When I was younger and much less concerned about understanding what Buddhism really meant, I used to combine it with all sorts of Judeo-Christian concepts, that there was Buddha, and he could save me from heaven and hell, and karma was my mother scolding me when I bullied my siblings.
Later on, it developed into a combination of tradition, superstition and custom, paying my respects to land deities and visiting Kuan Yin my “godmother” every weekend. Do it because it’s good to learn how to pay your respects, I was told.
When I was a little older, it all got muddled with some Hinduism - Brahma, Shiva, Vishnu, Hanuman - my memories of the Jataka Tales are fuzzy now, but they were some of my favourite comics to read when I was younger.
So my early childhood was really a muddled mix of Taoism, Confucianism, Buddhism and sometimes Hinduism.
When I was older still, after meeting Rinpoche and as a teenager, Buddhism for me became about the very deep concepts of reincarnation and karma, and impermanence and suffering. There were long pujas, and philosophical Dharma talks that were much less about overt methods to make yourself happy, and more about the inner workings of the Dharma. The deep philsophical stuff that the maroon-clad ones debated deep into the balmy Indian nights.
Over the years, Rinpoche’s style has changed. Rinpoche has mentioned before that he changed his style because he realised Malaysians weren’t ready for the ‘heavier’ stuff. He was receiving requests on how to make businesses grow, when all he wanted to do was teach about emptiness, wisdom and compassion. People simply weren’t interested in the philosophy; they wanted quick fixes, or they were going to look elsewhere, and probably miss their chance to connect to Buddhism.
So Rinpoche compassionately changed his style, to keep people interested long enough so he could impart at least some real Dharma to them later in the future. To say that Rinpoche was completely at ease with this watered-down Buddhism would be a lie - he would’ve given anything for it to be any other way but then that’s Rinpoche, accepting the situation for what it is, and working with it to create something good.
After all, you can drag the proverbial horse to the water, but you can’t force it to drink. If people weren’t ready for it, they simply weren’t ready for it and that wasn’t going to stop Rinpoche (nosiree!), he was just going to find another way.
So now that I’m older and people ask me what Buddhism is, I tell them this - it is about empowering yourself. It’s about the choices you make that lead you to cause less hurt to others, and lead you to create fewer causes to hurt yourself. It’s about taking responsibility for yourself and your future, and for the future of others.
I mean, why give the public what they don’t want, eh? ;)
"A monk is holy and great until he starts teaching you the real Dharma" ~ Tsem Tulku Rinpoche