Interview with Lama Ole Nydahl in Varsity Magazine, 1994

This interview with Lama Ole Nydahl is from the very early days of Diamond Way Buddhism in the UK.  It appeared in Varsitiy, the independent student weekly newspaper of the University of Cambridge. Lama Ole Nydahl taught in Cambridge at the invitation of Stephen James, who was a student in Cambridge University at the time.

Rock n’ Roll Buddha

Matthew Arlidge communicates with Ole Nydahl about Spirituality and Motorbikes. Varsity, 28 October 1994

Lama Ole Nydahl in Varsity Magazine 1994

Cast a critical eye over the picture above and what do you see? A debonair-yet-macho top Hollywood actor? A ruthless mercenary hot-foot from a bazooka battle with the forces of SPECTRE? Or perhaps even a well ‘ardbouncer from Fifth Avenue? Well you’re wrong matey, so no nubile young banana for you.

He is in fact Ole Nydahl, the Danish Buddhist Master of the Karma Kagyu Buddhist tradition. Surprised? You bet your bottom lama I was. “Shouldn’t he be balder than that?” I thought, “and where’s his saffron robe, and shouldn’t he be hovering a few feet above Tibet chanting incoherently?” Of course, if my entire knowledge of Buddhism hadn’t been based on a few clips from Little Buddha these thoughts wouldn’t have entered my head. But I’m afraid that up until a few days ago I, like so many others, had parcelled this ever growing “religion” off as a mysterious cocktail of severe haircuts and Sixties concepts such as tranquillity and karma – very much the domain of the year-off bore whom everybody tries to avoid in the college bar. So it was great scepticism that I accepted the offer to do this article – I mean, what would you think if somebody asked you to interview a sodding lama?

My scepticism was, however, very ill-founded. My conversation with this important spiritual leader was both educational and pleasurable. He is down to earth, charming, affable (Buddhists are celebrated for being “happy people”) and one of the few people who managed to keep this old doubting Thomas interested while talking religion. Far from being a withdrawn prophet or paragon of the ascetic world, he is a man who’s always lived life at full throttle. As a youth this meant fumbling through a cloud of “marajuana” smoke toward spirituality, but as an adult it’s meant something markedly different. In 1968 he and his wife Hannah discovered Buddhism and although his life changed completely he’s never lost his flair for the dramatic and has as much energy now as he did in the days of his wild youth. One of his current passions is riding his BMW RS1100 quite unnecessarily fast, which to those of you who don’t keep up with Back Street Heroes is faster and more gadget-tastic than the Batmobile.

But this is not surprising, really, for mobility is the key word in Ole Nydahl’s life. In the past 22 years he’s covered most of the globe creating no less than 160 Karma Kagyu Buddhist Centres. His travels have taken him to Peru, Russia, and to Japan. Next week he comes to England to give an introductory lecture to Buddhism, hoping to spark enough interest to start Centre 161.

I caught up with him in Spain and posed a few teasing questions on babes, booze and yes, you’ve guessed it, Buddhism.

May I start off by asking if you were religious at all as a child?

“No, I always thought the surest way to lose the fun of life was to become religious… I thought it was a prescription for impotence and no fun… Danes are not very religious – holy means something like boring to us.”

How did you discover Buddhism then?

“Well, we’ve written a book called Entering the Diamond Way explaining this… it was the Sixties – we believed that you could chemically alter your mind… erm… in a beneficial way and we actually went out to Nepal to get some hash and take that home. After that our friends started dying and we decided that it was not a good idea. We still used to go out that way and that was our entry into Buddhism.”

Were you immediately convinced by Buddhism?

“I was immediately convinced about the vibration of the people, that the great lamas were really great. There was no doubt, anyone could see that, even the animals that came up to be blessed. Then, on top of that, we also got interested in the doctrine because we saw it was nothing personal and everyone could make it. We then stayed for about three or four years in the Himalayas and learnt and learnt and then came back.”

How did your life change?

“Oh, it changed in every way. I used to fight a lot, make a lot of trouble… ”

A wild youth, huh?

“I still enjoy parachuting, surfriding very fast and so on but now it’s different, now it should benefit people, not harm them. There’s another kind of feeling to it, I think that Buddhism has brought compassion to me in a big way, or it made me accept the compassion I had.”

When you look back do you see yourself as a completely different person?

“We felt very different… but our friends didn’t think we’d changed that much; one always thinks one’s changed more than one actually has changed. Our friends back in Denmark thought, well they’ve become Buddhists but they could still trust us. There wasn’t a feeling that we came back totally different, I don’t think.”

Have you ever doubted your faith?

“No, I’ve never doubted… I’ve doubted whether people use it in the right way but you know being Buddhist is easy… you have to believe the mind is clear light, you have to have that confidence and I had that experience myself, so I don’t need to believe it – I know it. Then you need confidence that there is goal worth getting, that there is a way bringing you there and you can trust your friends on the way. That’s all it takes There are no pregnant virgins and no funny stuff in Buddhism!”

How could you use Buddhism in the wrong way?

“You could just get stiff about it. You could mix it up with Christianity or something. You could start believing that Buddha was a god trying to force you to do something while he’s actually your friend trying to teach you how to develop.”

So do you look down on Christianity?

“No, I think it’s excellent, but the reason we have no problems with them is actually that we have contact with completely different people. They have one kind of people who’d rather like to have a father or someone to tell them what to do and Buddhism helps people who want to be more independent. We’re helping different kinds of people and we’re both doing a good job, We’re good friends.

So does Buddhism have any rules?

“No, it’s advice. Buddha is our friend; he’s not a creator, he’s not a judge, he’s not a punisher, he’s our friend. He’s just trying to help us find the same experience that he had. That means teaching us what things to avoid regarding peace of mind, how to develop compassion and wisdom and how to identify with the clear light or our minds.”

So what would the Buddha say we should avoid then?

“He would say to definitely avoid killing other beings, which nobody likes, stealing, lying to cause harm, that kind of thing. I mean its common sense… a lot of things in both Christianity and Buddhism are common sense… what’s not common sense are things like suppressing women and holy wars like in Islam – that’s not common sense.”

So do you lose anything by becoming Buddhist?

“You can lose a few neuroses, you can lose a few confusions. What you don’t lose your pint of beer in the afternoon if you’re used to that and you don’t lose your happy lovemaking if you like that. You don’t lose any of that stuff.”

Yes, a lot of students would be worried about having to give their drink and drugs.

“Well, I would advise against the drugs quite honestly, as I’ve had some experience. There’s no drug that makes people happy; you have happiness for six hours and then you run out of it. That’s how I see it.”

So if Buddha’s not a god then, is he human?

“Above all, Buddha is our friend. He is someone who sees how everything works and that takes him beyond gods and everything else. In our way of thinking gods still have the illusion of an ego and as long as they have that they are conditioned and can fall down again from their state, while Buddha has dissolved the illusion of an ego, and for that reason there is no falling down.”

There’s absolutely no all-powerful being?

“Your mind is all-powerful; if there’s no ring the hook can do nothing. Buddha says the compassionate forces of the universe are like hooks but if we’re not open, if we’re not rings, the hooks cannot do anything.”

What would you say you gain most by becoming Buddhist?

“You gain meaning of life, the feeling that you don’t just get older, but wiser too. You have the feeling that you can understand things… the behaviour of beings, that they want happiness and want to avoid suffering. You feel you become more and more the mirror and not so distracted by the images in the mirror. You become awareness itself and that is a really wonderful feeling. You become the big dog, and you don’t need to bark. The little dog always has to bark, but everyone knows the big dog is big.”

Can I just change tack and ask about relationships. Is any sexuality preferred?

“Well I would say that heterosexual relationships are the happiest. From my experience, if one is more extreme, if one is more in a minority, the disturbing feelings like jealousy and anger are usually stronger. From the point of view of mind it’s probably easier to be heterosexual because then your sex life is like a good stomach; you don’t feel it, it doesn’t hurt you and it works by itself. But if you are homosexual you can still practice Buddhism. There are probably a few practices that would be more difficult, like yogic practices, but everything else is fine.”

Can you be involved with more than one person?

“That is completely cultural. There are cultures like the Eskimos where it belongs to hospitality that you get the wife for the night, and then there are other cultures like the Arabs where the women get run over in the streets because they can’t see the cars as they have to wear these big tents. I mean Buddha was smart enough to keep out of peoples’ bedrooms. The meaning of Buddha’s sexual advice is to avoid getting into trouble. So Buddha actually says, be like it’s expected and if you’re too kinky don’t show it, don’t make your sexuality a cause of trouble.”

Are you looking forward to coming over to England?

“I’m really looking forward to coming over to England. I’m also looking forward to trying some of the mild beer that I love.”

You remember the beer?

Yes, and the historical pubs of course… and the great English people… that’s what I like. Everything else you can find in other places.”

To end off with, what would your message be to someone who’s considering becoming a Buddhist?

“I would tell them quite simply to try and face your own reactions to two statements. The first is that everything is a dream and second is the nature of your mind is open space and if people feel good about these two statements then they should become a Buddhist and if they don’t they should not… they would be happier with some materialist belief or with a god telling them what to do.”

So, if you’re independent and open minded come and hear Ole Nydahl lecture in the Fisher Building, St John’s College, October 31st at 7.00pm – entry £1.00. It promises to be amusing and hopefully enlightening. For information on any Buddhist group in Cambridge contact Steve James at St John’s College.

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2 Responses to “Interview with Lama Ole Nydahl in Varsity Magazine, 1994”

  1. jk says:

    great article!
    Feels like it was written yesterday..
    “Truth to be absolute has to be the same in every time and place”
    Many thanks guys!


  2. kc says:

    This is the best presentation of buddhism for westerners I’ve ever read.

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