28 September 2015

Why Tibetan Buddhism?

Why at 65 years of age take 3 months out of your life for an extended meditation retreat? Why with only one leg make the effort to travel on your own across the world to France for such a retreat? And why, given all the possible secular and religious retreats on offer, choose Tibetan Buddhism?

Many probably wonder, some have even asked me, so this week we go Out on a Limb once again, explore what Tibetan Buddhism has to offer and why anyone from any secular or religious background stands to benefit from learning a bit more about it, but first

                      Thought for the day

                   What will we have learned, 
                   If at the moment of death 

                  We do not know who we really are?

                                               Sogyal Rinpoche

To quote the Dalai Lama, “Buddhism is all about the quest for truth”. This truth is not only the truth about ourselves, as in who are we really?, but it is about coming to know the truth of reality in the ultimate sense.

We will all be familiar with relative truth. We saw it, therefore it must be true. I heard it, it must be true. I felt it, it must be true. Yet we all will know that often enough, what we took to be the truth at one time in our lives, turned out later to be a false impression, and the real truth was something else.

So in current time we will all have some sense of who we are. This body. These feelings. This mind with its attendant thoughts and emotions.

Maybe some sense of something deeper too; a spiritual aspect - a soul - something more enduring?

But who are we really? This sense we have of self currently is highly likely to be distorted by our own levels of misunderstanding, projection, fixation, habitual thinking and so on.

So who are we really? And what meaning is there in this life? What can we know of an ultimate reality, the truth of what it is to be a human being? And what is this life really all about?

Now we need to pause for a moment and recognize that many people question whether there even is such a thing as an ultimate reality, and even if there is, whether we can actually come to know it. And many have gone looking.

So in in the last hundred years or two, many of the great minds that sought the truth in the Western world have closeted themselves away in laboratories to investigate the workings of the material world in their attempt to unravel the truth of reality.

Somewhat similarly, but over thousands of years, many of the great minds in the East have taken to remote places like caves and deserts where they went into the laboratories of their own minds to investigate the workings of those minds in an attempt to unravel the truth of reality.

Enter the Buddha. A well-documented historical figure, the Buddha began life as an ordinary person, studied and practiced, and attained enlightenment.

Enlightenment? What is that? One useful definition is that enlightenment is the direct perception of ultimate reality.

After his enlightenment, Buddha taught continuously for around 60 years. These teachings were recorded and so Buddhism is based upon what he taught along with what has been added by great teachers down through the centuries.

The focus of Buddhism is recognizing that “it is all in the mind”. The mind holds the final responsibility for what we do, as in the choices we make and how we follow them through.

In the words of John Milton

The mind can make a heaven of hell
Or a hell of heaven.

Master the mind and we master all. Buddhism aims to help us learn how to master our own minds. Given the huge potential of a well trained mind, along with all the stress, anxiety, depression and mental illness in our current society, no wonder Buddhism has so much to offer and has become so popular.

Perhaps what has also helped Buddhism’s popularity is that you do not need to be a Buddhist to benefit from its knowledge. In fact, Buddhism is best thought of on 3 levels – as a Mind Science, a Philosophy and a Religion.

Of course it is true there are many in the world for whom Buddhism is their religion; about 500 million of them. Interesting fact that may surprise you. Which country has the most Buddhists? China! With around 244 million or 18.2% of its total population.

There are 3 main branches of Buddhist practice, the Hinayana, the Mahayana and the Vajrayana, each of which gives emphasis to particular aspects of the Buddha’s teachings. These 3 are somewhat like Catholicism, Uniting Church and Anglicans in Christianity. Tibetan Buddhism is in the domain of the Vajrayana and does encompass aspects of all 3 groups of teachings.

Anyway, many people are not religious but do use Buddhist principles in a secular way.

Happily, drawing directly on the Mind Science that Buddhism has amassed is welcomed by Buddhist leaders as they consider it has the potential to help anyone to become a better human being; better as in kinder, more considerate, more intent on helping their fellow human beings and all of their environment.

A good example of this is mindfulness, that incredibly popular mind technique currently being used widely in education, health, sport, corporate life etc, etc; and yes, mindfulness comes directly from Buddhism.

But then too, there is the Philosophy of Buddhism. This is based on analysis and contemplation; a thorough and logical exploration of the world, our mind, our experience. This aims to lead to a level of understanding that gives us confidence in our world view and moreso, to the development of a level of wisdom that leads to better choices in our lives.

When interested to learn more of Buddhism, there are 3 possibilities, the tantras, the commentaries and the oral instructions.

The tantras are like the root texts; the recorded words of the Buddha that fill 108 volumes. One hundred and eight volumes!? Correct. So if you are a serious scholar, there is plenty to study!

The commentaries have been written in the first instance by the Buddha’s direct students who explained their own understandings or interpretations of what he said. Then there are the many books and articles that have been written since, with many modern commentaries being well pitched for a modern, Western audience.

The oral instructions have been handed down directly from the Buddha to his students, to their
students and so on in long lineages to the current day. Obviously, you can only receive this type of teaching directly from an authentic teacher.

To receive authentic teachings requires 3 things to be in place. 

First one needs an authentic teacher that holds the blessings that come from themselves having been taught authentically. Secondly, the students themselves need authenticity. They need to be open minded, prepared to study and learn, but even more-so, committed to turn their mind inwardly and seek the truth. 

Then finally, there needs to be evidence of the unbroken lineage as already spoken of so that the authenticity of the teacher and the teachings is clearly established and all involved can have confidence.

This then is a brief background to Tibetan Buddhism. What is intended to follow is a series of articles that detail, my own entrée into this field of study and practice along with more detail of its key points, leading up to recounting some of the experience of being on a 3 month retreat following in this tradition.

So next week, how I came from a committed Anglican, Christian background to be engaged with Tibetan Buddhism and what it offers me and those I work with.

Meditation retreats - Why go?

BOOK The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying – Sogyal Rinpoche. The spiritual classic that has sold around 3.5 million copies, inspired and supported many people along their path.


Details of all coming programs Ruth and I will be presenting are on our website: www.iangawler.com/events, and here are the next few:

Meditation Under the Long White Cloud   24 - 30 October 2015

7 day retreat at Mana Retreat Centre, Coromandel Peninsula, New Zealand

                 Take time out from the busyness of everyday life; spend time with your self
           Slow down, reflect, contemplate – regain perspective, vitality, balance and clarity
      Deepen your understanding and experience of mindfulness, contemplation and meditation

Full details, CLICK HERE


CANCER and BEYOND     October  2015     Monday 12th to Friday 16th 

Finding peace in the Healing Process

Five Day Residential Follow-up Program at the Gawler Foundation in the Yarra Valley

This program is specifically designed for those with cancer along with their support people who have attended a previous Gawler Cancer Foundation program or equivalent such as with Sabina Rabold, CSWA, Cancer Care SA, CanLive NZ, or with the Gawlers themselves.

A unique opportunity to meet with like-minded people once again, to consolidate what you already know, to learn more from the combined knowledge, experience and wisdom of Ian and Ruth, to reaffirm your good intentions, and to go home refreshed and revitalised.

FULL DETAILS Click here 

MIND-BODY MEDICINE and CANCER    November  2015    Tuesday 10th to Saturday 14th

Five day Residential program in the beautiful surrounds of Wanaka, New Zealand
- an easy drive from Queenstown airport and very accessible for Australians

This program is open to anyone affected by cancer. Health professionals interested to learn more of this work are also welcome to attend.

While the focus of this program is on therapeutic meditation and nutrition, the power of the mind and emotional health, ample time will be given to answering any questions you may have relating to the Gawler program - exercise, positive thinking, healing, balancing medical options, successful ways of dealing with setbacks, sustaining your good intentions and the relevance of finding meaning in life to healing and recovery.



  1. Hi Ian It is always interesting and enjoyable to read your blog. Welcome back to Australia. Hoping that you are well. I refer a number of my acquaintances with cancer or MS to you and your work. I practice Zen Buddhism. What sort of Buddhism is that? I am attending the Parliament of the World's Religions in Utah in a couple of weeks. The last time we met was at the Parliament in Melbourne in 2009 which you and Ruth attended. I attended Happiness and its Causes again this year at the courtesy of the Vajrayana Institute in Sydney, celebrating 10 years of the same and it has grown exponentially so much so that it is almost unmanageable. I am indebted to you and Ruth for your work in alternative medicine. I am studying Positive Psychology and am finding that a useful discipline for educational purpose, challenging though. Best, Karen xox

  2. Thanks Karen, Zen is Mahayana. While we are clarifying definitions and classifications, the work Ruth and I am involved in is better not described as "Alternative" as it is complementary; but it is better still described as Lifestyle medicine as we help people with what they can do for themselves through attending to the way they live; drawing on the therapeutic possibilities of a healthy lifestyle - as in what they eat and drink, how they manage their emotional health, and how they utilise the power of their mind through things like meditation, contemplation and guided imagery.

  3. Thank you so much for sharing your knowledge of Buddhism Ian, it is a very exciting topic. I am a big fan of your work and love receiving your blog. I am very much looking forward to the forthcoming articles!

  4. Welcome back Ian - great topic, and it reminds me of how the paths of you and I have crossed, and been linked so regularly from when we met in about 1976 to the present day.
    Most of your reasons for taking to Buddhism, and the Tibetan variety, apply more or less the same to my study and practice of 40+ years in Yogic meditation, enriched with an open minded journey also into several Buddhist meditation paths.
    But I think most of all, what my path has been is to actually follow (whether I knew it or not)
    in my own small way, how The Buddha reportedly found his truths. That is, he studied with the best known teachers of his day, who were forest yogis in the Vedic traditions of the time, then wasn't satisfied with all of their teachings and wandered the countryside for some years, trying many practices, until that legendary night when he sat under a tree for the whole night till (legend has it) enlightenment dawned in him.
    And even on his death bed, they say, he urged the followers who were with him to "work out your own salvation" , or something like that.
    One other minor comment: you mention that China has the greatest number of "Buddhists". Hmm ... my own pretty personal experience of chinese Buddhism is that it can be, as you mentioned, only the religious side of it, and not the rest. Worshipping in temples. And many of the temples that are Buddhist in name, you are hard pressed to find even any statue of Lord Buddha (the Indian Buddha), whilst there are countless statues of other Gods, Goddesses and ancestral figures. It is often a fascinating blend of Taoism, a kind of Buddhism, and a lot of the older traditional ancestor worship. And people who worship in those temples, as I have done with my good wife, often do not know anything of the historical Buddha or what he taught. Whether that matters or not I do not know - just a comment because your blog was so thought provoking.
    Now it might be time to stop being thought provoked and go and do some meditation, eh?

  5. I enjoy your articles as a way to keep in touch and to learn of ‘new things”. I applaud your decision to spend six months in France and wish you well. I felt though, when ‘truth’ was mentioned that I had to state that as a Christian who believes in Jesus Christ who is God made man, that truth resides in Him who is the author of all that is and therefore Truth. As Jesus himself said, ‘I am the way and the truth and the life” (John14.6) Not everyone can accept this, one has to have Faith. However if we turn to Jesus, learn from him, we will walk in Truth and find true happiness. So pardon me if I appear to be prosetylising. I have much respect for Buddhism and wish you well for your journey and subsequent wisdom and help you will pass on to others. Kindest regards, Michael Allam.

    1. Dear Michael
      thanks for writing and I too have great respect for the truth that Christ embodies. In the next blog, I intend to write more on how I added to my Christian roots with this interest in Buddhism. To me it is an extension, but i know for many, Christianity is quite complete
      best wishes

  6. During the third period, the Mahayana degenerated into an unhealthy form of Tantra and lost ground in most parts of India until Buddhism was brought to an end in its homeland by the Turkish invaders in a short time following this period.
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