Sakyong Mipham on Buddhist Dabblers

Sakyong Mipham with Ray Hemachandra, 2006

Ray: Is dabbling in Buddhism a good thing or a concern?

Here’s what I mean: Practitioners of some spiritualities, especially indigenous ones such as certain Native American spiritualities, often think people who just read a book or take a workshop — dabblers — are trivializing the spiritual path. They say a book or a class can’t give someone the meaning or the insight of a lifetime on the path — a lifetime of spiritual work and being.

By contrast, take the Christian notion of the virtues: If you dabble in the Christian virtues, it might not make you virtuous, or Christian, but it’s better than not dabbling in them at all.

So, what do you think of Buddhist dabblers?

Mipham: Well, there are a lot of them! (Laughs.)

With the principles in Buddhism, we say that even if people hear one word, it’s beneficial, in the sense that it puts a certain karmic motion in mind.

Maybe somebody hears the word “compassion” or the word “nonaggression.” Then, the person is about to yell at somebody, and the word pops up in the mind. The person might not understand the totality of it, or be able to sustain it afterward, but I think it’s a seed. That seed has to be watered.

I do this ceremony called the refuge ceremony — the ceremony where you actually get a name and you formally become a Buddhist. I always tell people, “After this, when people ask you if you are Buddhist, you can say yes.” It’s the hardest word to say.

Otherwise, they just say, “Oh, I like Buddhist ideas and themes.” That’s fine, but at a certain point you have to decide what you are going to do.

If you decide to go on a Buddhist path, you have to be careful if you start mixing a lot of different traditions you are not totally familiar with — mixing this kind of meditation with that kind of practice or this kind of visualization with that kind of mantra. Then you really are concocting your own thing, and you have no idea what is going to happen.

From that point of view, people should be careful. They should understand what the tradition is.

But I also think we live in a culture where the ideal scenario is very hard to come by. Fundamentally, Buddhism is for the awakenment and benefit of beings. So, you can’t say, “Oh, you can’t have it because you’re not ready for it.” That goes against the fundamental principle.

At the same time, you have to be honest in saying if somebody reads a book or a sentence, the person may understand it a little bit but is far shy of understanding the totality of the whole situation. It truly is a lifetime — or lifetimes — amount of work.

There are people who are in retreat during a lot of their life. They are very well-trained and meditated, and they have a lot of understanding. There are places for those people.

There also are places for busy individuals who have families. They want to apply certain Buddhist principles in their lives and are inspired to do so.

The principles of Buddhism and Shambhala can be effective in helping the course of what is happening in the world. A lot of people dabbling means Buddhism has come into the mainstream, where people begin to use these terms and ideas, and they become less foreign.

The principles of Buddhism have become more commonplace, which is a good thing.

We also live in a culture where information is becoming easier to access. Certain special practices have been kept very quiet and secret, and those traditions need to be respected. But there are a lot of teachings people can access that would benefit them greatly.

Looking at the time of where we are in the world, I feel like each tradition has to figure out what it can contribute. We can’t just hold back and let the world go to chaos.

*Read about Sakyong Mipham and Shambhala Buddhism at his website,, and read this full interview at I did the interview for New Age Retailer magazine.

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