It is hard to hide the fact that Ole Nydahl is a Buddhist lama, i.e. a person authorized to transmit the teachings carried on from teacher to pupil since the days of the Buddha. He holds a prominent position within the branch of Tibetan Buddhism known as the Kagyu tradition, and Sappho met him in one of the Kagyu Buddhists’ beautiful buildings on Svanemølle Road in the middle of Copenhagen’s embassy district. But when it comes to other religions, Nydahl will not speak in his capacity as a lama. The Buddha lived 2,450 years ago and therefore did not express any opinion on religions such as Christianity or Islam; consequently Ole Nydahl — in his role as a Buddhist teacher — will not do so either. However, as a “responsible, thinking human being” Ole Nydahl will happily speak out.
During our conversation, Ole Nydahl's wife Hannah — his companion through good times and bad since they both converted to Buddhism during a visit to the Himalayas at the end of the 1960s — was under intensive care in another room. Hannah Nydahl — who, together with Ole, has founded 520 Buddhist centres all over the free world and travelled the globe for more than 30 years — was terminally ill with cancer and unable to walk anymore.
Hannah Nydahl died on April 1, 2007.
But Ole Nydahl did not see any reason to cancel the interview. The work — the battle — goes on in spite of all the grief of this world. That is also the impression one gets when reading his books. In the book Riding the Tiger with the subtitle Twenty Years on the Road: The Risks and Joys of Bringing Tibetan Buddhism to the West, soon to be published in Danish as Over alle grænser, he describes a 1974 visit to Denmark by a delegation of prominent Tibetan Buddhists led by the head of the Kagya tradition, the 16th Karmapa. Nydahl arranged for his guests to be introduced to the old Nordic gods and the Saga heroes, whose ideals of courage and “the stiff upper lip” he finds more relevant than ever in a time of “empty emotionality, lack of style and profound confusion”.
The Karmapa was also given the opportunity to visit Holger Danske ("Holger the Dane") at Kronborg – known to readers of Shakespeare as Elsinore Castle. Holger is — writes Ole Nydahl — “our national guardian and deserves only the best. He defeated the Muslim Arabs in the Pyrenees ... and saved the freedom of Europe.”
Sappho is certainly visiting a religious leader who packs a punch
Potentials of the mind
– During a lecture you gave a few days ago here in Copenhagen, you expressed the idea that religious and cultural knowledge may be lost?
“Yes, several cultures with different views of the mind’s potential have disappeared in our time. The mind is unlimited and varying circumstances make it possible to create new links with some of its special characteristics. When the keepers of a culture disappear, the knowledge associated with that culture dies with them. Just look at our Greenlanders” [Danish Inuit citizens – translator’s note].
“We live in times characterized by an incredible vulgarization and forgetfulness regarding our values. Here in Scandinavia it is a bit better than in most parts of the world, but it is really a pity that generally people do not exploit the potential of the mind.”
– Many of us can remember a time when we had neither Islam nor Buddhism in this country. Now we have experienced an influx of ideas that are alien to Danish culture.
“The humanitarian and democratic aspects of Buddhism were never alien to us. They are in the Danish constitution. The teachings about the nature of the mind are another matter. The realisation that we can only see perfection outside ourselves because we already harbour that condition gives meaning to everything. The path and the purpose become clear, and we can work our way towards states of mind that are beneficial to everyone. That evolutionary option is open to everybody.”
– At the same time we are witnessing the opposite development with the spread of the Islamic law-religion founded on the idea that one should voluntarily submit to a set of strict rules dictating everything one must think, believe and do?
“To put it plainly, it is really embarrassing that people – after 2,000 years of development towards freedom here in Europe – cannot comprehend their potential, do not trust themselves, or are so ill brought up that they throw away their free will and submit to a totalitarian and fascist system. For it is sheer fascism to surrender oneself to other people in that way – no matter if it is to a deity dictating what to do, a prophet, Hitler or Stalin. It is always the same. Whenever you deny people their freedom of choice and self-determination, you reduce them to inferior beings.”
– But people do that to themselves?
“Yes, first they do it themselves. Then the system forces them to remain in a state of serfdom.”
– How can one explain the human desire for submission?
“Aldous Huxley, who I studied intensively at the university, called it ‘herd-poison’. If a lot of people do something, it will attract others who want to belong or be a part of something. And if an incipient movement is sufficiently extremist, it will always attract certain unstable individuals. That is the reason why something that is basically against most people's nature may become powerful and therefore very harmful.”
– What can we do to counter this?
“We must see to it that things are in the open. We must insist that people who wish to use less of their humanity – and who may therefore become a danger to those who want to be free – can be taunted, laughed at and shown for what they are. In other words, they should be treated like anybody else. If you grant such people a place to hide and say that they must not be teased because that might make the prophet or someone similar angry, then we are on the road to destroying the possibilities of future generations to be free. If we accept that people are not permitted to think for themselves nor to present things as they are, we may well describe it as a cancer. It is something that is against society's general line of development. This malignancy must be fought by telling the people who choose submission that there are other possibilities – if they develop an appetite for living."
– How has Buddhism fared in relation to Islam?
“Almost all the destruction suffered by Buddhist culture has happened through Islam. In their persecution of polytheism Muslims have probably been unable to distinguish between the Brahmans and the Buddhists. They have seen a lot of idols and assumed that Buddhists worshipped them as exterior forces. However, our paintings and statues do not depict gods but forms of energy facilitating super-personal and liberating experiences."
“If we go southward in Afghanistan from Mazar-i-Sharif and down to Kandahar and then east, we will find the old Buddhist core area that was destroyed by three Muslim invasions over the period from 900 to 1100. That was Ashoka’s  old core area and where Buddhism originated. Later Islam began to penetrate down through India. And, according to new Indian research, the Muslims killed some 80 million Indians from ca. A.D. 1200 up until the English stopped it in the 18th century. We are talking about Buddhists, Hindus, Jains and others. If you peruse Arabian sources, the term “budh” — the root word of Buddha and Buddhism — denotes someone worshipping many gods and whom Muhammed says must be killed under all circumstances. Who cannot even obtain dhimmi-status. Even the original Buddhist ‘little road’ through Central Asia was destroyed by Muslims. So one might say that we have had much to thank Islam for throughout the years.”
– Why didn’t the Buddhists fight back?
“Having a waterproof, completely logical system is very dangerous. When you do, you will have a tendency to bring all your friends along with you into an ivory tower and forget all the ordinary people running around down below. What will people do whose religion resembles a Swiss cheese – full of holes and devoid of logic and thus standing on feet of clay? Well, the more porous one's religion is, the more one will try to convince others in order to convince oneself. All according to the well-known principle: billions of flies eat manure, billions of flies cannot be wrong.”
Ole Nydahl emphasizes that there is nothing wrong with Jesus encouraging his adherents to make all people his disciples. After all, Nydahl himself tries to convince people of the blessings of Buddhism. What he rejects is the practice of subjugating the infidels by means of the sword.
– Are there no examples of Buddhists having taken up arms? Have they all adhered to a radical pacifism?
“Yes, I’m afraid so. I am not aware of any adequate resistance to aggression. And that is really embarrassing when you see your wife, your children, your loved ones, your friends being butchered, and you have not armed yourself to protect them. It must be terrible.”
– Is it being discussed among Buddhists today – that you should have done something?
“There are two schools. To the south we find Therevada Buddhism opposing any sort of violence because they see suffering as a means to liberate people from their own bad karma. On the other hand, the northern school maintains that a bodhisattva ought to be able to protect others – even if it brings suffering to the attacker. For example, we have a story about the Buddha killing a man who tried to kill 500 others. That was the better option. So, if you really feel deep compassion – and are yourself without disturbing sentiments – then you must interfere. I know from personal experience that I react instinctively. I was a boxer for four years and I am pretty strong. If someone small, a woman especially, gets bullied by someone bigger, I immediately jump in."
– I suppose there is also a danger that you may lose your tradition if you do not act?
“My tradition of Buddhism – the diamond way – may very well be lost. It can survive only as long as one can find people with a rich inner life, who have through meditation achieved a certain level of insight, and as long as there are lamas who can transmit knowledge on the nature of the mind. In 1959 – following the Chinese conquest of Tibet – some 85,000 people survived by escaping down the mountains into India. 5,000 were educated, had had inner experiences, and had preserved various of the Buddha’s teachings, and they died so rapidly from tuberculosis that it was said that the funeral pyres never had the time to cool. My wife and I arrived in 1968, just in time to get close to the great teachers from the Kagyu line of meditation. A few years later – from around 1970 to the mid-1980s – almost everyone was dead.”
Ole Nydahl emphasizes that as opposed to southern Buddhism — which he thinks will survive as long as its scriptures are preserved — northern Tibetan Buddhism — and especially the survival of the “diamond way” is dependant on the direct transmission of knowledge from teachers to pupils.
– When Westerners came to Tibet, they quickly realized that it was a rather nasty place with slavery, oppression, poverty, class differences, brutal punishments etc. How can that be reconciled with Buddhism?
“We take no refuge in anything Tibetan. It was a medieval society – like Europe around 1450. The only thing of interest to us is the transmission of the teachings which the Buddha gave to his brightest students. That wisdom was preserved in India for 1,500 years and then kept for 900 years in Tibet until 1959, and now it’s here. I really like the East Tibetans – the Kampas – proud, Viking-like warriors who kept the Chinese and other foes out all through that time.”
– We could use a bit of their fighting spirit in contemporary Denmark.
“We have it. Several of my students have joined the National Guard. That is a good place for young people if they feel that our country is in danger. If I were a bit more in Denmark – and if I were under 65 – I would join, too.”
 - Kejser Ashoka, 304-232 f. Kr., regerede i perioden 273-232 f. Kr. over et imperium, der omfattede næsten hele Indien og det nuværende Afghanistan samt dele af Persien. Han gik over til Buddhas lære, som han blev en ivrig talsmand for.
This just in: Muslims threaten the Dalai Lama and “Buddhist pagans”
According to a report dated April 4. 2007 from the internet site AsiaNews http://new.asianews.it/index.php?l=en&art=8925 the Islamic extremist group Lashkar-e-Toiba, located in the Pakistan-dominated part of Kashmir, has issued threats against the expatriate leader of Tibetan Buddhism, the Dalai Lama. Lashkar-e-Toiba is among the most powerful Islamic groups in Southern Asia. It has been connected with several deadly onslaughts throughout India and is believed to be allied with Al-Qaeda.
The threats against the Dalai Lama were surprising as he has on several occasions praised Islam as being a peaceful religion.
The Dharamsala Police in Northern India, where the Dalai Lama lives, take the threats seriously and have strengthened their security precautions.
The threats against the Dalai Lama follow in the wake of an anti-Buddhist campaign referred to by Osama bin Laden in his speech on the Arabic TV network Al-Jazeera on April 23, 2006 http://english.aljazeera.net/English/archive/archive?ArchiveId=22227. In addition to the usual threats against “crusaders”, countries supporting Denmark in its conflict over the Muhammed cartoons, the United Nations etc., his message contained a specific reference to Buddhists. It was delivered when he spoke about the UN Security Council, which Osama bin Laden accused of excluding Islamic nations all the while granting the right of veto to “crusaders of the world and Buddhist pagans.”
Lashkar-e-Toiba — a.k.a. Jama’at-ud-Da’awa — was also mixed up in the row over Jyllands-Posten’s Muhammed cartoons. The group's founder, Hafiz Mohammed Saeed, was detained by Pakistani authorities in February 2006 in order to prevent him from whipping up further rage among anti-Danish demonstrators http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/world/south_asia/4725116.stm.