibetan community, as it still is today. The practitioners, formal Buddhists, would study and practise the teachings thoroughly under a qualified teacher, developing through the 3-Yanas until they reached high levels of personal experience. That is the way of the Tibetan tradition, and it still remains so today, even in Sweden.

But in Sweden the larger majority is neither formal Buddhists, nor Buddhist practitioners, not to even mention ordained monks or nuns! So even if Swedes might agree that Buddhism has something to offer, who among them is interested in it? I.e, who will want to study and practise?!

Due to the compassionate nature inherent in Buddhism and those who teach it, the majority of people studying and practising Buddhism in Sweden at present are non-Buddhist lay-practitioners. Sometimes they are even members of other religions! Maybe it is wrong to say they are studying and practising Buddhism. Rather, more often than not, they are studying bits and pieces of Buddhist philosophy and practising certain contemplations and meditation techniques which have been picked up here and there, in a book, at some lecture. Some-times the subject matter or meditation might even have been removed from a larger context (mindfulness meditation and contemplations on developing loving-kindness being two popular examples). This is not to say that this is wrong. On the contrary, Buddha himself said that his teachings had no `owner´. Whoever takes the teachings to heart and puts them into practise, that person `owns the teachings´. Also, to formally become a member of a new religion, perhaps giving up the religion one has grown up with, is a very large and serious undertaking. Often the Dalai Lama has mentioned in his lectures that the latter is something to be avoided if possible. For those wishing to study and practise in the above fashion, they will be able to come in contact with many aspects of Buddhist philosophy and meditation techniques. In the Tibetan tradition these will be pertaining to the first 2 of the 3 Yanas. Although their lack of commitment to a complete path and a teacher to guide them will most likely limit them, if they are committed to fundamental goodness and a good heart they will no doubt receive some positive results from their efforts. These have been confirmed and appreciated by many non-Buddhist practitioners.

In Sweden there are also small groups of formal Buddhist practitioners. Many of these have grown up around the various Buddhist centres representing the various traditions. What they have in common is that the majority of them are not ordained, but rather, lay practitioners who have at one point in their life taken the Vow of Refuge which formally makes them a Buddhist. They have the possibility to study and practise under the guidance of a capable teacher. Due to their commitment to the teachings they would normally be interested in them in the form of a complete path, not just bits and pieces. In the Tibetan tradition this commitment would also enable advanced practitioners to receive teachings on the tantric techniques contained in the 3rd Yana, something which is not possible to give to a non-Buddhist practitioner, no matter how spiritually developed he or she might be.

The advantages and disadvantages for the practitioners in Sweden.

Many visiting Buddhist teachers have remarked on how favourable the conditions are in Sweden for the study and practise of Buddhism. The nature, clean environment, relatively high levels of equality and democracy, high standard of living, and plenty of leisure time. Buddhist teachers are allowed to visit, there are an abundance of books available, and Swedes have received such an advanced level of basic education that they can quite easily understand the teachings, despite their non-Buddhist cultural background. All this would be thought of as being to the practitioner`s advantage, (be they Buddhist or non-Buddhist) and in fact might well be so.

There is however the risk that the standard of comfortable living becomes so high that once again material happiness becomes the norm. In other words, one begins to come under the illusion that mental happiness is not so important, so why bother investing any time or effort in it?! Thus the conditions which would assist one`s efforts become an hindrance instead. If the practitioner is developed enough then he or she will be able to see what is happening. When a whole community, society, or country have bought in to this idea however, it is very difficult to resist. This also robs the youth of the possibility of receiving information (Buddhist or otherwise) concerning mental happiness at a young age, quite simply because nobody is interested in it themselves. Elderly people who have served the community are no longer worth our time, it is more important to use that time to create even more material happiness. In many Buddhist texts there are warnings that the advantages of freedom and leisure can turn into disadvantages if not used in the right way. It is said traditionally that this would be like returning home empty handed from an island of jewels!

For the formal Buddhist practitioner committed to studying and practising, the advantages/disadvantages of the above will be somewhat similar. However, due to their formal commitment, and with the support from a teacher and/or community of practitioners, the situation ought to be to their advantage and enable them to develop quickly.

However, material comfort combined with the western lack of commitment, and expectations of quick results may jolt the practitioner from the path completely, or slow down their practise considerably. A study done on Tibetan Buddhism in the west by Tarthang Tulku showed that many ardent practitioners started to loose their enthusiasm after a period of approximately 20 years. (Therefore he came to the conclusion that it is too early to say that Buddhism has been established in the west, even though it might be flourishing!) The above might also give us the answer to the question as to why we have so few (if any) Tibetan Buddhist western practitioners who have reached any higher level of realisation comparable to our Tibetan counterparts.

Lastly, we should humbly mention the advantages and disadvantages in Sweden for the Buddhist teachers. Teachers are often of 2 categories: visiting or resident. Often they will face the same advantages/disadvantages as above though their commitment and experience in study and practise should ensure that they do not sway from the path, nor forget why they are here, i.e. to transmit the Buddhist teachings to those who are in need of them, and to be a living example to inspire others. In general, resident teachers seem to also have the disadvantage of coming from a different country and culture, are often ordained, (and will no longer be living within an ordained community)and often do not speak a language used in Sweden. This is often a problem shared by visiting teachers, but is much easier to overcome due to the short time limit of their stay.

Both kinds of teachers will most likely have come from a simple background and will therefore be facing the advantage/disadvantage of material wealth.


It would seem that the interest in the study and practise of Buddhism in Sweden has grown since the 50`s and continues to do so today. Buddhism does indeed have something to offer modern-day Sweden and there is a growing amount of people who are interested in it. If this is to continue it is of the utmost importance that in general the formal Buddhists, and in particular the teachers, all maintain their study and practise, and their vows and commitments. With pure moral conduct as a basis and an open mind and heart towards others there is no doubt that they will benefit themselves and also benefit and inspire others. They should help both Buddhists and non-Buddhists alike while at the same time maintaining the tradition and lineage of study & practise which has come from Buddha himself and their teacher. In this way Buddhism will be trans-mitted in its pure form to the formal Buddhists, and at the same time be available to non-Buddhists to develop positive human values in themselves so as to maintain a healthy balance between mental and material happiness in society.

Of particular importance is to inspire children. Often they are more receptive to Buddhist `ideas´ than grown-ups, but lack inspiration and support from their environment. We are doing them a great disservice if we do not support them. Also, we should not forget the elderly who more often than not find them self facing the results of an overly materialistic society; nobody has time to care for them properly! We can be sure that they would be interested in receiving more care and loving kindness, Buddhist or otherwise, at the end of their days!

Wherever people reside, in Sweden or elsewhere, Buddhism will always be relevant where there is an imbalance between material and mental happiness.

The philosophy and the practices are still up to date and effective. But it still remains up to the individual whether they want to study and practise or not, just as it did during the time of the Buddha.
“Happiness is a state of mind. With physical comforts if your mind is still in a state of confusion & agitation, it is not happiness. Happiness means calmness of mind”

– H.H. the 14th Dalai Lama.