What is the real job of the Buddhist centers and the people who run them?

Lama Ole’s answer:

The purpose of a center is to provide a place where people can develop. Buddhism has only one product and that is grown-up, independent human beings. Other religions build temples for their gods, but we don’t make our centers for the Buddha. We make them for ourselves, so that there are places where we can grow and learn. For this reason, freedom, openness, and the greatest possible confidence between people are essential. Only this way can everything grow. It is very important to trust people. If you treat them like children, they will stay children forever. But if you trust them and give them responsibilities, they will grow up.

Our experience has shown that it is important to meditate together in the center for a half hour or an hour several times a week. In the space and surplus that arises through this practice, people grow together, complement each other, and become a totality. Everything else will develop by itself. One should enjoy doing whatever one likes with others in the center, but there should also be room enough for everybody to find their own rhythm in life. Of course, people who live in the center should be interested in contributing to the common work.

When new people come, one should make sure that they feel comfortable. There was a time in Denmark, about ten years ago, when people in the centers were so busy working that new people only got to see their broad backs. They had no surplus and no time, and it shouldn’t be like that. We should give new people the feeling that they are welcome, that their questions will be answered, and that they can come as often as they like without any obligation. We can give them general information and books, but shouldn’t talk at them too much or try to persuade them of everything on the first day. We make an honest and friendly offer, and then people can decide on their own.

One should basically leave people their freedom and give them space and confidence. That is very important. Often the most difficult step a person ever takes is through the threshold of a Buddhist center. Through doing this, people open themselves to completely new influences and possibilities. They are unprotected and have to rely on people they hardly know, because they are not yet experts in working with their minds. That’s why we have a huge responsibility for these newcomers.

If we don’t have much time, is it better to help with the center work or to do our own practice?

Lama Ole’s answer:

I would try to do both. Help out when there is a lot to do in the center; otherwise, do your own practice. The best would be to do your practice in the center as often as possible. That way you stay in touch with the friends there and can learn from them. And it also attracts new people if someone from the center is always there, whether he just sits in the kitchen drinking coffee and greeting people, or gives a good example by practicing in the gompa.

You have a lot of students; how do you manage to stay in contact with them all, and what role do the Buddhist centers play in this?

Lama Ole’s answer:

Ultimately, it’s not about anything personal, but about people growing up and becoming independent. The point is that people understand that their mind is clear light. Then they become fearless, joyful, and loving.

We have grown a lot in the last few years. This is mostly because many of my students are now so good that I can trust them completely and send them around the world to teach.

I’ve founded over 600 centers and groups worldwide, which means I can’t visit each of them every year anymore. So it’s very important that our friends everywhere can lend a hand. I think what my students and friends accomplish in the centers is great. They are true idealists. We work with minimal budgets and have no fat-cat donors. A lot of what comes in from wealthier countries immediately goes to Russia, South America, or Eastern Europe to build up something there. Nobody gets paid for the work. Really, it is all voluntary and everyone does a very, very good job. That is truly impressive.

The reason we can all keep this bond and stay friends is because it’s about human development, where everybody experiences something and profits. It is a matter of healthy common sense. The point is to develop a bit of humor and joy, confidence, surplus, and strength, and to get the methods that make this possible.

It’s quite touching that all this can happen today in our materialistic age, that people work through the night without getting anything for it, knocking my manuscript into shape or sending letters to 500 people when only 50 respond. And I am very happy and proud to have gotten such a troop started. I’ll tell you, I really feel good about this.

When making decisions in our Buddhist centers or groups, should we always ask the lama or simply make the decisions on our own?

Lama Ole’s answer:

If it concerns the meditation practice, you should not make any changes independently, because that has been determined by the Karmapa. But the way you communicate it to people can vary from case to case. Everybody can do that following his or her abilities and feeling for the situation.

When there are bigger decisions on an everyday level—for example, who should move in to the center—then of course you can ask if you’re unsure. But if those who lead the center have a clear idea, they can also decide by themselves. Even if it does not work out permanently and the newcomer moves out after a few years, he might be useful while he is there and could bring in some good influence.

My goal is for everybody to become independent as quickly as possible. Whenever someone can learn something in any area that will round them off and stabilize them, I advise them to do it. Self-reliance is the goal. But now and then, one might ask the lama if deeper insight is needed. But if one already knows what one wants to do anyway, then one doesn’t need to ask.

You once said that Mahamudra practice today works through the Buddhist centers. What do you mean by that?

We are all Kagyus, which means we have close connections with each other. This doesn’t mean that we see each other every day, but that the individual groups have energy fields that are connected to the Karmapa’s energy field through me.

When one goes to a group like this, one will always learn something about oneself. The basic attitude is that of Mahamudra: we know that we are all part of a totality and that subject, object, and action are fundamental expressions of the same truth.

That’s why visiting a center is always a mirror that shows one’s own face, whether as a purification or a blessing. Because of this, it is better to meditate well in the center than to sit on the lama’s lap and look somewhere else. If we do our best, hold our bonds, and have confidence, then the lama is there because the lama’s essence is space.

Of course you should meet the lama in person once in a while so that you don’t set yourself apart or become proud, so that you can check yourself and hear something new now and then. But the centers are the representatives of the lama. You get the teachings there, the meditations, the methods; you can meet people who have the transmission and the blessing. And in this way everything grows.

Why have you established so many Buddhist centers?

Because for us practice is essential. In my lectures, I give people confidence in something within themselves. Then if they go to our centers, they can strengthen this confidence, work with the local teachers, and practice together with friends.

The only meaning of all the work we do is to bring people into a state of surplus so that they can live better, die better, and have a better rebirth. The methods we have are 2,500 years old and very, very effective. That’s why I think what we do is important.

When we try to work something out together in our Buddhist center, there are sometimes problems that lead to confusion and we don’t decide on anything. What can you advise us?

Lama Ole’s answer:

I always use the sandbox principle: “So, who wants to play with the shovel? Who wants the rake?”—and so on. One divides the project into several parts and then asks, “Who wants to take care of this, and who wants to do that?” If nobody volunteers, then ask, “Are there any problems we should deal with?” Someone will definitely respond, and then you say, “So, that’s what you’re concerned about. Do you have any ideas about how to solve it?” Then ask, “Who else is interested in this?” and when several people have come together, you say to them, “Good, you’re all interested in that, so sit down together and figure it out!”

If you spend a lot of time sitting around chatting, then it’s good for the coffee industry and the people who sell armchairs. But if you want to get something done, then always keep things fresh, cut through problems, don’t allow trips, keep everything constructive, and say, “You do this and you do that. You have a complaint there, so you are the specialist to figure it out.”

I always think of the others as dignified ladies and gentlemen; they all want the best and each of them has experience in something important. One must trust in people’s abilities and give them responsibility, not just unskilled jobs. If the result is not perfect right away, then talk it over and let them improve what they’re doing. This way, we play around with things until everybody is happy. It works well and saves a lot of time.

What should we do if a difficult person shows up in our Buddhist center and causes a lot of disturbances?

Lama Ole’s answer:

If someone is really just disturbing others and doesn’t want to learn anything, then you should try to get rid of him. You can check if there is another group where he would fit in better and send him there. If that doesn’t work, you must make it clear to him that he shouldn’t come anymore.

People get lots of bad impressions in their minds when they behave aggressively and disturb the center. Whatever a person does in the center has a powerful effect on an inner and outer level. One has huge opportunities to build up a lot of good, but if one is ill-tempered and always going against things, this can build up a lot of negativity which causes further suffering. In that case, it is better to stay away.

If one wants to learn something, then one goes to the center and opens up, and through one’s confidence in Buddha, the difficulties fall away. But the wish to change must be there, otherwise it doesn’t work. There are so many capable people who are trained and paid to take care of the difficult cases.

How should we deal with people who have just started coming to our Buddhist center and who have problems with alcohol or drugs?

Lama Ole’s answer:

I wouldn’t start any big discussion about it in the center. People can only come if they are clean, and then they get what they want. You can spend a whole evening talking to someone with a drug or alcohol problem; he’ll understand everything very deeply, and then the next morning, when the drug has no effect anymore, he won’t remember a thing. We pay taxes for institutions to take care of people with these problems. Those who come to us should be capable of meditating and should want to do it.

We are not social workers. If we were, we would wear ourselves out and have nothing to offer those with surplus. So if someone is drunk once, we can put up with it because he is a friend. If he smokes pot once, it is also not such a big deal. But people with permanent problems do not belong in the center.

Some people are quite proud of their years of practice or their close contact to the Lama, and they look down on beginners. Can you say something about this?

Lama Ole’s answer:

If one wants to help others, then pride is the worst enemy. Proud people think they’re better than others, cutting themselves off from the rest and making them feel uncomfortable.

I insist that you—especially those who work closely with me—make yourselves the servants of the people, as Frederick the Great of old Prussia put it. Loyalty—looking up to others—is perhaps the strongest feeling there is. Of course you should let yourself be inspired from above; but you should also have solidarity and think of others who are weaker. We must learn not only to be loyal but also to see what we can do for others. That is a precious human quality, but it must be learned because it only begins from a certain level of consciousness onwards. I want my students to always think, “I am here for people”—not “I don’t have time right now” or “this one I’ll keep a bit short.”

One should never think a problem is too silly. Of course ninety percent of all problems are rather silly, but they are part of people’s growth. And if we don’t give people what they need, they won’t develop further. Perhaps the problem is silly to those of us who have meditated a few years longer or who did more in the last life, but for them the problems are real. So we must respond to them and really do our best—without thinking at all about “better” or “worse.” We should really be the humblest servant of everyone who comes.

That is difficult of course. We are often in a hurry and short of time. Most aren’t used to acting this way either. In the business world you don’t have to, but in Buddhism you do! That applies to all of you in the centers and to those who travel with me. When people just want to make trouble, you can say, “Talk to him over there” or send them away; but when they have a real problem, we must respond to it and not think that we’re too good for them.

Sometimes we call the group of people who are active in the Buddhist center a “mandala.” What does this mean?

Lama Ole’s answer:

Mandalas are self-arisen enlightened power-fields. This term is also used for the people who belong to this power-field through attuning themselves to an enlightened principle. Concerning the groups that are connected to me, it works like this: as long as we are friends, are honest with each other, and trust each other, everything that happens in the centers will express Karmapa’s whole circle of protection.

It is important that these mandalas are beyond personal. As the Danish saying goes, “The cemeteries are full of irreplaceable people.” However often one may think, “Everything depends on me and nothing will work without me,” as soon as someone leaves, something within the power-field shifts and others take over that job. New aspects come in and maybe everything works even better than before.

Many people think that those who are active in the centers are completely altruistic and self-sacrificing, and are only working for others. These people hold themselves back from getting too involved in the center because they are afraid they won’t have enough time for their own practice. But actually, one also does center work for oneself. If we manage to be a good example at all times and not slack off when people come to hear something, we will experience real spiritual growth. After a long, hard day’s work, when we’re just about to pat ourselves on the back, there are people standing there again, with their uncle who hasn’t understood anything about the teachings. It just goes on like that until someday we forget to pat our own back and the ego dies miserably of starvation. Then everything is fun; whatever happens is meaningful and we experience it all as a gift. That’s where we want to be.

It’s a little secret: one does the work for others, but the one who does the work benefits most.