In the Preface of his book, The Religions of Tibet, Tucci reflects, among other things, on the theoretical foundations of Tibetan Buddhism, that these foundations, to a certain extent, condition the “actual religious experience” which gives the various Tibetan schools each “their particular character.” Keeping this before us, where the real difficulty lies in presenting Tibetan Buddhism to the West is, first of all, understanding what Tibet’s meeting with Indian Buddhism created uniquely for Tibetan Buddhism. Yet, because there are problems with agreeing on what important religious terms mean “in Tibetan religion and gnosis” a misrepresentation and falsification of Tibetan religious thought is not out of the question. It is of real concern, in fact.
And now to the really interesting part when Tucci is convinced that Tibetan religious thought was being misrepresented and most likely, falsified. I will let Tucci speak for himself.
“I become convinced of this when I showed Tibetans who knew English well certain translations which had recently appeared of particular works or of commentaries on the doctrines they contained. The Tibetan scholars found it difficult to make any sense of these translations, since Buddhist thought was expressed in them in a mode other than that in which they were used to understanding it. Besides this, many Tibetan concepts and doctrines refer to interior and mystical experiences, and their transposition into rational concepts and expressions is extremely problematic. The corresponding Tibetan words are symbols, which can evoke living experiences which the word as such can only suggest but not define. We are faced here with an extremely difficult, almost impossible task: to coin equivalent technical terms for experiences which take place with the spiritual realm, and which can radically modify our psychic and spiritual reality” (p. viii).
This is not only a major problem for any scholar of Tibetan Buddhism, like Tucci, but this is a problem for Buddhism, in general, as it appears in the West through Westerners who firmly believe they are transmitting what Gautama realized. In plainer words, if Gautama were to read Western books on Buddhism, would he recognize most of them as being representative of what he taught in India several millennia ago?
If we assume that much of Indian Buddhism and Tibetan Buddhism easily falls into the general category of mysticism which includes such examples as Gnosticism and Neo-Platonism, Westernized Buddhism, as it is taught by Western Buddhists, may end up being a huge misrepresentation because the bulk of its content is far from the shore of mysticism. (I am going with Frederick Heiler’s assessment that Buddhism is the only really consistent form of mysticism.)
For the most part modern Westerners, and this includes modern day Christians, are uncomfortable with mysticism—and some disavow it, completely. There is, in fact, a long history of reacting against any and all forms of mysticism and essentially scouting it in modern Western philosophy.
The majority of Westerners like their religion mundane and down to earth. If Jesus is going to return, for example (or any savior for that matter), he will have to be a real guy—a biped. He, sure as heck, can’t be like the non-bipedal Jesus whom Paul encountered on the road to Damascus. Anything, so to speak, an average Westerner can’t observe with his senses doesn’t exist which, I hasten to say, eliminates any religion based on a knowing of the really real, that is, a transcendent reality beyond the pale of the senses. And perish the thought that Buddhism’s enlightenment may, in fact, transcend what is observable by sensory consciousness.
This is not a trivial matter; it goes to the heart of what ails the West, which has given us more than several centuries of genocide, not to mention a Holocaust and the threat of nuclear war based on the game of chicken. Buddhism’s entry on the Western stage is perhaps no accident. Nor is it quite an accident that it is being misrepresented. Buddhism comes to the West when the West is reaching its nadir; when its religions are false religions; its philosophies nihilistic; and the many are spiritually unquenched, drinking the salty waters of materialism.