Lama Ole Nydahl (born March 19, 1941) is a Danish Lama in the Karma Kagyu school of Tibetan Buddhism. Since the early 1970s, Nydahl has toured the world giving lectures and meditation courses. With his wife, Hannah Nydahl, he founded Diamond Way Buddhism, a worldwide Karma Kagyu Buddhist organization of lay practitioners.
Ole Nydahl was born in Copenhagen and grew up in Denmark. In the early 1960s, he served briefly in the Danish Army, then studied philosophy, English, and German at the University of Copenhagen, where he completed the examen philosophicum with the best possible grade. He began but did not finish a doctoral thesis on Aldous Huxley’s Doors of Perception. As a young man, Nydahl was involved in boxing, race car driving and also travelled overland from Denmark to Nepal several times. As described in his book "Entering the Diamond Way", his travels were financed through smuggling, for which he was once arrested and detained in Denmark.
Involvement with Buddhism
In 1968, Nydahl and his wife Hannah travelled to Nepal on their honeymoon. Ole and Hannah Nydahl's first Buddhist teacher was the Drukpa Kagyu master Lopon Tsechu Rinpoche. In December 1969, the Nydahls met Rangjung Rigpe Dorje, the 16th Karmapa. They were among the first Western students of the Karmapa and grew close to him. The Nydahls also became students of Mipham Chokyi Lodro, the fourteenth Shamarpa. From the Karmapa, the Nydahls learned about Vajrayana Buddhism and mahamudra. From the Shamarpa, they took the Bodhisattva vows and learned about Gampopa's Jewel Ornament of Liberation. They have received teachings and empowerments from various Tibetan lamas, including the Dalai Lama.
In 1972, Ole Nydahl was appointed a Buddhist teacher by the Karmapa and was sent back to Europe in order to promote Buddhism in the West. In 1983, the Shamarpa named Nydahl a Buddhist master. In 1995, Khenpo Chödrak Thenpel Rinpoche named Nydahl a lama on behalf of the Buddhist Institutes of the Gyalwa Karmapa.
Nydahl has been criticised for never going on a three-year retreat, which is a prerequisite for use of the title 'lama' in some traditions of Buddhism. However, the use of the word Lama as a term of address (vs. as a title) is a more individual matter, like the term of address 'Rinpoche'. Many of the early Buddhist teachers in the Karma Kagyu tradition used the word 'Lama' as a term of address, including Marpa and Milarepa, in their songs to their teachers, who had not gone on three year retreats. The Sixteenth Karmapa also stated that, "if someone has a greater wisdom and capacity for penetrating the teaching, then even without doing a three-year retreat, it is possible for one to experience definite understanding and realization." Nydahl was expressly confirmed as a lama by the Shamarpa in 2006.
Upon returning to Europe, Hannah and Ole Nydahl began to teach Buddhism and organize meditation centers, first in their native Denmark, then in Germany and other countries. The centers belong to the Karma Kagyu lineage and operate under Ole Nydahl's practical guidance. In the early 90s, Diamond Way Buddhism was founded as a way to protect established centers during the Karmapa controversy.
Ole Nydahl regularly travels between them during the year giving lectures and meditation courses. His courses cover topics such as mahamudra and phowa. He has traveled almost constantly for the last 40 years, teaching in a new city nearly every day. His teaching activity was described and commended by the Shamarpa in 2012.
Together with his students, Nydahl has created Buddhist centers that provide access to Vajrayana meditation methods without requiring an understanding of Tibetan language or culture. In the Diamond Way centers, the meditations and names of the various Buddha forms have been translated into Western languages. Ole Nydahl believes it essential for people to understand and read the meditations in their own language in order for Buddhism to become truly rooted in the West.
Diamond Way centers are run entirely by volunteers; the organization does not maintain any paid staff. The organizational structure is intended to be democratic and to function on the basis of idealism and friendship. According to Buddhism Today, the Diamond Way Buddhist magazine, "hierarchical systems will not sell with independent people in the West. Nobody wants a distant teacher on a pedestal or a big organization standing on their shoulders and telling them what to think."
Students in Diamond Way Centers practice the ngöndro given by Wangchuk Dorje, 9th Karmapa Lama, which are a set of four foundational practices that are intended to prepare the mind for enlightenment, a meditation on the Buddha Loving Eyes (Avalokiteśvara in Sanskrit, Chenrezig in Tibetan) and several forms of guru yoga or meditation on the lama (as given by the 16th Karmapa). In a newsletter dated July 9, 2010, Nydahl responded to questions about the types of practices taught in Diamond Way Centers by stating "I never taught anything I was not asked to pass on by the great Sixteenth Karmapa and that its basis was always the Guru Yogas of the Karmapas. Nothing else is practiced in our now 650 Diamond Way centers world-wide where my students meditate side by side."
Jørn Borup, a professor of religion at Aarhus University, says that Ole Nydahl is "the most lasting influence on the Buddhist practice scene in Denmark" and "has in many ways been the icon of living Buddhism in Denmark". The total number of Nydahl's adherents is unknown, but can be estimated conservatively to include 15,000 to 70,000 students and casual sympathizers world wide. In Germany alone, the German Buddhist Union, (Deutsche Buddhistische Union) estimates that about 20,000 persons regularly visit the Diamond Way centers and groups.
Role in the Karmapa controversy
- See also: Karmapa controversy
When a great Tibetan lama dies, it is tradition in Tibetan Buddhism to find the next reincarnation to continue the work. When the Sixteenth Karmapa died in 1981, two potential successors were found, Trinley Thaye Dorje and Ogyen Trinley Dorje, causing a major split in the Karma Kagyu. Nydahl, along with the Fourteenth Shamarpa, who was one of only four lineage-holders appointed to recognize the incarnation of the Karmapa at that time, supported Trinley Thaye Dorje. It was largely because of the work of Hannah and Ole Nydahl that most European Karma Kagyu centers chose to support Trinley Thaye Dorje. As a result, 629 of the centers supporting Trinley Thaye Dorje are affiliated with Diamond Way Buddhism.
The other candidate, Ogyen Trinley Dorje, was recognized by Tenzin Gyatso, 14th Dalai Lama. The Dalai Lama confirmed Ogyen Trinley Dorje as the Karmapa after he had been requested to do so by two of the other lineage-holders, Tai Situ Rinpoche and Gyaltsap Rinpoche, but the supporters of Trinley Thaye Dorje say that the Dalai Lama is not entitled to do so, and has never done so before.
The argument that Ogyen Trinley Dorje is the Karmapa is based in part on a letter presented by Pema Tönyö Nyinje, 12th Tai Situpa. The supporters of Ogyen Trinley claim it was written by the Sixteenth Karmapa in order to predict the identity of his future rebirth. Nydahl, the Shamarpa, and Topgala requested that the letter's authenticity be tested. They believe that the letter was written not by the Sixteenth Karmapa but by the Situpa himself. They have requested that the letter be verified by independent experts including forensic document examiners. Tai Situ has thus far refused to allow this claiming it would be a violation of a sacred object.
Due to his role in the Karmapa controversy, Nydahl has been heavily criticized by the supporters of Ogyen Trinley Dorje, such as the authors Mick Brown and Lea Terhune, a student of Tai Situpa. In connection to this, some blame Nydahl for causing the 1992 split of the Karma Kagyu, although there is no evidence of this, and accuse him of breaking the samayas to his teachers, which is deprecated in (Vajrayana)].
There is a greater concentration of Diamond Way centers in Germany compared to elsewhere in Europe. Between late 1999 and April 2000 there was a public dispute between the German Buddhist Union and the German branch of Diamond Way, which is a member organisation of the Union. Due to of Nydahl's attitude towards Islam, his political statements, his manner of expressing and presenting himself, and his relationships with women, there were calls for the expulsion of Nydahl's organisation from the Union. The dispute was resolved at a meeting between the two organizations on 4 October 2000; although differences were clear, they agreed to learn from the past and cooperate in the future. The conversation was described as "a first step" that "should eliminate misunderstandings, and lead to clarity and cooperation." The German branch of Diamond Way (Buddhistischer Dachverband Diamantweg) remains a member of the German Buddhist Union. Academic reception
- Lay practitioners, both patrons and tantric adepts, played a decisive role in the process of assimilation that formed Tibetan Buddhism(s). In the same way, lay people are now playing a key role during the westernization of Tibetan Buddhism(s). The Mahāsiddha / crazy yogi heritage and the medieval Tibetan doctrinal debate about teaching the Great Seal outside of the Tantra prove to be highly relevant historical precedents in the interpretation of unconventional modern/contemporary yogic/lay teachers such as the late Chogyam Trungpa and Ole Nydahl.
He regrets that Nydahl continues to be ignored by Tibet scholars and argues that prevailing negative criticism from a position of suspicion by sociologists and students of New Religious Movements should be counterbalanced by positive criticism from a position of trust by Tibet scholars.
- ... the little recent academic attention Nydahl has drawn so far come, interestingly, from European sociologists of religions who specialize in New Religious Movements and Contemporary Religions/Buddhism(s).The neglect of Modern Tibetan Buddhist movements by classically trained Tibetologists is deplorable; the historical-critical methodology of Tibetan Studies can complement sociology and anthropology and add greatly to the discourses about authenticity and legitimization of movements such as Nydahl's Diamond Way.
Martin Baumann, a professor of religion at the University of Lucerne, remarked in a newspaper interview "when I listen to his [Nydahl's] alarmingly superficial formulations in his talks I can understand his critics who say that he is presenting a watered-down 'instant Buddhism', a sort of 'Buddhism light' for the West."
Nydahl is a strong proponent of human rights, and of women's rights in particular. He also has a critical view of Islam. He has called Allah a "terrible god", and has characterized Muslim beliefs as antithetical to freedom of speech and women's rights:
- I seriously hope, you know, that we're not losing the freedom of expression right now, that we're not losing the ability to say what we think even if we step on the toes of some gentlemen from the Near East … who like to beat their wives or stone them or whatever else they do, right?
Nydahl says that he does not make political comments in his capacity as a lama, but as a "responsible, thinking human being", and that no one can make such statements from a Buddhist perspective because Buddha Shakyamuni did not comment on religious ideas founded centuries after his death. He also distinguishes the "mainstream Muslims" that he disapproves of from Sufis and Bahá'ís.
An online interview with Nydahl also featured the following statement: "Judaism and Christianity are fine. Islam, I warn against. I know the Koran, I know the life story of Mohammad and I think we cannot use that in our society today."
Nydahl is not a monk and so has not taken vows of celibacy. Jørn Borup, Associate Professor of Religion at Aarhus University, notes that Nydahl "certainly isn't afraid to say that he likes the ladies, primarily his wife, who is now deceased, but also other women. This brings him into conflict with not just Islam but also, sometimes, with old-fashioned Buddhism..." Yet several well-known Vajrayana Buddhist lamas were married: Marpa the translator is said to have had nine wives; others had romantic relationships, including the 6th Dalai Lama, and the teacher who brought Buddhism to Tibet, Padmasambhava, who had five Tantric consorts who were also his students.
When asked about it, Nydahl has said: "There’s no teacher-student relationship involved in that, [...] They’re Diamond Way Buddhists, but they’re not my students in that moment. They’re equal partners."
Most popular English titles:
- Ngondro: The Four Foundational Practices of Tibetan Buddhism. Blue Dolphin Publishing (1990)
- Riding the Tiger: Twenty Years on the Road - Risks and Joys of Bringing Tibetan Buddhism to the West. Blue Dolphin Publishing (1992)
- Entering the Diamond Way: Tibetan Buddhism meets the West. Blue Dolphin Publishing (1999)
- The Great Seal: Limitless Space and Joy - The Mahamudra View of Diamond Way Buddhism. Fire Wheel Publishing (2004)
- The Way Things Are: A living Approach to Buddhism for today's world. O Books (2008)
- Buddha and Love: Timeless Wisdom for Modern Relationships. Brio Books (2012)