The Dalai Lama Responds to the Protests: Sectarianism and Shugden Worship

With respect to virtue, act in accord with the gurus’ words, but do not act in accord with the gurus’ words with respect to nonvirtue. – Buddha¹

Through taking sides the mind is distressed, Whereby you will never know peace. – Bhavaviveka²

If you are partisan, you will be obstructed by your bias and will not recognize good qualities. Because of this, you will not discover the meaning of good teachings. – Tsongkhapa³

The following extract has been taken from the Dalai Lama’s commentary on Tsonkhapa’s Lamrim Chenmo:

Avoiding the Error of Rejecting Buddha’s Teachings

“Tsong-kha-pa (I: 53-54) identifies the final greatness of the stages of the path approach as its preventing the grave error of rejecting the Buddha’s teachings, rejecting the Dharma. Here, Tsong-kha-pa cites many texts, including the Perfection of Wisdom sutras, where the Buddha states that a practitioner must study, understand and actually practice all aspects of the path. If you really aspire to help many billions of living beings with diverse mental dispositions, then you have to understand and practice many diverse teachings and approaches. This is what prepares you.

“Historically it has been the tradition among Tibetan masters to study and also to practice all the lineages—Sakya, Gagyu, Geluk, Nyingma—and Jonang as well. This is an excellent model. We should adopt a nonsectarian approach, not just studying all of these lineages but also putting their teachings into practice.

“Question: Your Holiness, I feel agitated to see and hear the Shugden protestors outside the building here. How do I help myself? Please address this issue as many are uninformed about this.

“Answer: We have had this problem for 370 years. It started during the time of the Fifth Dalai Lama. And from 1951 until the 1970’s, I myself worshipped this spirit. I used to be one of the practitioners!

“One of my reasons for abandoning Shugden worship is that much of my efforts are directed toward promoting nonsectarianism—especially within Tibetan Buddhism. I always encourage people to receive teachings from the teachers of diverse traditions. This is like the Fifth Dalai Lama and many other great lamas, who received teachings within many traditions.  Since the late 1960’s and early 1970’s, down to today, I have been practicing this way myself.

“A Nyingma teacher, Khunu Lama Rinpoche, initially gave me teachings on Shantideva’s texts. This lama was very nonsectarian, having received innumerable teachings from many different traditions. After this, I wanted to receive from this great lama a certain teaching distinct to the Nyingma tradition. I asked my tutor, Ling Rinpoche, pointing out that I had already received some teachings from this lama, but I now wanted to receive teachings on an important Nyingma tantric text.

“Ling Rinpoche was a little bit cautious about this because of Shugden. He never worshipped the spirit but he was cautious about it. (My other tutor, Trijang Rinpoche, was very close to this spirit practice.) The rumor that was circulating was that if a Geluk lama takes teachings in the Nyingma tradition, Shugden would destroy him. Ling Rinpoche was a bit frightened for me and he really warned me to be careful. The Shugden worshippers have a tradition that one must be extremely strict about one’s own distinctive Geluk tradition.

“Actually, I think this standpoint deprives people of religious freedom, preventing them from taking other teachings. In practice, discouraging a standpoint that deprives people of the freedom to choose is actually an affirmation of religious freedom. A double negation is an affirmation.

“Around 1970, I was reading the life stories of many great lamas, mainly of the Geluk tradition. I had the idea that if Shugden is truly reliable, then most of the great lamas who tutored the Dalai Lamas must have practiced Shugden worship. It turns out that this is not the case. So I developed some doubt and the more I investigated, the clearer it became.

“For example, the Fifth Dalai Lama very explicitly explains his position vis-à-vis the worship of this spirit [Two sources are cited here, from autobiographical works of the Fifth Dalai Lama—see below]. He explains what it is and he explains the causes and conditions that gave rise to it. He describes the destructive functions of this particular spirit. He says that it arose from misguided motivation and that as a spirit it manifests as a violator of a pledge. According to the Fifth Dalai Lama, its function is to harm both the Buddhist doctrine and living beings.

“Once I realized these things, it was my moral responsibility to make the facts clear. Whether you listen to me is entirely up to you as an individual. From the outset, I told both Tibetans and some of our other friends what I had come to understand. They are free to listen to my advice or not. It is an individual right to accept religion or not to accept it. Accepting this religion or that religion is entirely up to the individual.

“My opinion is that Shugden worship is actually not a genuine practice of Dharma; it is simply worship of a worldly spirit. This is another aspect of the problem: from what I have taught, I think you can see that Tibetan Buddhism is a continuation of the pure lineage of the Nalanda tradition, which relies on reasoning, not blind belief. So it is very sad that certain Tibetan practices could cause this profound and rich tradition to become a sort of spirit worship.

“Both the Fifth Dalai Lama and the Thirteenth Dalai Lama were gravely critical toward this spirit. Since I am considered the reincarnation of these Dalai Lamas, it is only logical that my life should follow theirs. One could say that it proves that I am a true reincarnation!

“It seems that these people outside are really fond of worshipping this spirit. OK, it is their life; I have no problem if that is what they want to do. When I taught in Germany a group of Shugden followers shouted for at least three or four hours.  Eventually I felt great concern about how their throats would be affected by so much shouting.” (pp. 24-26)


¹ Buddha in Cloud of Jewels Sutra/ Ratna-megha-sutra, as quoted by Lama Tsongkhapa in Lamrim Chenmo, English translation, p. 82

² Madhyamaka-hrdaya, quoted in Lam Rim Chen Mo by Tsongkhapa

³ Tsongkhapa in Lam Rim Chen Mo


Dalai Lama, (Translated and edited by Guy Newland); 2012; From Here to Enlightenment: An Introduction to Tsong-kha-pa’s Classic Text, The Great Treatise on the Stages of the Path to Enlightenment; Snowlion Publications; Boston, MA.

Fifth Dalai Lama, Collected Works, vol. Ha, pp. 423-424, as well as the Fifth’s autobiography.

Tsong-kha-pa, (Translated by The Lamrim Chenmo Translation Committee) 2000; The Great Treatise on the Stages of the Path to Enlightenment: Lamrim Chenmo; Snowlion Publications, Ithaca, NY.

GUEST POST by Joanne Clark
two quotes from Lam Rim Chen Mo added by tenpel

The NKT/WSS/ISC Campaign Against the Dalai Lama’s ‘Ban’ of Shugden Worship


… they use the word “ban.” I never use that. – The 14th Dalai Lama¹

Over the past two decades and, more recently during his tour of the US, the International Shugden Community (the latest New Kadampa Traditionfront organization‘ and its political wing) have protested against the Dalai Lama’s decision to ‘ban’ the worship of the gyalpo Shugden.

When asked to provide explicit evidence of such a ban, supporters of the deity frequently point to the following statement, purportedly from the Dalai Lama, which appears at YouTube (see 2:53 onwards):

I began this ban to continue the Fifth Dalai Lama’s legacy, I started this by myself and I have to continue, and carry it to the end.

The word “ban” has Western, ecclesiastic connotations and refers to a practice whereby a Church authority can prohibit any member of the congregation or denomination from doing something on pain of excommunication from the Church.

The YouTube video the NKT/ISC claim as ‘evidence’ that the Dalai Lama used that word—and thus invoked their demand for redress—uses clips from a  speech in Tibetan by the Dalai Lama to Tibetan monks. The  text of the English translation and voice-over are supplied by supporters of the deity and it is they who use the word ‘ban’.

In fact, as any Tibetan speaker will confirm, the Dalai Lama uses a Tibetan word translatable as ‘disapprove’, or even stronger, ‘condemnation’, in the sense of to ‘consider it unworthy of doing’ in the video. The Shugden devotees however translate this as “ban,” in their subtitles, clearly with the deceptive intent that English speaking persons, opponents, neutrals and even their own followers, will assume that the Dalai Lama actually said it [which he did not], and  thus invoke horrifying images of the Catholicism of the Inquisition, with its connotations of burning at the stake, direct descent into hell, and so forth.

This is not the first instance of such cynical  manipulation of the truth. In 2010, Shugden devotees (this time in the guise of ‘The Dorjee Shugden Devotees’ Charitable and Religious Society-the Indian office of the ISC, with close links to Chinese Government officials) went to the High Court in Delhi with allegations of ‘violence and harassment’. When the issue was not resolved in their favour, it was claimed that the Court had been ‘unable to reach a conclusive decision’.

Examining Court documents however, we learn that the case was actually thrown out of Court, even before the proceedings commenced, with the presiding judge stating that ‘the allegations of violence and harassment were ‘vague averments’ and that the raised issues ‘do not partake of any public law character and therefore are not justiciable in proceedings under Article 226 of the Constitution.’

Citing the ‘absence of any specific instances of any such attacks’ on Shugden practitioners, the Court noted the counter affidavit submitted by the respondents,referring to ‘an understanding reached whereby it was left to the monks to decide whether they would want to be associated with the practices of Dorjee Shugden.’ (ie the practice had not been ‘banned’)

Closing the doors on the possibility of similar complaints in the future, Justice Muralidhar concluded that the ‘matters of religion and the differences among groups concerning propitiation of religion, cannot be adjudicated upon by a High Court in exercise of its writ jurisdiction.’ (See

It is difficult to understand how this can be construed as the Court being ‘unable to reach a conclusive decision’. Indeed the decision to close the doors on similar complaints in the future, because the allegations were ‘vague’ and there was an ‘absence of any specific instances of any such attacks’ seems quite final. One can only assume that, as with the translation of the term ‘ban’ in the YouTube video, the decision to publicly misconstrue the truth was a cynical propagandist manipulation of fact in order to provide ‘evidence’ to support the ongoing divisive activities of Shugden devotees in the East and West.

Yeshe Dorje

¹ see The Dalai Lama on Sectarianism, Religious Freedom and the Shugden Issue, spoken during a teaching in Madison, Wisconsin, 2008


See also

Academic Research about Shugden

Overview about Shugden

  • Dorje Shugden – An overview article mainly based on academic papers

Dorje Shugden and Wikipedia

The Dalai Lama on Sectarianism, Religious Freedom and the Shugden Issue

So in fact, restricting a form of practice that restricts others’ religious freedom is actually a protection of religious freedom. So in other words, negation of a negation is an affirmation.

Spoken During a Teaching in Madison, Wisconsin, 2008

This particular spirit, called Shugden … start[ed] during Fifth Dalai Lama, so now over 370 years. Since fifth Dalai Lama, almost I think, 300 years, this spirit, this deity, [has] always remain[ed] very very controversial. Only last 70 years, after 13th Dalai Lama’s death, then this spirit became more prominent in some area, in Lhasa area. That also, I think, almost like reaction to 13th Dalai Lama’s restriction.

… Since ’51 to early ’70, I myself [was] also a sincere worshipper of this spirit. I made [a] great mistake with [the] Dalai Lama’s name to worship this, due to my junior tutor. So eventually, I notice[d] this [was] something wrong, as a result of reading the autobiography of the fifth Dalai Lama and then many reliable, well known Gelugpa masters’ biographies. Then it became clear, this is wrong. This is evil spirit. So, Fifth Dalai Lama {translator}“clearly wrote and identified this spirit to be a spirit that has arisen on the basis of a distorted aspiration and its nature is that of destructive[ness] and its consequence is also harmful to the Buddha dharma and sentient beings in general.

So therefore, eventually I noticed that and then I dropped my practice. And then eventually [I] made [this] known to those monasteries , to those scholars or monks. Then they also [were] fully convinced because [there were] sufficient reasons or facts there. And 13th Dalai Lama also put restrictions.

Then [there are several reasons that] I feel [this]. Number one: Tibetan Buddhism [is] Nalanda tradition, such a profound tradition … Some Tibetans now not only [worship] this deity, but also some [other] spirits—Tibetans sometimes [put] too much emphasis on the importance of these spirits, rather than Buddha—or Nagarjuna—that’s a disgrace. So there’s real danger, such profound Nalanda tradition eventually degenerate [and] become something [like] spirit worship. It is [a] pity. Number one.

Of course, we can offer [to] those local spirit[s], or something like [asking] someone, please do some help, like that, then ok. But worship, or something very important, it is totally a mistake. {Translator} “In fact, the 13th Dalai Lama has actually made this statement to Gyabje Phabonkha Rinpoche, very clearly that if someone worships Shugden with such devotion, there is a danger that it could conflict with one’s precepts of taking refuge in the Three Jewels.”

So that is one factor, one reason. Second reason [is] I think part of [the] first reason … The second reason is: As you know, I [am] fully committed [to] non-sectarian principle. As fifth Dalai Lama and Second Dalai Lama, First Dalai Lama, Third Dalai Lama, all these previous masters, previous Dalai Lamas, as well as many great masters from all sects, Gelug, Nyingma, Kagyu, Sakya, Chonang, and many sects, many great masters, well known masters, [follow] according to non-sectarian principle. So worshipper of this spirit, they are very sectarian …

So therefore, I [am] fully committed to [the] promotion of nonsectarian principle. So therefore, this Shugden spirit—There are reliable stories [which] mention, according to my Junior tutor’s verbal accounts, [that] some of the Gelugpa lamas, as well as high officials, who practice Nyingma tradition, because of that, this deity destroyed [them], killed [them]. It’s recorded. About 13 cases mentioned in that story. So very sectarian.

So therefore, these two reasons. Then third, because the fifth Dalai Lama consider this [to be an] evil spirit, I have the name of 14th Dalai Lama, so therefore, I have to follow the principle of previous Dalai Lamas, fifth Dalai Lama and 13th Dalai Lama. So, I am trying to follow their example.

Then … religious freedom. Now here, firstly, spirit worship is not, I think, genuine religious practice. Certainly, this is not genuine Buddhist religion. But aside [from that], … now, my own story. In late 60’s, as I mentioned … this morning, 1967, I received teaching [from] Shantideva’s book from late Khunu Lama Rinpoche. Then, [I] received many other teachings from him, very rare teachings, which [were] not available from my two tutors.

Then later, I developed one desire to receive some text according to Nyingma tradition. I asked Ling Rinpoche, my senior tutor, [that] I have that kind of desire to receive one important Nyingma text, that I very much want to receive oral transmission from late Khunu Lama Rinpoche. {Translator} “Guhyagarbha Tantra”. Then, although Ling Rinpoche himself was very cautious about this spirit [Shugden], … he also you see, heard that if Gelugpa lama touch Nyingma tradition, then this spirit will harm them. So Ling Rinpoche [was] a little cautious. Then, [he] advised me, “Be cautious, not good [to] receive Nyingma tradition from him.”

Although I already [had] received many texts, many teachings from [Khunu Lama Rinpoche] already, but [about receiving] this particular Nyingma text, Ling Rinpoche [was] very very cautious. So then I stopped. {Translator} “So at that time, it seems I did not get my own religious freedom.”

Because [of] fear, exaggerated fear, I lost genuine religious freedom. Because I dropped this practice, then I got religious freedom. I received teachings from Nyingma tradition, from Sakya tradition, from Kagyu tradition, from various reliable lamas, I received teachings. Now, I think I can say, with a little pride, I think I have some knowledge of all these traditions. So it is very useful.

Another sort of sad story. In the late 60s, one old Kuno (?) monk, I think age around—I still remember his face—age around 60, like that. Physically also quite small. He came to see me and ask me for some Nyingma teachings. Then I [had] no knowledge of that teaching. So I asked him, “That subject I do not know. Please go to Varanasi or Bodhgaya”– and Khunu Lama Rinpoche still alive, so—“approach Khunu Lama Rinpoche and ask him. I have no [knowledge about] that teaching.”

So later, I found, “Oh I’m Buddhist.” {Translator} “For example, the Buddha states in the Perfection of Wisdom Sutra that the bodhisattva should cultivate the knowledge of all the paths, the paths of the disciples, the paths of the self-enlightened ones and the paths of the bodhisattvas. So the bodhisattvas may be able to fulfill the needs of all people who aspire for teachings that are appropriate to their own mental faculties.”

So at that time, I really felt very sad … I failed to fulfill the wishes of that poor monk. Still I feel like that.

Now today, suppose that person come, then I proudly explain …

So also, past Tibetan history. Unnecessary conflict in the name of religion also happen, frankly speaking. Sometimes we call Sarma—“So sometimes when two monasteries clash with each other, it’s called the yellow war.” Very sad. Really sad.

Actually, after 13th Dalai Lama passed away, due to this deity, this spirit, some small Nyingma monastery or temple in some cases actually destroyed—because of the sectarian conflict. These things I later came to know. So therefore, religious freedom: {Translator} “So in fact, restricting a form of practice that restricts others’ religious freedom is actually a protection of religious freedom. So in other words, negation of a negation is an affirmation.”

So, now some of their accusations, including Chinese officials also accuse me—the Dalai Lama … sort of violated religious freedom because of Shugden worshipper. Now Chinese officially accuse me. So therefore, they use the word “ban.” I never use that. I am fully committed about freedom of speech, freedom of expression. So, right from the beginning, I made it very clear. It is my moral responsibility to make clear what is wrong, what is right. But whether listen or not, it’s up to them, [up to each] individual. I have no power to impose.

So I am happy these people enjoy their freedom of speech, freedom of expression, very good. So the other day, in Germany, [during] my recent visit, again a group [of protestors] shouting. I hear their voice, particularly one lady’s, I think one nun maybe, so quite strong. So I think at least three or four hours shouting. Then I got real sort of worry, “oh her throat may suffer.”

Madison, Wisconsin, July, 2008

See also

Academic Research about Shugden

Overview about Shugden

  • Dorje Shugden – An overview article mainly based on academic papers

Dorje Shugden and Wikipedia

Women monastics are indispensible

We need to understand that the situation now with Bhikshunis is an important issue. Some people think that there have been some foreign nuns who’ve come over and started making an issue out of it and it’s only then that the Bhikshuni issue has become an important question, and that before it wasn’t important. But that is absolutely not the case. The fact that it was not an important issue for us before is our fault. It’s our problem, and it’s us not living up to our own responsibility. And this is for monks and nuns both—we have both let this slide, so it is all of our responsibility. – HH the 17th Karmapa, Ogyen Trinley Dorje

There is a teaching by HH the 17th Karmapa, Ogyen Trinley Dorje, during the 1st Arya Kshema Nuns’ Gathering – Why Bhikshuni Ordination is Important:

You find it a written summery here:

H.H. the 17th Karmapa will come to Germany and Berlin from the 28 May to the 9th June 2014. Details here.

More about Bhikshuni Ordination

Interview with the Dalai Lama about ethics in the teacher-student relationship & Two papers about mindfulness

Since 2002 I collect information about the teacher student relationship in the context of Tibetan Buddhism and try to get information about approaches if one has taken on a misleading guru, or a guru who abuses his or her students.

Recently we had a brief discussion about this topic in the Istituto Lama Tzong Khapa in Italy in the context of our tantra studies. After this discussion a Bhikshuni sent two files to the students, one contained an interview with HH the Dalai Lama about this topic in 1993 and the other file contained an interview with Geshe Sönam Rinchen about “Guru devotion”. Both texts have not been available online by now.

I asked the Bhikshuni if I could post the interview with HH the Dalai Lama on my website, and she clarified the copyrights/editor permission and just some minutes ago I posted it. I think in this interview with HH the Dalai Lama, he gives clear, very good and straight forward advice what to do if Gurus misbehave or abuse their students:

… if someone is supposed to propagate the Dharma and their behavior is harmful, it is our responsibility to criticize this with a good motivation. This is constructive criticism, and you do not need to feel uncomfortable doing it. In “The Twenty Verses on the Bodhisattvas’ Vows,” it says that there is no fault in whatever action you engage in with pure motivation. Buddhist teachers who abuse sex, power, money, alcohol, or drugs, and who, when faced with legitimate complaints from their own students, do not correct their behavior, should be criticized openly and by name. This may embarrass them and cause them to regret and stop their abusive behavior. Exposing the negative allows space for the positive side to increase. When publicizing such misconduct, it should be made clear that such teachers have disregarded the Buddha’s advice. However, when making public the ethical misconduct of a Buddhist teacher, it is only fair to mention their good qualities as well.

For more read:

We had also some discussion on the blog and in Italy during our study review of the Abhidharmakosha about mindfulness and its modern use e.g. within the context of MBSR (Jon Kabat-Zinn), Psychology etc. There are two excellent papers by Georges Dreyfus and Jay Garfield that discuss this topic in detail, showing that modern interpretations of mindfulness do not really touch its deeper meaning as meant in Buddhist practice – which doesn’t mean that modern interpretations of mindfulness and practice don’t have an impact on the practitioners or don’t have a value. However, there is a danger to water down the more profound and deeper meanings of mindfulness as it is meant within Buddhism and as it is crucial to really transform the mind and not just to find some relaxation in stressful times. If you are interested, enjoy to read these two papers:

Present-day Missionary Activity in Tibet

Recently I introduced briefly the topic of Christian missionaries in Tibet on this blog. The papers by Bray and Engelhardt I recommended in that post deal mainly with the history of missionaries in Tibet before the PRC’s violent take over of Tibet. Based on the recommendation by a scientist I got aware of an article by Prof. Robert Barnett from Columbia University about present-day missionary activity in Tibet. Robbie Barnett kindly gave permission to post now for a broader public his article:

This article gives a good feeling how evangelical missionaries perceive Tibet, how they think about Tibetan Buddhism and themselves, and it shows how a very narrowed angle of thinking colours everything such a mind perceives. It also shows that many of the negative images of Tibet are based on such a type of thinking. Here some examples:

“a nation long steeped in demonism and Tibetan Buddhism, called Lamaism, a nation in desperate need of sharing the Truth of the Gospel of Jesus Christ …”. In its literature it describes sky burials and the use of “rancid smelling yak butter” as examples of how “Satan has enslaved the people”.


Illustration from Tibetan Catechism by Edward Amundsen, Christian Tract and Book Society, Calcutta 1906. p.2.

While the Tibetans welcomed Jesus Christ as a Bodhisattva, missionaries were also faced with the fact, that although Tibetans embraced Jesus as a Bodhisattva, they weren’t really willing to give up all the other Bodhisattvas in order to exclusively embrace Jesus as the only Bodhisattva. Barnett writes:

As a result, evangelists in the past often reported that it was easy to persuade Tibetans to accept Jesus as a spiritual master, but difficult to get them to renounce all the other Bodhisattvas. Even The Sowers Ministry appears to have anticipated this problem, and their leaflet notes with concern that to Tibetan Buddhists, “Jesus is seen as an incarnate principle of enlightenment rather than [as] the unique Son of God.”

There is also an extended background note by Barnett available as a PDF, Evangelicals in Central Tibet: Background Notes, in which you can find more interesting details:

The group expresses sympathy for the deaths of thousands of Tibetans at the hands of the Chinese, and the resulting exodus of many Tibetans in 1959. It comments on this, “In the midst of all this terror one wonders if the Tibetans question the ability of the Dalai Lama to save them.” It also criticises the Dalai Lama for his ecumenical approach to religion and for saying “belief in God does not matter so much”.

I hope you find this information useful.

The following two newspaper articles from 2013 about present-day missionaries in Tibet are also based on the expertise of Barnett. Robbie Barnett is a frequently quoted Tibet expert at the Columbia University in New York who worked in the past as a researcher and journalist based in the United Kingdom, specializing in Tibetan issues for the BBC, the South China Morning Post, VOA, and other media outlets. In the 1980s he founded and ran an independent London-based research organization covering events in Tibet.

Christian Missionaries in Tibet: Between Tolerance and Dogmatism

Recently I stumbled upon a discussion about Christian missionaries in Tibet. The person was very insistent that Tibetans were extremely intolerant to Christian missionaries, that Tibetans had killed and expelled Christian missionaries, and that the missionaries only found with China a good ally for their work.

I wondered how this can be, because what I read so far showed rather benevolence and also a remarkable tolerance of Tibetans for Christians and Muslims or people of other faiths. So I asked the person what sources he has. He recommended Tom Grunfeld, quoting “the clergy began to assert itself, demonstrating a growing overt resentment to the few Christian missionaries in Lhasa (their movement were restricted) and to the handful of converts, who were subject to arrest and flogging.” Source: The Making of Modern Tibet, p. 45, and he recommended Charles Bell. But whatever I read from Charles Bell so far showed rather generosity and tolerance at the side of Tibetans for others’ religion. Bell remarked in his Portrait of the XIIIth Dalai Lama, that the Tibetans were happy about any person having a religion because they were convinced this makes human beings better persons. According to Bell, Tibetans were rather suspicious to non-religious people.

The person who insisted on the intolerance of Tibetans towards other religions quoted Bell from Tibet Past and Present, p. 264: “Tibetans are opposed to Christian missionaries preaching religion in Tibet. This opposition, which is determined and of long standing, has been further intensified by recent events in eastern Tibet.” and added “It was the Chinese who protected the missionaries, read the next paragraph, without this protection the missionaries would have been harassed and even killed.”

Ok, maybe I was wrong but I doubted the man because he was so utter hostile against Tibetan Buddhism and the Dalai Lama. To use Tom Grunfeld as a reliable source, I learned already, one should be careful. I observed myself that Grunfeld is often quoted by people like Colin Goldner who have an anti-religious, anti-Dalai Lama, and a pro-China agenda. (see also  A Lie Repeated – The Far Left’s Flawed History of Tibet by Joshua Michael Schrei). The Wikipedia “Serfdom in Tibet controversy” states about Grunfeld:

A. Tom Grunfeld, who based his writings on the work of British explorers of the region, in particular Sir Charles Bell. It has been argued that his book is not supported by traditional Tibetan, Chinese, or Indian histories, that it contains inaccuracies and distortions,[20][27] and that Grunfeld’s extracts from Bell were taken out of context to mislead readers.[29] Grunfeld is a polarizing figure for the Chinese, who praise his work, his scholarship, and his integrity; and the Tibetans, who match this praise with condemnation,[30] calling him a “sinologist” who lacks authority on Tibetan history due to his inability to read Tibetan and his not having been to Tibet before writing his book.[17]

To improve – and if needed to correct – my understanding about Tibetans’ tolerance for other religions – which I also observed by so many great lamas, some who even inspired to put Jesus, God, and Maria etc. in the Buddhist visualized ‘merit field’, I tried to find accepted academic research. So I asked some researchers by email what sources I could read or use. I got some papers and read them.

As so often, the issue is by far more complex than narrow-minded critics with an agenda suggest. Indeed, the Tibetans were incredible tolerant – compared with the Christian missionaries but also compared to the standards of their time; indeed, some missionaries had been killed – but rather in the unrest border regions where they were sometimes involved in border quarrels and other political issues or where they became the victims of robbers; indeed, at the end Tibet closed more or less their doors for Christian missionaries; but all of the events are also quite different from what the person who made me initially aware of this topic suggested.

If you are interested, I can recommend two academic papers that are online since today. One of them gives a good external background of the Christian missionary work in Tibet, published in 2011:

The other paper I can recommend seems to be the only academic paper that uses also extensively Tibetan sources instead of relying mainly on the missionaries’ sources – which are much coloured by the Christian missionaries’ own bias and believes. The paper by Isrun Engelhardt shows how Tibetans were thinking about and treating the missionaries. It quotes the Tibetans’ own records and thoughts about the Christian missionaries. Engelhardt gives a very vivid picture of the social-cultural and the political dynamics that changed the mind of the Tibetans with respect to the Christian missionaries, whom them initially allowed to even to celebrate mass within Sera monastery. This paper focuses on the Italian Capuchin Missionaries in Lhasa, 1707-1745:

Last and least, the account of the French missionary Evariste Régis Huc puts a bit the claim that only “Chinese … protected the missionaries” into perspective. Evariste Régis Huc’s Travel report is a first hand account, coloured by his own beliefs and prejudices, yet, it is pleasant to read and very interesting:

Update: 21st Century Christian Missionaries in Tibet

  Last edited by tenpel on May 29, 2013 at 11:15 am

Use Common Sense: Khandro Rinpoche about Sexual Abuse by Buddhist Teachers in the Tibetan Buddhist Tradition

The book “Dakini Power – Twelve Extraordinary Women Shaping the Transmission of Tibetan Buddhism in the West” by Michaela Haas (PhD) offers advice by Her Eminence Jetsünma Khandro Rinpoche with respect to sexual abuse as reported by Westerners and Easterners alike within the Tibetan Buddhist Tradition. I think her thoughts are very helpful for the debate of this topic. While Westerners tend to point the finger to the perpetrator and his deeds, Easterners tend to point the finger to the victim, reminding him or her to use common sense and not to allow others to exert power over oneself. In this way the victim is empowered to act instead of being passive and allowing others to take advantage of oneself.

It can be argued about the benefits and faults of both approaches. Although it could be argued that the teacher has more responsibility and more power than the student since it is hard to control teachers with respect to their ethical behaviour it might be wiser to empower the student to reject sexual harassment and to reject by all means to allow others to take sexual advantage of oneself. Of course in the case of a rape the police would be the right address to go.

Here an extract of the book, pages 34–37, as Food for Thoughts:

Refuge and Rape

Venturing into the West also triggered a different stance to Khandro Rinpoche’s early feminist approach. “It wasn’t the discrimination from the men but the naivete of the women that struck me. How much we are responsible—are we going to be so awestruck, so insecure, so indecisive, so emotional that we throw out all logic?”

Traveling in the West, she was shocked to hear repeated accounts of sexual abuse. She reached a turning point when giving teachings in Germany, where a woman in the audience was in tears. When Khandro Rinpoche investigated, the woman blurted out she had been raped. “By a Buddhist teacher.” At a refuge ceremony the teacher had told her to come later to the swimming pool, alone, naked. “Did you go?” Khandro Rinpoche asked. “Yes. I went,” the woman responded. In recalling the story, Khandro Rinpoche shakes her head and asks. “What happens to common sense?”

An initial impulse might be to blame the teacher who had the audac­ity to misuse the sacred refuge vow for taking advantage of a trusting. naive student. Yet Khandro Rinpoche does not take the route of blame. I have never heard her speak out in public against male teachers who abuse their position with sexual advances on admiring students. “She probably knows that ranting and raving doesn’t change this,” her stu­dent Rita Gross says.

“I speak about it very openly with my nuns and my Western students,” Khandro Rinpoche emphasises. “There are issues we have to address honestly, directly, while keeping in mind both sides of the story. Sometimes there is abuse, sometimes there is an abuse of the abuse. Making a big stance on it is always very tricky, because people can misunderstand the context. Hearing about it may create unnecessary confusion that may lead a person away from the dharma. it is a very discouraging topic.”

No Shortcut to Enlightenment

Now we are in blustery terrain. Sexuality is a precarious, easily misunderstood topic in the Vajrayana. Unlike other Buddhist traditions that tread on the safer path of renunciation, Vajrayana embraces sexuality as a powerful means of transforming neuroses. Of course, this risky business comes with the heightened danger that charlatans might employ it as a pretense for indulging in their passions. A number of abuse allegations have rattled the Buddhist communities both in the East and West. Conventional standards of appropriate behavior are routinely waived for high-ranking teachers who are regarded as the embodiment of Buddha’s brilliance, thus sanctioning even unconventional actions as enlightened deeds.

In the context of Vajrayana then, how would Khandro Rinpoche define sexual misconduct?

Her answer is clear-cut: “Study the Vinaya!” Though the Vinaya is traditionally the codex for the ordained, Khandro Rinpoche insists that it is crucial study material for lay people as well. “It provides a very strict and clear code of conduct, what is allowed and not allowed. If you study it, you can identify when someone manipulates and misuses the teachings, and then students can ask questions. There is a lot of goodness in questioning. If it does not make sense, question it! When we find careless ethical conduct, we need to ask, why is this happening?”

Breaking monastic vows obviously constitutes a serious offense for ordained teachers, but how can we define sexual misconduct for teachers who have not taken vows?

“Every teacher has at least taken the lay vows and the bodhisattva vows.” Khandro Rinpoche retorts. “Apart from the obvious misconduct of using force, taking advantage of your own position and the naivete of a student is abuse and very painful to see. Abuse is when there is pretense, conceit, or lying. Pretending someone has more realization than they actually have and thus misleading the student is very, very harmful. There is no shortcut to enlightenment,” she states, “and anyone who offers one should be treated with suspicion.”

Yet, I probe once again, how can a student, especially a beginner, judge whether a teacher is truly realized or just bluffing with charisma?

Khandro Rinpoche acknowledges that “the Buddhist teachings give a lot of freedom for each individual, so we cannot really enforce one statement for everybody, we have to look at the situation.” Again, sherefers to her father’s advice. Whenever she spoke with him [H.H. Mindrolling Trichen Rinpoche, the former head of the Nyingma school of Tibetan Buddhism] about the topic, “he always said, the solution is education. When you educate people well, you are giving them the tools to make their own decisions.” Khandro Rinpoche has adopted that credo for herself: “There is nothing that education cannot change.” Rinpoche’s father also suggested keeping dharma centers small in number in order to build relationships deeply rooted in mutual trust. “He said anytime you go into places where you don’t know everybody by name, then you are not able to train them properly.”

More about the Teacher-Student-Relationship

Spiritual Teacher and Sexual Abuse / Sexual Exploitation

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A brief Review of the New Kadampa Tradition Chapter in: “Spiritual and Visionary Communities: Out to Save the World”

Former members of the New Kadampa Tradition (NKT), as well as spiritual seekers might be in a better position after reading Carol McQuire’s chapter about her experiences within NKT in:

because they can now base their discrimination and judgement on a more informed perspective.

It is the first academically reliable writing published from a former NKT follower’s point of view addressing issues such as the controversial NKT ordination and the commitment required from members. You might be able to read most of the text on Google-Books but to be fair to the publisher, editor and authors, I would like to encourage and recommend buying the book. It’s not very expensive (£17.99).

Academic research about the New Kadampa Tradition (especially that of the Open University by Prof. Robert Bluck and Dr. Helen Waterhouse) has been – for my taste – quite superficial so far. Robert Bluck (PDF) for instance tried to balance the criticism which was described by Dr. David Kay (PDF) by means of interviewing current members of the New Kadampa Tradition, and they – of course – rejected all criticism and toed the party line of the organisation. From McQuire’s insider-report on NKT one gets to know that “We should never talk to the press or to academic researchers. Only senior teachers could do this, by appointment …” (McQuire: 75). Using this insider-information provided by McQuire and putting it into another context, the interviews of NKT followers which Bluck made for his research on NKT, it becomes clear that Bluck only relied on well chosen people from the NKT establishment. Because no new voice of any former member of NKT is quoted by Bluck, Bluck seems to have missed interviewing former NKT members (or NKT critics) to at least balance the official NKT point of view of his interviewees. Subsequently – for instance – with respect to one of the many criticisms (or allegations) summarized in Kay’s research Bluck states (p. 147) :

More controversially, Bunting (1996b: 26; 1996c: 9) claimed that monastics changed out of their robes to sign for state benefits, residents financed NKT centre mortgages with their housing benefit, some members were pressurized into donating money through covenants or loans and the movement had acquired large properties including ‘several stately homes’. Waterhouse (1997: 144) reported properties being bought and renovated as local centres, with set board and lodging fees for residents who were often on state benefits, and she questioned whether those on the Teacher Training Programme were genuinely available for work.

All such accusations of wrongdoing were vigorously denied by interviewees, who explained that using housing benefit to support mortgages is wholly legitimate and that monastics often have part-time work and may wear ordinary clothes if this is more convenient (Namgyal, 2004). While smaller centres may struggle financially, donations were always voluntary. Manjushri’s large community and popular courses make it financially secure, a few people are sponsored because of their NKT work but others are on ‘extended working visits’ or work locally, and some are legitimately on employment benefit (Belither, 2004). However, while individual rule-bending has never been sanctioned, it may sometimes have been knowingly ignored, at least in the past.

However, for those who were deeply involved and committed to NKT it is obvious that Belither presented a skilful distortion of the facts to Bluck. And Bluck himself was obviously content with this statement, not going deeper into the issue. It is a major strategy within NKT to stretch the commitment of members to work full time for the organisation. Based on the pressure and dynamics of the organisation, many monastics had often no choice except to give up their paid work and receive state benefits which is then used to pay their rent to NKT – if they live in a NKT centre – and to pay the NKT study programmes, NKT festivals etc., and this money pays back the mortgages of castles and big, representative buildings. By this means NKT has acquired a considerable amount of expensive assets. Since this strategy is an integral part of NKT expansion one finds also in McQuire’s insider-report –  a “story similar to that of many others” (McQuire: 82) – in-between the lines (and there are many such points which are in-between the lines):

I wanted to live in an NKT residential community in Britain to deepen my practice and find support like that I had received from the Sangha, the NKT Buddhist community, in Mexico, I stopped training as a counselor and from 1998 to 2006 I lived within or very near an NKT centre with my children, depending entirely on British government social security benefits. I joined the Teacher Training Programme (TTP) and then, to  fulfill my intention to promote these teachings for the rest of my life, requested ordination …

As a result of this lack of questioning the official NKT characterisations, Bluck’s and Waterhouse’s research does not penetrate the issues in many ways and remains superficial – at least for my taste. The example given here is just one of many that can be given that can demonstrate that research published before McQuire’s account has often been superficial. The same non-challenging or non-questioning of NKT’s official point of view can be found also in Danial Cozort’s paper on NKT*. To give briefly another example, I would like to use one point I found in Waterhouse’s “Buddhism in Bath”*. There Waterhouse claims that the NKT ordination is a Getsul (skt. sramanerika) ordination. This is first of all not correct but more important, the implications of the change of how the Vinaya (monastic code for monks and nuns) is understood within NKT has grave, far reaching consequences for the spiritual life of NKT ordainees which have not been analysed at all so far by academic research. Again, McQuire goes into details with this too. There one learns for instance (p. 72/73):

Unlike in the Tibetan tradition, there was no ceremony for disrobing, no “clean break”. Those who disrobed had to stay away for a year and could never teach in the NKT again. Leaving was seen as shameful and a person who left would rarely be mentioned. It was said that disrobing would make our “bad karma” ripen as “hellish” experiences. We were told we were following a “special, new” ordination that “nobody has done before” but even though our ordination was different, we looked like Tibetan monks and nuns.

It was told the robes “tend to lend authority to ordained teachers” and soon after my ordination I began teaching. The first time I taught, enthusiastic, I heard voices in my head during the teaching saying ‘Who do you think you are?’ and criticizing me for teaching when I knew nothing! Upset, I stopped teaching even though Geshe-Ia said that teachers who get “discouraged” are “foolish”. A year later, my ‘Heart Jewel’ practice was stronger so I began again. Teaching was considered our main practice for “promoting the tradition”, a “heart commitment” of Shugden practice, along with regarding Shugden as inseparable from our Tantric practice deity and our Guru. We needed to become “qualified spiritual guides” as soon as possible; one NKT teacher would be “more important” to Geshe-Ia than “the hundred [students] who become Buddhas”. Being qualified didn’t mean passing our exams, that wasn’t necessary; it meant “relying on the Guru” through ‘Heart Jewel’ and then teaching others the NKT texts.

The latter passage of this is already picking up another controversial issue, the qualification of NKT teachers … and in this way almost every passage or even sentence or phrase by McQuire sheds some new light from an insider-perspective on the complex internal functioning of a totally closed, self-referential group, where only one voice is accepted as the highest authority, and the impact it has on an individual.

The chapter by McQuire opens up and invites a deeper investigation into the mechanics and life within NKT and it offers insights as to why there is such an increasing number of former members who have started to speak up, reporting the experience of considerable damage from the organisation. (see e.g. New Kadampa Survivor Forum).

INFORM, based at the London School of Economics, and an independent charity that was founded in 1988 by Professor Eileen Barker with the support of the British Home Office and the mainstream Churches, has published this collection of essays under Ashgate publishing. In recent years this research institution – upon whose expertise the UK government and UK journalists, as well as international and national researchers rely – had more inquiries about the New Kadampa Tradition than about The Church of Scientology (see for instance Annual Reports 2010 (PDF), 2011 (PDF) or this summary). I can only assume that INFORM  saw a need to offer this insider report. As the New Kadampa Tradition had successfully stopped different critical academic publications by threatening to sue the author or publisher, this is the first academic publication that passed unnoticed into the public realm offering a critical insider account. I would like to thank Carol McQuire, Prof. Timothy Miller, INFORM, and Ashgate publishing for their effort and courage.

At the moment I lack time to write a detailed review of the chapter by McQuire in “Spiritual and Visionary Communities: Out to Save the World”. Also, I would prefer an established researcher to write a peer-review but as yet this has not happened. That’s why, meanwhile, I would like to offer a review by Andrew Durling – who is also a former NKT follower who just recently left NKT – which he posted on Amazon. He kindly agreed that it can be posted here on the blog too:

I must admit to being biased about this book: I have personal experience of INFORM, the independent charity that collects and disseminates accurate, balanced and up-to-date information about minority religious and spiritual movements, and which has organised the bringing together of the collection of essays that constitutes this book. I have had reason to be very grateful for the balanced, sensitive help and advice INFORM gave me when I experienced the trauma of becoming involved in a bitter dispute within the New Kadampa Tradition, one of the movements written about in this book. The subtitle of this book – Out to Save the World – indicates what is common to all the intentional communities that feature in this book, these communities being just a small sample of the many thousands of such communities around the world. These communities originally start off with the best of intentions, in this case the intention to help save the world in some way. But so often these communities, because they involve some radical experimentation or innovation in communal living, or represent a radical break with a spiritual tradition, or cultural norm, have crises and disputes to deal with which threaten their very existence. How these communities deal with these crises determines, amongst other things, whether the original intention of these communities survives or changes significantly, sometimes so much so that it becomes unrecognisable to the community’s original founders or members. These communities, when they function harmoniously, often help their members to experience the height of spiritual inspiration, even ecstasy, in ways not available in the ‘normal’ world, sometimes creating the feeling of having been ‘saved’ and thereby empowered to help save others. But when they go wrong, the fall-out can be toxic to all involved, especially given the deep emotional, financial and social investment members of these communities often have to make in order to gain entry to them, or at least feel like they belong within them. Exit from these communities, voluntary or enforced, is often deeply traumatic and destabilising for both the people leaving and for some of those left behind.

I will only mention one essay in this book, the chapter written by Carol McQuire about her time as a Buddhist nun within the New Kadampa Tradition (NKT), which is deeply controversial within the world of Buddhism generally. I, like Carol, was once a devout member of the NKT and I was deeply moved by Carol’s searing honesty about her experiences, and about her complex and evolving feelings towards the teachers, teachings and organisational practices of the NKT both during her time as a nun and after her traumatic exit from the NKT. I could relate to many of her experiences and feelings and recognised how difficult it is to retain one’s idealism and devotion in the midst of turbulent, confusing and often disturbing change within an organisation like the NKT, which tries so hard to preserve what it perceives to be a ‘pure’ Buddhism whilst at the same time trying to put clear blue water between itself and the rest of the Tibetan Buddhist tradition that it originally evolved from and which often itself criticises the NKT as being less than a ‘pure’ Buddhist sangha. Carol’s essay was somewhat cathartic for me and helped me with my present journey towards understanding and integrating my past within the NKT. I suspect many of the other essays in the book will serve a similar function for others who have had contact with either the NKT or the other intentional communities explored in this book.

All the essays in this book are meticulously backed up with copious footnotes and references to academic research and documentary material, and the introductory overview by Timothy Miller of the broad history of intentional communities is extremely useful in putting the essays that follow into context. The stories in this book are about powerful, often bizarre, always deeply felt experiences by real life people within the intentional communities they belonged to, and show a side of spiritual life that very rarely makes the headlines, especially as many communities have fraught relationships with the media and society in general, sometimes preferring not to engage openly with them at all, in order to maintain their ‘purity’ or so as to maintain their freedom to operate in the way they wish to, or simply because they despair of ever getting the wider world to understand or accept them. This book is an invaluable contribution to the study of intentional communities and their often fraught histories, complex social relationships and organisational psychologies. It is also very readable and compelling into the bargain. Truth is often stranger than fiction and this book certainly illustrates that.

* For a detailed list of academic research about the New Kadampa Tradition see

  Last edited by tenpel on March 20, 2013 at 9:28 pm

The Guru-Disciple Relationship – Advice by HH the Dalai Lama

In “Healing Anger – The power of patience from a Buddhist perspective” pub. Snow Lion, USA 1997, pp 83-85, H.H. the Dalai Lama, Tenzin Gyatso, states:

Q: What do you think about Dharma teachers who speak and write about Dharma beautifully, but do not live it?

A: Because Buddha knew of this potential consequence, he was very strict in prescribing the qualities that are necessary for a person to be qualified as a teacher. Nowadays, it seems, this is a serious issue. First on the teacher’s side: the person who gives some teaching, or gives talks on Dharma must have really trained, learned, and studied. Then, since the subject is not history or literature, but rather a spiritual one, the teacher must gain some experience. Then when that person talks about a religious subject with some experience, it carries some weight. Otherwise, it is not so effective. Therefore, the person who begins to talk to others about the Dharma must realize the responsibility, must be prepared. That is very important. Because of this importance, Lama Tsongkhapa, when he describes the qualifications that are necessary for an individual to become a teacher, quotes from Maitreya’s Ornament of Scriptures, in which Maitreya lists most of the key qualifications that are necessary on the part of the teacher, such as that the teacher must be disciplined, at peace with himself, compassionate, and so on. At the conclusion, Lama Tsongkhapa sums up by stating that those who wish to seek a spiritual teacher must first of all be aware of what the qualifications are that one should look for in a teacher. Then, with that knowledge, seek a teacher. Similarly, those who wish to seek students and become teachers must not only be aware of these conditions, but also judge themselves to see whether they possess these qualities, and if not, work towards possessing them. Therefore, from the teachers’ side, they also must realize the great responsibility involved. If some individual, deep down, is really seeking money, then I think it is much better to seek money through other means. So if the deep intention is a different purpose, I think this is very unfortunate. Such an act is actually giving proof to the Communist accusation that religion is an instrument for exploitation. This is very sad.

Buddha himself was aware of this potential for abuse. He therefore categorically stated that one should not live a way of life which is acquired through five wrong means of livelihood. One of them is being deceptive and flattering toward one’s benefactor in order to get maximal benefit.

Now, on the students’ side, they also have responsibility. First, you should not accept the teacher blindly. This is very important. You see, you can learn Dharma from someone you accept not necessarily as a guru, but rather as a spiritual friend. Consider that person until you know him or her very well, until you gain full confidence and can say, “Now, he or she can be my guru.” Until that confidence develops, treat that person as a spiritual friend. Then study and learn from him or her. You also can learn through books, and as time goes by, there are more books available. So I think this is better.

Here I would like to mention a point which I raised as early as thirty years ago about a particular aspect of the guru-disciple relationship. As we have seen with Shantideva’s text Guide to the Bodhisatva’s Way of Life, we find that in a particular context certain lines of thought are very much emphasized, and unless you see the argument in its proper context there is a great potential for misunderstanding. Similarly, in the guru-disciple relationship, because your guru plays such an important role in serving as the source of inspiration, blessing, transmission, and so on, tremendous emphasis is placed on maintaining proper reliance upon and a proper relationship with one’s guru. In the texts describing these practices we find a particular expression, which is, “May I be able to develop respect for the guru, devotion to the guru, which would allow me to see his or her every action as pure.”

I stated as early as thirty years ago that this is a dangerous concept. There is a tremendous potential for abuse in this idea of trying to see all the behaviours of the guru as pure, of seeing everything the guru does as enlightened. I have stated that this is like a poison. To some Tibetans, that sentence may seem a little bit extreme. However, it seems now, as time goes by, that my warning has become something quite relevant. Anyway, that is my own conviction and attitude, but I base the observation that this is a potentially poisonous idea on Buddha’s own words. For instance, in the Vinaya teachings, which are the scriptures that outline Buddha’s ethics and monastic discipline, where a relationship toward one’s guru is very important, Buddha states that although you will have to accord respect to your guru, if the guru happens to give you instructions which contradict the Dharma, then you must reject them.

There are also very explicit statements in the sutras, in which Buddha states that any instructions given by the guru that accord with the general Dharma path should be followed, and any instructions given by the guru that do not accord with the general approach of the Dharma should be discarded.

It is in the practice of Highest Yoga Tantra of Vajrayana Buddhism where the guru-disciple relationship assumes great importance. For instance, in Highest Yoga Tantra we have practices like guru yoga, a whole yoga dedicated toward one’s relation to the guru. However, even in Highest Yoga Tantra we find statements which tell us that any instructions given by the guru which do not accord with Dharma cannot be followed. You should explain to the guru the reasons why you can’t comply with them, but you should not follow the instructions just because the guru said so. What we find here is that we are not instructed to say, “Okay, whatever you say, I will do it,” but rather we are instructed to use our intelligence and judgment and reject instructions which are not in accord with Dharma.

However we do find, if we read the history of Buddhism, that there were examples of single-pointed guru devotion by masters such as Tilopa, Naropa, Marpa, and Milarepa which may seem a little extreme. But we find that while these masters, on the surface, may look like outcasts or beggars, or they may have strange behaviours which sometimes lead other people to lose faith, nevertheless when the necessity came for them to reinforce other people’s faith in the Dharma and in themselves as spiritual teachers, these masters had a counterbalancing factor – a very high level of spiritual realization. This was so much so that they could display supernatural powers to outweigh whatever excesses people may have found in them, conventionally speaking. However, in the case of some of the modern-day teachers, they have all the excesses in their unethical behaviours but are lacking in this counterbalancing factor, which is the capacity to display supernatural powers. Because of this, it can lead to a lot of problems.

Therefore, as students, you should first watch and investigate thoroughly. Do not consider someone as a teacher or guru until you have certain confidence in the person’s integrity. This is very important. Then, second, even after that, if some unhealthy things happen, you have the liberty to reject them. Students should make sure that they don’t spoil the guru. This is very important.

In The Gelug/Kagyu Tradition of Mahamudra, pp. 209–211, His Holiness the Dalai Lama states:

Premature Commitment To An Unsuitable Guru

In some cases it happens that disciples do not examine a spiritual teacher very carefully before accepting him or her as their guru and committing themselves to a guru/disciple relationship. They may even have received tantric empowerments from this teacher. But then they find they were wrong. They see many flaws in this teacher and discover many serious mistakes he or she has made. They find that this teacher does not really suit them. Their minds are uneasy regarding this person and they are filled with doubts and possibly regret. What to do in such a circumstance?

The mistake, of course, is that originally the disciples did not examine this teacher very carefully before committing themselves to him or her. But this is something of the past that has already happened. No one can change that. In the future, of course, they must examine any potential guru much more thoroughly. But, as for what to do now in this particular situation with this particular guru, it is not productive or helpful to continue investigating and scrutinizing him or her in terms of suspicions or doubts. Rather, as The Kalachakra Tantra recommends, it is best to keep a respectful distance. They should just forget about him or her and not have anything further to do with this person.

It is not healthy, of course, for disciples to deny serious ethical flaws in their guru, if they are in fact true, or his or her involvement in Buddhist power-politics, if this is the case. To do so would be a total loss of discriminating awareness. But for disciples to dwell on these points with disrespect, self-recrimination, regret or other negative attitudes is not only unnecessary, unhelpful and unproductive, it is also improper. They distance themselves even further from achieving a peaceful state of mind and may seriously jeopardize their future spiritual progress. I think it best in this circumstance just to forget about this teacher.

Premature Commitment To Tantra And Daily Recitation Practices

It may also occur that disciples have taken tantric empowerments prematurely, thinking that since tantra is famous as being so high, it must be beneficial to take this initiation. They feel they are ready for this step and take the empowerment, thereby committing themselves to the master conferring it as now being their tantric guru. Moreover, they commit themselves as well to various sets of vows and a daily recitation meditation practice. Then later these disciples realize that this style of practice does not suit them at all, and again they are filled with doubts, regrets, and possibly fear. Again, what to do?

We can understand this with an analogy. Suppose, for instance, we go to a store, see some useful but exotic item that strikes our fancy and just buy it on impulse, even though it is costly. When we bring it home, we find, after examining the item more soberly now that we are out of the exciting, seductive atmosphere of the marketplace, that we have no particular use for it at the moment. In such situation, it is best not to throw the thing out in the garbage, but rather to put it aside. Later we might find it, in fact, very useful.

The same conclusion applies to the commitments disciples have taken prematurely at a tantric empowerment without sufficient examination to determine if they were ready for them. In such situations, rather than deciding that they are never going to use it at all and throwing the whole thing away, such disciples would do better to establish a neutral attitude toward it, putting tantra and their commitments aside and leaving it like that. This is because they may come back to them later and find them very precious and useful.

Suppose, however, disciples have taken an empowerment and have accepted the commitment to practice the meditations of a particular Buddha-form by reciting a sadhana, a method of actualization, to guide them through a complex sequence of visualization and mantra repetition. Although they still have faith in tantra, they find that their recitation commitment is too long and it has become a great burden and strain to maintain it as a daily practice. What to do then? Such disciples should abbreviate their practice. This is very different from the previous case in which certain disciples find that tantric practice in general does not suit them at the present stage of their spiritual life. Everyone has time each day to eat and to sleep. Likewise, no matter how busy they are, no matter how many family and business responsibilities they may have, such disciples can at least find a few minutes to maintain the daily continuity of generating themselves in their imagination in the aspect of a Buddha-form and reciting the appropriate mantra. They must make some effort. Disciples can never progress anywhere on the spiritual path if they do not make at least a minimal amount of effort.

In The Gelug/Kagyu Tradition of Mahamudra, pp. 185–186, His Holiness the Dalai Lama states about

The Root Guru

Sometimes we differentiate a root guru from our other gurus and focus particularly on him or her for our practice of guru-yoga. Our root guru is usually described in the context of tantra as the one who is kind to us in three ways. There are several manners of explaining these three types of kindness. One, for example, is the kindness to confer upon us empowerments, explanatory discourses on the tantric practices and special guideline instructions for them. If we have received empowerments and discourses from many gurus, we consider as our root guru the one who has had the most beneficial effect upon us. For deciding this, we do not examine in terms of the actual qualifications of the guru from his or her own side, but rather in terms of our own side and the benefit we have gained in our personal development and the state of mind this guru elicits in us. We consider the rest of our gurus as emanations or manifestations of that root guru …

More about the Teacher-Student-Relationship

Spiritual Teacher and Sexual Abuse / Sexual Exploitation

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  • Open Letter – Conference of Western Buddhist Teachers

Posts on this Blog


  Last edited by tenpel on February 26, 2014 at 12:29 pm

Thoughts on Leaving Rigpa


After almost 20 years in Rigpa, I have left with a heavy heart and a wounded soul.

I still have huge faith and trust in the Dharma and have connected with my own wisdom in a real way. The allegations of abuse by Sogyal Rinpoche have been around for a long time and every now and again, they re-surface in the media and a whole new generation of Rigpa students become aware that all is not as it seems.

For my first few years in Rigpa, I was not aware of these issues at all and when I did become aware in some way, my mind compartamentalised these issues. I was so confused, I tried to rationalise it – so many people benefit from the teachings, this surely can’t be true and so on but there was always a niggling doubt.  Then people that I trusted in the Dharma assured me that this was all fine, it was allegations, it was crazy wisdom, this was my ego reacting and so on. However, this doubt got bigger and bigger and when I discussed the issues with senior students, some of whom were in blank denial and issued a party line, some of whom admitted the truth of the allegations but justified it by “crazy wisdom” approach. Both reactions only made my doubts bigger, I read as much as could, watched interviews and soon found myself connecting with other students who had left or were leaving. We were all fearful  as this was a taboo subject and had been taught that to speak or think badly about the master would be a terrible corruption of samaya and would send you to the vajra hells. These teachings in recent years in Rigpa on devotion and samaya have become more numerous and explicit – I believe this is deliberate.

Only after leaving Rigpa, did I realise how free I felt – no longer did I have to justify thoughts in my mind as bad or a corruption of samaya, I was recognising something wrong had happened. I had attended weekends where these issues were discussed in Rigpa but mostly how the issues could be managed in the face of questions from students or the public. It was effectively a re-education or PR training and it left me feeling deeply uncomfortable. Why  should I put out a party line? I remember how my skin crawled a little when one instructor referred to those making allegations as “these women”, it was how it was said, it was loaded with meaning – these woman who dare speak out, who make these allegations, these women who don’t know what they want. We were told Sogyal is not a monk, he is not celibate and is entitled to a private life and that many woman because he is a Rinpoche want to connect with him and have a relationship. This does not make it ok as many people project hugely onto Tibetan masters, in much the same way as those in psychotherapy in the West might do so with a therapist. A good therapist sees this immediately and uses it in the therapy in a healthy way to sort out real issues and the idea of a therapist sleeping with a client is seen as a huge betrayal of trust and breach of fiduciary duty.

Since leaving Rigpa, I am clearer and happier – I feel sick that I stayed there so long and didn’t see the reality, that I listened to the lies and justification. I sometimes now meet people from Rigpa and I know that a lot of people have left in the past year or two and there is a concerted campaign to re-connect with those who have left, wanting to know their reasons why, wanting to talk to them. I want to have nothing to do with this as I believe the allegations against Sogyal Rinpoche should be dealt with openly and honesty.

The complicity of many people in Rigpa in covering up these allegations, managing what can and can’t be said and so on is wrong and so sad. It is no different that the terrible behaviour of the Catholic Church in how they covered up abuses for years.

This whole experience has left me deeply wounded in ways I cannot describe – Buddhism has brought huge benefit and meaning to my life but this experience with Rigpa about Rinpoche’s abuse and the cover-up of same means there is a dark shadow over my experience. I feel by participating in such an organisation for some time, I was also complicit as first I didn’t know and then I did and didn’t say anything about my questions or concerns. This isn’t surprisingly as a very strong and distinct culture of silence, group think and constant activity has built up in Rigpa. It means people are afraid to speak out, afraid to be different and the constant activity means people are so busy and tired they don’t question the norms.

I am hopeful that in the coming year the issues in Rigpa will be exposed more and more and there will be a honest dialogue that benefit all those who have suffered at the hands of this organisation.  The really sad thing is there are many kind and good people in Rigpa, who lead lives according to the Dharma but there is this huge blindspot about the issues of the allegations about Rinpoche. Rigpa has also provided students in the west with access to extraordinary lamas such as Ringu Tulku Rinpoche, Dzigar Kongtrul Rinpoche, Garchen Rinpoche and so on but I also have questions why does no-one speak up. Surely these lamas also know about these allegations? It is all so sad and confusing and disheartening and I commend those who have the bravery to speak out from the bottom of my heart.

A former Rigpa student’s thoughts and cultivating discernment …


I was a Rigpa student for ten years and trainee instructor for the last four. For most of this time I was very much moved and inspired by the teachings, the retreats I attended and by the work done by students of Rigpa, as there are a lot of good-hearted, genuine, dedicated, well intentioned people who are working for this organisation. Then in the last few years some of the allegations about Sogyal started appearing once again in the press, up till this point I had been in complete ignorance that there was anything like this in his past.

As trainee instructors we were informed about the Janice Doe case and sent on a training retreat on how to manage this if asked about it by the general public or by students. If not voiced officially I got the sense that the general understanding was that this woman had misunderstood the nature of Sogyal’s teachings and of his intentions. We were given material to read on the student – teacher relationship, the nature of devotion, and the unconventional way of teaching that a ‘Crazy Wisdom’ teacher might use with his students. None of the details of the nature of the allegations could be shared because this had been one of the clauses in the settlement of the lawsuit, so at the time I decided to give him the benefit of the doubt.  I told myself that maybe he had been a bit wild in his youth along with other Lama’s such as Chogyam Trungpa, but that now he had settled down and was only interested in bringing the teachings to the West. However when it came to his relationship with the young girls who served him and all the other allegations about him, I found that it was all very much kept hidden and unspoken even to long term students like myself.

I did question to myself over the years why most of the students in ‘Lama care’ who served Rinpoche were beautiful girls in their twenties, but there is such a focus on teachings on devotion, (i.e, seeing his every action as a teaching, never questioning that he can do any wrong and seeing him as an incarnate Buddha,)  that I just told myself there must be some good reason for it which was beyond my understanding as an ordinary being.   It may sound naive to anyone outside of Rigpa who is reading material on it being a cult, but I would like to add that there is also lot of genuine Dharma being taught which has a positive transformative effect, and as I immersed myself in these teachings it was easy to lose the discernment, especially seeing as these types of teachings are also genuine when given within a certain context. On top of this I had a lot of respect for some of the senior students that I encountered who were rational, highly intelligent  people and full of wisdom and kindness, I looked at them as an example of what could be accomplished by really practising the teachings.

For the sake of balance I would also like to say of my time in Rigpa that  for the most part it was a positive experience. I disagree with the label of ‘cult’ that parties such as Dialogue Ireland have placed upon it who actually have no personal experience of the organisation  and who seem to have their own personal agenda in the matter.  Rinpoche is still a gifted teacher of Tibetan Buddhism who has inspired many in a positive way and Rigpa is a well organised structure for the transmission of the Dharma in the West. In my experience the courses and retreats I attended have enabled many to be able to connect with their own wisdom and kindness with the aim to then practise this more consistently in their lives. This is why it is such a shame that these other behaviours have not been addressed and have been allowed to continue, threatening all the good work that is being done. It is a spiritual organisation and for my part I am grieved that I had to leave because without fail everyone I met was genuinely motivated and many of them are still my friends. In hindsight I can see that my time in Rigpa has given me a thorough grounding in the practise of meditation and in the Buddhist teachings so there is a lot I have to be grateful for also. This is why initially before reading Mimi’s account I was willing to give Rinpoche the benefit of the doubt and tried to ignore my own misgivings. However once I had read her account I couldn’t ignore them any more and I am saddened that, for me, all the good in Rigpa is now tarnished by these actions.

When I eventually ended up reading Mimi’s report and questioned a senior instructor on the truth it he confirmed that her words were true and I appreciated his openness and honesty on the matter.  Still I felt the understanding was that she had misunderstood the nature of the blessing of the Lama. That all the other girls were doing well and didn’t seem to mind so therefore this was her ignorance, that she was an isolated case that had become deluded and lost her way. There is very much a sense that those who are in the inner circle and are in close proximity to Rinpoche are especially privileged.

For the last few years I have been a student of another teacher of Tibetan Buddhism and it was only by being on retreat with him that I realised it wasn’t the normal thing  for there to be such a focus on teachings on devotion,  the guru – student relationship and the unconventional nature of a crazy wisdom master. I feel that these teachings were used to justify Rinpoche’s behaviour and to discourage the questioning of such. There are also teachings that to criticise a Bodhisattva and to cause discord among the Sangha (the spiritual community) will cause you to be reborn in the Vajra hells, so that was quite a strong factor in repressing this questioning of him even in my own thoughts, let alone voicing my misgivings publicly. I noticed in the last few years that as more of these allegations came to light there was more and more focus put on these kind of teachings.

I am no longer a student of Rigpa and feel  that the teachings should not be used to justify this sort of behaviour. As has been stated there is too much of a power differential where his students are expected to obey absolutely his every command. After reading Mimi’s account of his behaviour I believe that it is a huge betrayal of the trust that we put in the teacher and the teachings. The basic tenet of Buddhism is non harming and this applies to all beings, not just the initiated.  Luckily I have seen other  teachers who always behave with absolute integrity towards all of their students which has allowed me to have some sort of perspective that this is just the behaviour of one man and that the group consensus to ignore it and justify his behaviour among his students to preserve the status quo doesn’t represent Buddhism or the Dharma.

I now have a teacher who is the embodiment of the teachings in wisdom, compassion, integrity and patience and I trust him completely, it has restored my faith to see what can be achieved when someone does genuinely try to live the teachings with humility. However we really need to take our time and use our discernment when it comes to who we pick to be our teacher.

I have just watched the video on youtube of Kalu Rinpoche where he confesses about his life as a tulku and warns us that teachers may be extraordinary human beings but they are still human beings. He talks about issues of greed, power, sexual misconduct and control that he experienced within the structure of Tibetan Buddhism. These are corruptions that we can all fall prey to, even teachers and Lamas. I think it is very dangerous to be encouraged to perceive a man as an enlightened Buddha who can do no wrong and to be discouraged to question or to trust in our own perceptive abilities. I admired Kalu Rinpoche’s honesty, humility and transparency and think that this is what is needed at this time which is why I appreciate that these issues are now being addressed by Buddhists in a rational and intelligent way.


I feel the comments and discussions that have been triggered by this post have now far exceeded the original post in their depth, detail and understanding of the issues in question, therefore I would suggest taking the time to read them and to not just read my blog in isolation.

  Last edited on May 17, 2013 at 8:57 am

Stephen Schettini about Tibetan Buddhism – When Buddhism is a Cult

A while ago an excerpt from the book “The Novice: Why I became a Buddhist Monk …” by Stephen Schettini was posted on this blog. In it Schettini writes about his experience of Kelsang Gyatso and about the New Kadampa Tradition. Schettin’s book has now been translated into German and is published by the rather reputable Arbor Verlag: “Mein Leben als tibetischer Mönch” (“My live as a Tibetan monk”).

A friend of mine sent me a link to a blog entry, “When Buddhism is a Cult” where Stephen Schettini writes about his understanding of Tibetan Buddhism. I found it quite superficial and also in general rather misleading not really helpful to clarify things. I just added a comment to his blog post and in case someone is interested here are the key points of my thoughts to it.

Reply to When Buddhism is a Cult by Stephen Schettini

If there are cults in a religion – and I would not hesitate to say within “Tibetan Buddhism” as well as in other “Buddhisms” there are some cults – this does not necessarily mean that the whole religion is a cult. Because there are some cultish or cult-like groups within Tibetan Buddhism to infer from this Tibetan Buddhism in general is a cult is a generalisation that goes a bit too far for me, and it’s no valid proof either because one cannot infer validly “because one child of the family is crazy the whole family is crazy.”

Schettini: “You should regard your guru as a fully enlightened buddha […]” but Schettini misses to contextualise this teaching, which is mainly a training, and shouldn’t be understood on a literally level.

When one trains even in the lower classes of Tantra one starts from the perception / meditation of oneself, the guru, and the deity as being of the same nature: lacking inherent existence (lacking a self) = “ultimate deity”. Then gradually one proceeds through the Six Deities of self-generation to the “deity with signs” where one perceives oneself as a Buddha and trains in “correct pride” based on the visualised basis to be the deity. In such a context it would be ridiculous to regard oneself as a Buddha (as a part of the tantric training) and the Vajra-Master as ordinary. And since one trains in the same way in the mediation break, it makes sense to see the “Guru as a Buddha” (while the mind that realizes emptiness takes on the aspect of oneself having the form and mind of a Buddha too.) In short the Tantra training does not include to see the teacher as a Buddha and oneself as an ordinary, deluded, poor-self being who is nothing and the guru is everything. In Tantra one trains to avoid ordinary appearance and ordinary grasping to both, oneself and others, including the teacher (+environment etc).

These teachings don’t suggest therefore to look up to a teacher and down on oneself or to bend reality as it fits. It’s a training for certain trainees (mainly Bodhisattvas with sharp faculties). If one has taken up such a training and if one is properly qualified (as well if the teacher is properly qualified) one can quickly progress on the path – as long as one is not lead astray by oneself or the teacher. There are certain risks, which is illustrated by the saying that one either goes up or down by practising Tantra. To attain in “three years” full enlightenment in Highest Yoga Tantra is only a theoretical measure related to the breath and the winds entering into the central (or side) channel(s) at certain occasions, and it should not be taken literally. It’s a hypothetical time duration! HH the Dalai Lama stresses that for most in a three year retreat what they attain is pride, when they do a next 3-year-retreat, they attain that this pride reduces, after a third 3-year-retreat one might have some genuine experiences.

Also the hells need not to be taken literally: if there are the qualifications of both (teacher & student) and if one gives this rare occasion up, the hell is waiting in the sense of one continues to wander in Samsara. Moreover, to go to the hell “by a breach of guru devotion” is not that easy, as Alexander Berzin explains in his excellent book on this subject. Some teachers go so far to say, that Westerners are so less qualified for Tantra that they cannot break their Samayas. So there is a variety of understanding here too.

I don’t know where Stephen Schettini got this from:
“To benefit from your relationship with him [the tantric teacher], you must see him as always having your interests at heart, no matter what. If you doubt, question or reject that, you’re cut off from your source of spiritual advancement now and in future lifetimes, where you’ll suffer countless rebirths in tantric hell.”

First of all once one has checked the tantric teacher (ideally 12 years of examination) and if one sees him/her as qualified and has decided to accept him/her as one’s Tantric teacher such thoughts about his or her shortcomings aren’t useful for the training, nevertheless different texts also clearly state, that if the master gives wrong teachings, wrong advice or wrong commands contrary to the Dharma, one should no follow it. E.g. Je Tsongkhapa states for instance: “If someone suggests something which is not consistent with the Dharma, avoid it.” “Distance yourself from Vajra Masters who are not keeping the three vows, who keep on with a root downfall, who are miserly with the Dharma, and who engage in actions that should be forsaken. Those who worship them go to hell and so on as a result.” How can one do this if one doesn’t even question his or her actions? Also the Dalai Lama says clearly that to see all actions of the guru as enlightened is an “extremely dangerous teaching”.

Maybe the teachers Stephen Schettini met didn’t go to the depths of the meaning of the teachings, however, it’s a bit more profound than the blog entry suggests.

Schettini: “The Dalai Lama’s public Kalachakra rituals are organized and attended like rock concerts. Few devotees pass up the opportunity, and then they’re supposed to view the officiating lama as a tantric guru.”

Again, I find this as being a superficial statement. There are different ways to attend an empowerment (see “Motivations for attending empowerment” by Alexander Berzin). For instance a Christian (who sometimes as well as Theravadins are also present during such empowerments) can just attend as an observer to receive inspirations for the own faith, a next level is just to receive a blessing etc. In all those cases the Dalai Lama doesn’t become their Tantric Guru, nor do they have to practice Tantra or the Sadhana. (The Dalai Lama usually also doesn’t give a commitment, when he grants a Kalachakra empowerment. He even leads through the taking of the Bodhisattva vows in a way, that everybody has the choice to take or not to take them.) People like these rituals and the Dalai Lama says himself only 3-6 at such a gathering receive a real empowerment but he gives it mainly to use their faith in the ritual by passing some relevant teachings for their lives to them.

Schettini: “Newcomers to Tibetan Buddhism are often hungry for enlightenment, and teachers need students for their ongoing credibility and sustenance.”

This is a mere allegation that “teachers need students for their ongoing credibility and sustenance.” Why shouldn’t there be teachers who give it really with the motivation to benefit others? Again Schettini generalises: “teachers need students for their ongoing credibility and sustenance” but what proof does he have for this claim? It might be true in some cases or even in many but not for every teacher. As Jackson from Hamburg University has put it so nicely:

»In Tibet as in many a country, in addition to genuine religious teachers there were also a host of dubious mendicants, madmen, and charlatans who plied their trade among the faithful, and life within the big monasteries witnessed the full range of human personalities, from saintly to coldly calculating.«

Schettini: “There’s no historical record of the Buddha teaching tantra. To lend these practices authenticity the Tibetan establishment calls them the Buddha’s ‘secret’ teachings …”

Schettini misses to mention that the Tantra is not an invention by the Tibetans but was brought to Tibet by Indian masters such as Padmasambhava or Atisha. And they say exactly the same. One can likewise say “there is no historical record of the Buddha teaching Theravada or Mahayana” because all written and transmitted teachings appeared long after Buddha’s passing away. Even scientists (who are more open and who don’t adhere to the view that Theravada is the “most authentic Buddhism”) say that there is no proof for any teaching that it is from the Buddha. The Buddha did also not teach in Pali. This is quite of a vast topic …

Schettini says: “The practice is further legitimized by the claim that tantra is built upon ‘ordinary’ Buddhist practice.”

This is not a claim, it’s a fact. Why? Tantra is based on renunciation, great compassion and emptiness.

Schettini says: “In theory, you can choose at what level you wish to practice. However, tantra is said to make enlightenment achievable in as little as three years, as opposed to the ‘countless lifetimes’ of ordinary Buddhism. Once ensnared in the Tibetan orbit, few devotees opt out.”

I commented on this theoretical claim of in-3-years-enlightenment already above. I don’t know if few devotees opt out. Does he base this claim on any reliable statistics?

Schettini says: “By contrast, tantric practitioners need to view every facet of the guru’s behavior as enlightened. Whether or not it’s actually possible to reconcile these two approaches, for all but the most penetrating thinkers they end up being mutually exclusive.”

For a differentiation of this see the Dalai Lama’s clarifying statement: Questioning the Advice of the Guru.

After reading the blog entry, my impression is that what was passed to Stephen Schettini or what he has understood seems to be rather a superficial type of understanding of Tibetan Buddhism but not what Tibetan Buddhism is all about in its depths. Kelsang Gyatso (New Kadampa Tradition) and his NKT teachers spread such superficial understanding too, and of course this is a cause of misunderstandings and subsequent problems but it’s not what “Tibetan Buddhism” in a deeper sense is all about. Therefore I wouldn’t go so far to attribute these misunderstandings to Tibetan Buddhism but to the persons, groups, teachers who have taught / spread it.

I agree however, that the teachings within Indo-Tibetan Buddhism can be used to establish and to abuse power. But this is a human failing and not necessarily the failing of Tibetan Buddhism, and you find this also among practitioners of other Buddhisms and religions, Atheists, Scientists, Agnostics etc.

Schettini claims further:

  • “Lamas are routinely referred to as a living buddhas, especially if they’re wealthier, smarter or better-connected.” — Such a generalisation again doesn’t meet the reality. The Dalai Lama mocks about the Chinese officials who call Tulkus or Rinpoches “living Buddhas”. Lamas are not referred to in general within Tibetan Buddhism as “living Buddhas” mainly the Chinese officials apply this term a lot.
  • “The Tibetan language itself has different vocabularies for speaking up to a superior, across to a peer or down to an inferior. The everyday name for woman is, ‘low-born.’” — In general this is true that there are special terms for “superiors”. This linguistic approach is also present in the religious language, e.g. someone who has realized emptiness is referred to as having “exalted wisdom” instead of just having “wisdom”. This terminology needn’t be meant to look down on others but rather for the sake of respect or for the sake of discrimination. E.g. Je Tsongkhapa talks a lot about inferior/superior in his “Great Exposition of Secret Mantra”, and when one examines the use of this inferior/superior distinction in his text closely it becomes clear that it is not meant as a deprecation but as a distinction for the sake to highlight something. However, indeed the Tibetan term for woman is skye’dman which means ‘low born’. The reason is that a birth as a woman is seen as difficult for pursuing a spiritual path, because usually in ancient societies women had (and they still have) lesser freedom than man. However, the tantric vows say clearly one shouldn’t despise or look down on women. For women in Tibetan society see: “The role of women in Tibetan society before China’s invasion …” However, all of this does not exclude that these terms might not be used also in a deprecating way.
  • “Some of those who reported Sogyal Lakar’s sexual abuses received death threats.” — I asked Mary Finnigan, she replied that she didn’t receive any death threat. However, Victoria Barlow says in a comment to the post by Schettini “This included death threats and voodoo-like curses.”

The arrogance of Westerners when judging other societies

If one looks back from today’s points of view it is easy to criticise other societies of the past, especially if they are somewhat alien to oneself like Tibet. But I would like to remind Westerners that the liberties we enjoy in the West today are rather very new, and one has to look on societies according to the standards of their time. For instance the right to elect for women was formally established in Swiss at 7. February 1971. An it was only on 27. November 1990 that the last Swiss Kanton, Appenzell Innerrhoden, was forced by law to allow women to participate elections. In 1959 Mildred and Richard Loving were sentenced one year to prison because it was forbidden in the USA that people of different ethnic “races” marry. It was only in 1967 that the Supreme Court of the USA abolished the “Anti-Miscegenation Laws” that forbade the mixing of two different “races”.

The General Ex-Monk Going-Public Phenomenon

Schettini’s approach has also raised questions by other Buddhists. The following thoughts by a British Buddhist* I found very useful to be considered:

I have several questions about the general ex-monk going-public phenomenon.

  1. The Dhamma is free, not available for packaging as if it was a commodity on capitalist markets. I would not expect to be charged for Christian preaching, so why is this acceptable in Buddhist circles? I am keen about taking the religion out of Buddhism – but the danger is that, freed from the religious understanding that teachings are free, some see this as an opportunity to make money.
  2. The ex-monk-going-public phenomenon is curious. Cudos is gained by leaving the religious community – and yet simultaneously, credibility is claimed because “He was a Tibetan Buddhist monk for 8 years …” You cannot have it both ways.
  3. Why join a religious community – and then write publications that criticise them? Criticising others to build your own reputation – is this acceptable or credible?
  4. Here, we are a nebsangha – so why would we exchange religious hierarchy for a new hierarchy – the expert ex-monk?
  5. Are we expected to praise people who leave religious communities – and accept their personal reasons for leaving? If you have a failed vocation, then why is that a lesson for the rest of us and a reflection on the religious community – but never a reflection on the leaver? We have already chosen not to join a religious order – so what lessons are we meant to gain?

* posted with kind permission from the author

Last edited by tenpel on March 16, 2013 at 1:14 pm

Is forsaking the Guru, Kelsang Gyatso, worse than the karma generated by Hitler and Mao Tse Tung?

Offline there was a brief email discussion about an advice Lama Zopa Rinpoche is giving here:

We had already a discussion at E-Sangha in 2007 about this advice in the thread “New Beginnings – New Teachers, Constructive discussion on starting over“. [When I remember correctly it was at this thread where the first public account of sexual abuse of Kelsang Gyatso's appointed successor Steven W. (Kelsang Samden) appeared – in the form of an innocent question a la "Can a monk in the Gelug school have sexual relationships?" After it became public that way at E-Sangha over night – in the literal sense – Samden was removed from all NKT websites.]

It might be useful for some to have some thoughts about Lama Zopa’s advice also here at the blog. That’s why I copy and paste my past thoughts on it from that thread (including all grammatical and spelling errors).

My own teacher said I should ignore this advice by Lama Zopa Rinpoche. I hope this is of help for some.

March 26, 2007

Dear seeker,
as you have brought up the links here you may also have found the advice of Ven. Lama Zopa Rinpoche of Forsaking the Guru here:…e/shugden.shtml

This advice was referred to by present NKT to ex-NKT as well.

With all the respect to Lama Zopa Rinpoche I do not agree with it. I will give some reasons and sources here.

The problem here is very difficult and tricky. So I will use common sense, background and the scriptures.

1. the letter is a personal advice – not intentioned for the public

2. It seems to me that Lama Zopa Rinpoche is answering based on the teachings on Guru devotion how them were taught by Trijang Rinpoche – these teachings seem to be quite radical and seem not to include the case of following false Gurus or Gurus who have gone wrong.

3. It appears to me that Lama Zopa Rinpoche – although in my eyes a real Bodhisattva, tends towards to take teachings sometimes very literally as Pabongkha Rinpoche did. (Also in our Vinaya class the Geshe said he does not share the literally interpretations of some of Lama Zopa Rinpoche’s views. So you can see there are different opinions and approaches. Nevertheless this Geshe cherish Lama Zopa Rinpoche very much as a holy being.) None of my Lamas gave me such advice, as Lama Zopa Rinpoche is giving here. One of my teachers said: we regard it as positive to separate from a false teacher. I should follow HH the Dalai Lama’s advice, his advices are in accordance to Sutra and Tantra. The same was taught by H.E. Gangteng Tulku Rinpoche: He said one must separate from false Gurus, because they will lead one away from the path. The same you find in Jamgon Kongtrul’s text and Alexander Berzins summery of different texts. (Quotes see below).

4. Tsongkhapa’s texts do not support this view: Tsongkhapa said: Distance yourself from Vajra Masters who are not keeping the three vows, who keep on with a root downfall, who are miserly with the Dharma, and who engage in actions that should be forsaken. Those who worship them go to hell and so on as a result. (see Tantric Ethics: An Explanation of the Precepts for Buddhist Vajrayana Practice by Tsongkhapa, ISBN 0861712900 – page 46) In his commentary on Guru devotion Je Tsongkhapa states one should not follow “if it is an improper and irreligious command”, and cites the Vinaya: “If someone suggests something which is not consistent with the Dharma, avoid it.” (see: The Fulfillment of All Hopes: Guru Devotion in Tibetan Buddhism, Wisdom Publications, ISBN 0-86171-153-X, page 64)

5. My common sense and proofing do not support this view. I do not think it is a good action to send the victim back to the perpetrator and giving thereby the chance to be misused/misguided again, which will be very negative for both sides. What is the use of that?

6. I think Lama Zopa Rinpoche tries to harmonize the different difficulties and views in the Gelug school, whereas HH the Dalai Lama is quite frank about what is correct and what is not, so the advices of HH the Dalai Lama gives a more frank direction. I do not believe that such advice will ever be stated by HH the Dalai Lama nor have any of his advices regarding that topic such connotations as this advice.


- Chapter 15 Fear of “A Breach of Guru-Devotion”…teacher_15.html

- Buddhist Ethics (Treasury of Knowledge) by Jamgon Kongtrul Lodro Taye, Snow Lion Publications

Avoiding Contrary, Harmful Companions

8.1 Obstructions of a harmful friend

“The harmful teacher is one of bad temperament, of little pure vision, great in dogmatism; he holds [his own view) as highest, praises himself, and denigrates others."

In general, the nonspiritual teacher (mi-dge-ba'i bshes-gnyen) is a lama, teacher (mkhan-slob), dharma brother [or sister] (grogs-mched), and so forth—all those who are attached to the phenomena (snang) of this life, and who get involved in unvirtuous activity. Therefore, one must abandon the nonspiritual friend. In particular, although they have the manner of goodness in appearance, they cause you to be obstructed in your liberation.

The nonspiritual teacher has a bad temperament, little pure vision (dag-snang), is very dogmatic (phyogs-ris), holds as highest his view (lta-ba) as the only dharma, praises himself, slanders others, implicitly denigrates and rejects others’ systems (lugs) of dharma, and slanders the lama—the true wisdom teacher—who bears the burden of benefiting others. If you associate with those who are of this type, then, because one follows and gets accustomed to the nonspiritual teacher and his approach, his faults stain you by extension, and your mindstream (rgyud) gradually becomes negative. Illustrating this point, it has been said in the Vinaya Scripture:

“A fish in front of a person is rotting and is tightly wrapped with kusha grass. If that [package] is not moved for a long time, the kusha itself also becomes like that. Like that [kusha grass], by following the sinful teacher, you will always become like him.”

Therefore, as it has been said in The Sutra of the True Dharma of Clear Recollection (mDo dran-pa nyer-bzhag; Saddharmanusmriti-upasthana):

“As the chief among the obstructors (bar-du gcod-pa) of all virtuous qualities is the sinful teacher, one should abandon being associated with him, speaking with him, or even being touched by his shadow.”

In every aspect one should be diligent in rejecting the sinful teacher.


The Buddha said:

The devotee acquires the same faults
As the person not worthy of devotion,
Like an untainted arrow smeared
With the poison of a tainted sheath.

Steadfast ones who fear the taint of faults,
Do not befriend bad people.
By close reliance and devotion
To one’s companion,
Soon one becomes just like
The object of one’s devotion.

The wise devote themselves to holy,
Not to unholy people,

Wise persons are those who know
Infantile ones for what they are:
‘Infantile ones’ are those
Who take infants to be the wise.

The cencure of the wise
Is far preferable
To the eulogy or praise
Of the infant.

Devotion to infants brings misery.
Since they are like one’s foe,
It is best to never see or hear
Or have devotion for such people.

Like meetinng friends, devotion to
The steadfast causes happiness.

Therefore, like the revolving stars and moon,
Devote yourself to the steadfast, moral ones
Who have heard much, who draw on what is best -
The kind, the pure, the best superior ones.

(from the Tibetan Dhammapada)


Je Tsongkhapa citing the Ornament for the Essence said:

Distance yourself from Vajra Masters who are not keeping the three vows, who keep on with a root downfall, who are miserly with the Dharma, and who engage in actions that should be forsaken. Those who worship them go to hell and so on as a result.

(see Tantric Ethics: An Explanation of the Precepts for Buddhist Vajrayana Practice by Tsongkhapa, ISBN 0861712900) – page page 46


Dza Patrul Rinpoche in “Words of my perfect teacher”:

The Great Master of Oddiyana warns:

No to examine the teacher
Is like drinking poison;
Not to examine the disciple
Is like leaping from a precipice.

You place your trust in your spiritual teacher for all your future lives. It is he who will teach you what to do and what not to do. If you encounter a false spiritual friend without examining him properly, you will be throwing away the possibility a person with faith has to accumulate merits for a whole lifetime, and the freedoms and advantages of the human existence, you have now obtained will be wasted. It is like being killed by a venomous serpent coiled beneath a tree that you approached, thinking what you saw was just the tree’s cool shadow.

By not examining a teacher with great care
The faithful waste their gathered merit.
Like taking for the shadow of a tree a vicious snake,
Beguiled, they lose the freedom they at last had found.

So why following and going back to Gurus one has recognized as not genuine or misleading? I think the most need is to overcome negative feelings in any direction. Because they disturb the mind.

But a weak mind and a misleading Guru, what will be the result other than harm? Why going back?

This is my opinion and I think every one has to check on his own and has to find his own approach.

  Last edited by tenpel on November 2, 2012 at 8:09 pm

First female Geshe: Geshe Kelsang Wangmo

Due to the efforts of His Holiness the Dalai Lama and so many other supporters we can enjoy & celebrate to have the first female Geshe — a big step forward in Tibetan Buddhism — though still a lot has to be done with respect to gender equality, e.g. the establishment of fully ordained nuns within Tibetan Buddhism.

Geshe Kelsang Wangmo was born and raised in Germany. In 1993 she signed up for the new class of the geshe study program at the Institute of Buddhist Dialectics. How she became what she is now, read an interview with her in Mandala Magazine:


The Dalai Lama’s Reflections on the Realistic Approach of Buddhism: Buddhism in the Twenty-first Century

I’m always telling the Tibetans and also the Chinese and Japanese, and the Ladakhis and all the Himalayan Buddhists – I’m always telling them that now we are in the twenty-first century, we should be twenty-first-century Buddhists. That means having a fuller knowledge about modern education, modern science, and all these things, and also utilizing modern facilities, but also at the same time having full conviction about Buddha’s teachings about infinite altruism, bodhichitta and the view of interdependency, pratityasamutpada [dependent arising]. Then you can be a genuine Buddhist and also belong to the twenty-first century.

There is an inspiring talk by His Holiness about how to practice Buddhism in the 21st Century, I would like to share:

The talk includes many different topics, ranging from the “Importance of Scepticism”, “Potential Dangers of Guru Devotion” to “Should We Act in the Name of Humanity or in the Name of Buddhism?”. Enjoy!

Kelsang Pawo (Barry Grivell) – A ‘Tibetan Buddhist monk’ in Brighton

Throughout 2500 years of Buddhist history monks and nuns have traditionally sought solitary retreat with two modern day exceptions. The first and most famous being His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama whose efforts and travels towards world peace are well documented. The other being the English born Kadampa Monk, Kelsang Pawo. His inspiration is to be found in the plight and sufferings of children around the world. 1

Kelsang Pawo spent 25 years in the Himalayas sitting with over forty meditation Masters. He has been inaugurated personally by his root teacher Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche and received an audience with HH the Dalai Lama on three separate occasions. Following the lifestyle of Patrul Rinpoche, Pawo decided to live outside of the monastic institutions to spend his life in service to the vulnerable. When his work as a wandering monk is complete he will retreat to a meditative existence in order to continue his practice in solitude.2

The quotes are taken from Kelsang Pawo’s webpage and DVD cover. (see Foootnotes)

A ‘monk’ ordained by the Dalai Lama, the New Kadampa Tradition, Dilgo Khyentse or in the Kagyu Tradition?

Screenshot: Some words from Kelsang Pawo (YouTube)

Kelsang Pawo, Barry Grivell, claims to have been ordained “30 years ago by the Dalai Lama, Tibet’s head of state, and given his name which means most fortunate of Englishmen.”3 The EDP 24 news article which states this was written in 2008, hence Barry Grivell (Kelsang Pawo) should have received ordination by HH the Dalai Lama around the year 1978. However, other posts by Barry Grivell (or his supporters) claim that he was ordained ‘nearly two decades ago’ in 2007 and also ‘in 1989′ by HH the Dalai Lama.4

There are many signs that indicate that Kelsang Pawo (Barry Grivell) is a charlatan, deceiving the public.

In the EDP 24 news article he is claiming that he received his name Kelsang from the Dalai Lama. But those who are ordained by the Dalai Lama (like the author of this post) receive the last name of the preceptor, which would be Tenzin, because the monk name of the Dalai Lama is Tenzin Gyatso.5 Hence if Pawo / Barry was ordained by the Dalai Lama and if he had received a monk’s name from him he should have a name like Tenzin Pawo or Tenzin [other name] but not Kelsang Pawo. Most Western monks with the name Kelsang [other name] were “ordained” within the New Kadampa Tradition (“Kadampa Buddhism”) and are not even members of the Buddhist order because they only have an inferior ordination which is even lower than a novice (tib. Getsul) ordination.6 The name Kelsang therefore rather indicates that Pawo was ordained by the New Kadampa Tradition (NKT) / Geshe Kelsang Gyatso.

An email request to the NKT office about Kelsang Pawo led to the answer: “Thank you for the information we are aware of Pawo and will look into [it] your concerns, which are much appreciated.” In a second email the NKT office wrote “I don’t anything about his ordination, he has no connection with the NKT.”7 In the first half of July 2012 I sent an email to Kelsang Pawo / Barry Grivell via his Gesar website (using the form and email addresses given there) asking him if it were true that he was ordained by the Dalai Lama. I asked him to send me his ordination date, time and place (which a monk must know and should say if being asked). However, Barry didn’t reply. Some people tried to ask him personally about this but he skilfully escaped the questions, and now claims he was ordained by HH Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche in 1989 in Bhutan. But such a claim is necessarily untrue because Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche was not a monk and therefore could not and did not confer ordination. He married before the exodus from Tibet. Only a Sangha of at least five fully ordained monks (tib. Gelong, skt. Bhikshu) can confer full ordination. Novice ordination (tib. Getsul, skt. Sramanera) might be conferred in the Tibetan tradition by one fully ordained Buddhist monk.

One person who tried to clarify details about his ordination wrote in an email* to me:

He is very difficult to ‘pin down’ when you talk to him. He won’t give any information whatsoever to me (and I went to talk to him as a member of the public perhaps a future student) about when or where he studied, where he ordained, etc. Nothing. He just quoted the names of Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche and Dudjom Rinpoche  to me!!! … People are going to his talks and they know nothing about how to check him out. He is a very friendly man who ‘appears’ to be a little bit wise as he quotes Dharma sayings and listens well. There is nothing on his website about where he studied etc. Perhaps you have had a look. Also I asked him about his projects, to see if I could work on any and there actually don’t appear to be any!!!!

His website used to have the Animal Sanctuary on it. Now it says he is an ‘independent charity’. I also asked him about the Gesar Foundation and his only reply was that ‘It’s the Gesar Foundation!!!’ as if I should have known about it already.

“As soon as you have met a spiritual teacher and have received the teacher’s instructions, you are ready to set out on the path of awakening”
H.H. Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche

Pawo told people in the past in Brighton that he had been ordained by Geshe Kelsang Gyatso (NKT). Pawo has also claimed to be a Kagyu monk. When asked, Pawo does not state when and where he studied Dharma except to say that it was ‘in Bhutan’. He is presently giving weekly Tibetan Buddhist meditation classes in Brighton for which he charges a small sum. The announcement states:

The Gesar Meditation Centre
Offers Meditation and Dharma practice
The Art of Happiness
Regular meditation talks by resident teacher
and founder of the Gesar Foundation, Kelsang Pawo

The Gesar Foundation

There seem to be also inconsistencies in his charity Gesar Foundation. According to EDP 24 “his Gesar Foundation for Children [was] set up in 2005 …” and Kelsang Pawo “has achieved the colossal task of raising £22,000 for the new children’s library in Ethiopia.” According to the BBC article from march 2012 “The Gesar Foundation is currently applying for charitable status.” In the UK only low income charities do not have to register or give accounts. However, receiving a £22,000 donation does not indicate a low income charity. How to solve this contradiction? The Gesar website says that now it would be an “independent charity” that “no longer operates under the umbrella of the charity, eye on the wild Reg 1044459″.8

According to my own research Kelsang Pawo (Barry Grivell) has been accused of having abused the charity number he used for collecting money via Gesar Foundation, and finally he was forced to stop using the (abused) charity number: “his charity number was false it belonged to a lord who on two occasions demanded Pawo to not use it as it brought suspicions to him.”

The musician, Mark Emmins, claims to have been cheated by him:

In an email* Mark wrote:

I met that man a few years back where he asked me to do a version (my interpretation) of  a song called Wishfulfilling Tree. I was happy to do this thinking the money raised was going to children. When I saw the flaws and cracks in the man’s identity I demanded the song be removed from his website and any money that may have been collected from my part I have no idea where it went or who had it. But I do deeply believe it would never have gone to children. He was very reluctant to take the song off and I had to threaten him in the end.

The police in this area are very much aware of him. He is a beggar and has serious attraction to people with money or land. He also preys on the week in the hope of conning them for their property.

In another email* Mark added:

He is a crook and needs to be stopped.
I hear he was trying to buy Brighton Pier !!  I can assure you that any money given to him for that would not have gone into that project.
He is a wolf in sheep’s clothing.

I am also aware of sexual harassment from him to a few women. There is also another woman that is on his case too …

However, not everybody shares such a view. For instance ShiDaDao portrays Pawo in his post Encountering The Spiritual Presence of Lama Pawo as a “remarkable being”.

Kelsang Pawo’s current project: Buying Brighton Pier

Barry Grivell collects money using the name Kelsang Pawo in the streets of Brighton for his unregistered9 Gesar Foundation. It is not illegal to beg for money on the streets of Brighton if one has a street collection permit. His latest project (after an animal charity in Devon collapsed) is collecting money to buy the Brighton Pier. According to BBC NEWS Sussex, the pier has an estimated value of at least £25m, and

“Kelsang Pawo wants to buy the structure and turn it into a symbol of worldwide hope and love. He has launched The Gesar Foundation Palace Pier project which begins with the art auction, where he is hoping to raise £500,000.

He said that Brighton Pier could become the first landmark structure in the world to be run by a charity for the benefit of local history, culture, community and children.

English-born Kelsang Pawo is determined to succeed, and said: “I remember the saying of Gandhi – first people laugh, then they ridicule and then you win.”

On the 14th July 2012 I wrote to the Brighton authority making them aware of the case. As of today they haven’t answered.

The media seem to believe what Pawo is stating without questioning him and instead seem to be promoting him in two press articles:

For a self-promotion video about his wish to buy Brighton Pier see:


1 28 July 2012:  screenshot

Besides this immodest comparison it is also wrong to claim that the Dalai Lama would not do solitary retreat. The Dalai Lama regularly does retreats, and he has an extensive meditation practice starting each morning when he gets up 3:30 a.m.

2 28 July 2012: screenshot

3 28 July 2012  (PDF) (PDF)

4 28 July 2012: (PDF) (PDF)

5 The last name comes before the first name in Tibetan and Asian society.

6 NKT ordination is not a sufficient Vinaya ordination for details see:

7 NKT Office <> Fri, 13 Jul 2012 10:11 AM, signed by “Steve EC reps” and Sat, 14 Jul 2012 2:06 AM signed by “Steve NKT General Secretary”

8 28 July 2012: screenshot

9 28 July 2012, according to the Charity Commission website

* email quotes with kind permission from the writers

Last edited by tenpel on August 2, 2012 at 2:06 pm

Four Young Tulkus In The West – Details About What Happened To Kalu Rinpoche

The Magazine Details has written an article about four young tulkus in the West. Of course they have taken only the examples of four persons who are interesting because they chose a somewhat different life style than expected. Therefore the insights the magazine is offering present only a fraction of the vast variety of Tibetan life and tulkus. But the article gives a pretty good insight into those four people’s live and thinking. The article by Joseph Hooper can be found here: “Leaving OM: Buddhism’s Lost Lamas“.

The article gives also details about what happened to Kalu Rinpoche who made known that he was abused as a child by Buddhist monks and that his tutor tried to kill him in a furious attack. Experts being asked about these accusations replied:

“I thought it was one of the most real things I’ve seen.” Robert Thurman, Columbia University professor

About the knife-wielding incident, Thurman wrote in a subsequent e-mail to the editor:

“Sadly, it all does seem credible to me … The whole thing just reeks to high heaven.”

The magazine quotes also Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche who is said to be “concerned about sexual abuse at monasteries”:

“I think this is something we should look at …” “It’s very important that people don’t forget: Buddhism and Buddhist are two different entities. Buddhism is perfect.”

Read More

See Also

  Last edited by tenpel on May 2, 2013 at 12:32 pm

Reform and His Holiness the Dalai Lama


There is much discussion on this website and others about the troubles in western dharma centers and the need for western students to take charge of reform and new directions in the dharma.  Due to recent the allegations of sexual abuse, there is a general sense of urgency about this reform.  In Rob Preece’s excellent overview of the situation, he observes the very real suffering which results when western students are abused or otherwise maltreated by their teachers.  He also observes the existence of teachers, such as his own, whose work for the dharma is sincere and to be highly valued.

Also, Gavin Kilty discusses whether sex between students and teachers is ever appropriate or safe.  He reiterates the need for dharma to be practiced in ways that respect the legal and moral culture of the west.  Along those lines, in Germany, there have been efforts to form an ethical charter which will serve to create safer boundaries of conduct within dharma centers.

Some of the discussions in reaction to the posts, particularly on Dialogue Ireland, have focused on whether or not dharma teachers can ever be prohibited from engaging in sexual relations with their students.  In Germany, in fact, there has been reluctance to place that restraint on teachers in their fledging ethical charter.  Some individuals in the comments also express fear that placing too many restrictions on dharma teachers could undermine their ability to teach.  While some individuals are proposing a complete charter of rules and regulations, others protest that this would go against the very spirit of dharma.

Indeed, when western students begin to brainstorm together on what specifics might be needed for reform to occur, the task looks insurmountable.  There seem to be as many different perspectives on what safe dharma centers should look like in the west as there are individual practitioners!  I personally find this situation somewhat alarming.  I fear that dharma could so easily become no more than a new age phenomena in the west.  There is also the risk, as Gavin Kilty observed, that media hype over the current allegations of sexual abuse could fuel a reactionary and unreasoned approach to reform.  As he further stated, “the transmission of Buddhism in the West is still in its infancy. Like a fragile shoot in the ground, it needs care and protection.”

I strongly believe that neither western students nor western teachers are equipped to be fully in charge of reform.  At the same time, I recognize that simply handing over the job of reform to the best of Tibetan teachers—or simply claiming that reform is not worth the risk or not necessary—is not the answer either.

The answer must be a combination of approaches.  Reform can only occur within the confines of legitimate dharma and for this, we truly need to defer to our Tibetan Buddhist leaders for guidance.  Tibet instituted careful systems to insure the authenticity of both Kangyur and Tengyur.  The fact that these systems were sometimes abused and corrupted does not imply that they were unnecessary.  I suggest that if we want the outcome of reform to be true dharma in the west, then whatever steps we choose to make should conform to the valid systems laid out by our Tibetan forefathers.  I myself have a great respect for the work that has been done over the past millennium by the Tibetan masters to preserve the authenticity of the dharma.  It is my own fervent wish that any reform we make of dharma centers in the west should hold true to that central attitude of respect.  I am also convinced that abuses will best be eliminated within a culture of mutual respect.

At the same time, there can be no reform without the energy and enthusiasm of ownership, without consideration of western cultural boundaries and unique needs.  I agree with Rob Preece that dharma centers in the west should be able to acknowledge on some level the role that western psychotherapy plays in the spiritual development of western students.   Topics such as these are not easy ones, however, because the temptation to simply piggyback psychotherapy onto dharma practice has dangers.  There needs to be a vehicle for authentic, careful, sincere dialogue so that topics new to the dharma do not simply turn into new age dharma.  For that we surely need the participation of Tibetan Buddhist leaders!  I encourage readers to investigate the extensive work which HH Dalai Lama has already done in this regard in conference with leading psychologists and neuroscientists.

HH Dalai Lama has certainly been our greatest champion of reform.  He is the only Tibetan Buddhist leader who consistently speaks out about the trouble of lama misconduct.  He is the only Tibetan Buddhist leader to truly and openly acknowledge that there are problems within western dharma centers.  On the other hand, he is also a strong proponent of authentic, traditional approaches to Buddhism, as inherited from the great Tibetan Buddhist masters and primarily, the Nalanda masters of India (7th to 11th centuries).  He speaks out frequently about the need for us to be “21st century Buddhists.”  By this, he means principally two things: 1.We must be serious and sincere about our practice of dharma; and 2. We must be fully informed about the dharma and about relevant secular topic such as western science.

Within these two perspectives, HH Dalai Lama also frequently speaks of the need for students to learn the qualities necessary in an authentic teacher and then to fully investigate their teachers before committing to them on a deep level.  These are not one-off statements by HH Dalai Lama.  He reiterates these main points every time he speaks of troubles between western students and their teachers and every time he speaks of corruption within our dharma centers.  Sometimes it appears that we in the west are looking for some other response from him—while he is perhaps wondering if we are deaf!  When we talk about the “roaring silence” of the Dalai Lama, perhaps we should also talk about the profound deafness of the west.  He has said over and over and over what we are to do and over and over, we fail to do it and ask why he is not speaking out and what we should be doing.

I suggest that HHDL has provided us with two central pillars of reform.  If we stay within the framework he provides, then we can discuss reform without fear of losing our way in the dharma or harming the fragile shoot that Gavin speaks of.  His approach is neither one where he leads us by the hand and tells us step by step what to do, nor is it one where he lets us proceed as we think best.  Nor is his approach restricted to the Gelug lineage.  He does not say, “The Gelug tradition is the Nalanda tradition.” – He says, “The Tibetan tradition is the Nalanda tradition.”  In fact, he has written and taught widely within all the Tibetan Buddhist lineages and is recognized as a holder of all of them.  He has published teachings on Dzogchen, Mahamudra, Lamrim and tantra.  He holds regular conferences with western scientists and western religious leaders.  He holds a Geshe degree.  I suggest that his perspective is broad and informed and is a good place for us to lay the ground for safe reform.

I could write extensively about my own personal experience with the value of study.  I could also write convincingly about how most of my own troubles with Tibetan lamas would never have occurred if I had begun my practice of dharma with several years of intensive study—instead of several years of intensive Ngondro!  Indeed, I practiced Ngondro before I even fully understood the meaning of the Four Noble Truths.  I gave complete and unquestioning devotion to my lamas before I had ever read a word on proper reliance on a spiritual teacher.  I was instructed to begin practicing a highest tantra before I understood the place that tantra held within the overall framework of the buddhadharma.  It was not until I turned away from that approach and committed myself to years of study of the basic Buddhist texts that I discovered both where I had gone wrong and where I could go right.  Without it, I would certainly have stumbled away from Buddhism altogether.

I am convinced that my experience is not unique.  The greatest tragedy which occurs when trouble arises between a western dharma student and his/her teacher is the loss of confidence in the dharma specifically and in religion generally.  I suggest that the simple act of insuring proper education as the foundation to all Buddhist practice within our dharma centers would solve most of our troubles.  Certainly, there will always be mischievous dharma teachers, those who teach in order to gain fame, money or sex—and there will be mischievous dharma students as well!  Certainly, as Gavin observes, we will need strong boundaries and legal systems to deal with these problems.  However, I am also convinced that most of the abuses which are occurring today are completely avoidable and I believe that we can and should be addressing this fact in our discussions of reform.

For example, most countries in the west have Judeo-Christian cultures.  HHDL frequently advises westerners that it is safer for us to keep our own spiritual traditions because these traditions are more suitable to western dispositions.  I saw in myself and I have seen in others a strong tendency to become “born-again” Buddhists.  Overnight, after a few strong spiritual experiences, we have “found” Buddhism and we are converted.  I personally encouraged and cajoled my daughters to attend teachings—because when you’re born again, you also proselytize and immediately start the work of bringing others to the faith.  However, as many of us know, this is not Buddhism.

An example of how this happened for me occurred in one of the first teachings which I attended given by the lama who was to be my central lama.  He was in the middle of teaching from a rather advanced text and the subject was about how to set up one’s place for retreat.  There were descriptions of the horrible rebirths which could occur if one faced the door of the retreat in the wrong direction.   Each direction but the correct one had a horrible karmic outcome.  I clearly remember sitting through this teaching and being surprised by it because it differed from what I understood about karma, about the result being commensurate with its cause.  I don’t know why I didn’t question my lama during the question and answer session.  Instead, I simply swallowed the teaching whole.  I decided it was a test of my faith.  Certainly I cannot blame my lama for this.  However, the point is that I was coming from a faith-based tradition and it would take many years of study before I could fully and deeply comprehend the difference between such a tradition and the Buddhist approach.  Indeed, some of those differences are very subtle!  In addition, the culture of “faith in the lama” which has been imported by Tibetans themselves didn’t help me with my understanding either!

Two solutions to the troubles inherent in introducing Buddhism to faith-based cultures could be accomplished if a sound preliminary grounding in Buddhist study is introduced into our dharma centers.  One is that students could avoid the pitfall of converting to Buddhism too quickly or out of confusion.  Years of study would give students the chance to decide whether or not they would prefer to stay within their own traditional religion, perhaps just keeping some Buddhist practices of altruism, for example.  The other solution is that students could avoid the pitfall of practicing in blind faith and transferring to the lama all the devotion they might land onto Jesus Christ or God or Allah.  A strong study program, engaged in before students have committed to either the dharma or the teacher in any way, could give students practice in critical inquiry.

In such a program, students could learn to question the teachers.  I suggest that westerners are uncomfortable with critical questioning, particularly in the context of religion.  In a faith-based culture, there is typically either blind faith and acceptance or sinful rebellion.  In Judaism, there is a tradition of debate, but this does not exist in either Christian or Islamic religious cultures.  This skill is vital to a healthy student-teacher relationship in Buddhism, however, and simply learning that skill could take many years.  I question whether any western student can form the deep, committed relationship with his/her teacher necessary for practice of tantra until he/she has spent the requisite time learning this skill, what HH Dalai Lama calls “open skepticism”.

On the other hand, I fear that in the current discussions we run the risk of cultivating a culture of harshness and disrespect in our reforms.  From the very beginning, Buddhism has relied on a strong foundation of respect shown to every teacher of Buddhism.  There is the famous story of the Buddha venerating a “teacher” who only gave him one partial sentence of dharma instruction.  There are numerous stories of the lengths that past great masters took to show respect and veneration for their teachers.  Indeed, it is difficult to promote these attitudes in the present circumstances, with some cases of lama abuse nearing criminal levels.  However, it would also be a great tragedy if we turned away from the culture of respecting those who have worked so hard to bring the dharma to the west, simply because of the mischief of a few.  I fear that we could lose some of our best teachers if we cultivate such a culture of disrespect.

I suggest that this is the challenge we are facing today.  We need to build a robust, healthy culture of respect, inquisitiveness and debate within our dharma centers.  As HH Dalai Lama has suggested more times than I can count, study is the ground on which we need to base our practice of dharma in modern times—and this is where such a culture of inquisitiveness can be found.  Along those lines, I strongly question the wisdom in current practices of giving western students a diet of tantra shortly after they first walk in the door of a dharma center.  I quote from His Holiness:

“In India a fully qualified guru taught the doctrines of Secret Mantra to only a few students, whose karma and aspirations were suitable and whom he knew well.  The gurus passed the doctrines directly to their students, and when the students were able to practice with great effort the teachings that they received, the corresponding spiritual experiences and realizations were generated.  In just that measure the Conqueror’s teaching was furthered and the welfare of sentient beings was achieved.  However, in the snowy country of Tibet these factors were largely absent.  Secret Mantra was disseminated too widely and people sought it because of its fame, without considering whether they had the capacity to practice it or not.

“One is wise if, though wanting the best, one examines whether the best is fitting.  The Tibetans wanted the best and assumed that they could practice the best… As it is said in the Tibetan oral tradition, ‘An Indian practices one deity and achieves a hundred; a Tibetan practices a hundred deities and does not achieve even one…’

“Especially nowadays, Secret Mantra has become a topic of interest, but merely as an object of inquiry.  From the viewpoint of a practitioner, it seems to have become an object of entertainment and to have arrived at the point where one cannot know whether it will help or harm.” (HH Dalai Lama, Tantra in Tibet; pp 16-17)

It is only within tantric culture that students are instructed to see their teachers as perfect or as buddhas.  It is only within tantra that such terms as samaya and unquestioning devotion are relevant.  Committing to a teacher on this level within weeks or even months of meeting him/her is akin to marrying someone after only a few dates.  Surely, this is a major cause of our current troubles with abuses by lamas.  Surely, if we create a culture where students and teachers become better acquainted through studying together over years (not months or weeks!) before ever committing themselves to tantric relationships, then most of our current troubles with abuse have a better chance of being eliminated.  I suggest that it could be that simple.

An example of such an approach can be seen in Tushita Center in Dharamsala India.  In this center, they run what they call an “Introduction to Buddhism” retreat.  This is a 10-day meditation and study retreat.  It is silent except for the question and answer period.  The purpose of this retreat is strongly focused on giving students a sound orientation towards Buddhism, based on understanding the need for caution and study before committing to a teacher or Buddhist tradition.  They encourage students to explore all Buddhist traditions, including Zen and Theravada and to investigate teachers thoroughly before committing. They also provide them with the basics of meditation, a skill that can deepen study enormously.

I suggest that we could incorporate such programs in the west, not only for introductory purposes but also for support, while students progress along the path.  These could also address the Dalai Lama’s advice that we need to practice dharma sincerely and seriously.  An example might be to set up study groups structured something along the lines of western “support groups.”  Students could discuss personal issues in the context of their dharma practice and rules of respect and confidentiality could be upheld.  I personally have found that it is very difficult to follow a religion which is outside of my own culture.  It can be isolating and confusing.  Sometimes I just wish I had a church to go to.  Support is often difficult to find when one needs it most.  Something like study/support groups could have the dual effect of providing both personal and academic assistance.

I also observed during my years at a monastery that often question-and-answer sessions became times when students would ask deeply personal questions instead of questions about the text being studied.  I myself would use my private interviews with my lamas to ask questions about my own personal life instead of my practice.  I believe that these are generally inappropriate uses of the teacher’s time.  I suggest that when a student involves a lama too closely into his/her personal life, then there is a greater risk for a boundary violation in that relationship, a greater subsequent risk for abuse.  Providing avenues for students to process their personal issues outside of the teacher-student relationship could avoid that risk. Certainly western students do need help with integrating the dharma into busy personal lives and a strong dharma center could acknowledge that need in its structure.  This is perhaps an area where models of western psychology could be helpful.

Indeed, these are simply some ideas that I have had about reform and about building safe dharma centers.  They are just an example of the sorts of ways that we might be thinking about changes.  The ideas themselves are not important.  They are peripheral to the foundation of reform which is the main topic of discussion here.  They can be taken as good ideas or simply scrapped and no harm will result.  However, the foundation of reform as set forth by HH Dalai Lama cannot be scrapped if we want to move forward in meaningful ways that will not threaten the “fragile shoot in the ground” which is dharma in the west.

I suggest that at this critical, dangerous period for dharma in the world, we have been blessed with a leader whose breadth of vision and work is truly awe-inspiring.  Anyone who doubts this should spend just a month reading his books and listening to his teachings, conferences, media interviews and public talks!  I also suggest that it is in the person and the work of HH Dalai Lama that we stand our best chance of finding common ground with mainstream Tibetan Buddhist teachers and moving forward with their full support.  We would be foolish indeed not to use the advice that he has given us as we proceed forward in discussions of reform.

Joanne Clark,
Vermont / USA

Committing to ethics which counter any type of abuse, including child abuse

We have discussed on this blog a bit on abuse, and sexual abuse in Tibetan Buddhist Tradition (and off the blog there was a discussion about child abuse too) and what to do.

I just found a document I downloaded some years ago from the website of, The Sakya Monastery of Tibetan Buddhism, called Sakya Monastic – Code of Conduct 2005. This document frankly states the facts:

“The problem of sexual abuse of children, and the wave of lawsuits alleging sexual abuse, is a real and prevalent one for all churches of all faiths.”

The Sakya monastery has committed explicitly to an ethical charta which could serve as a model for centres and spiritual places in general. It addresses among others a “Policy: Anti-Harassment & Abuse” and a “Policy: Preventing Sexual Child Abuse”:

Policy: Anti-Harassment & Abuse

Sakya Monastery is committed to providing a work, residence and volunteer environment free of harassment because of any employee, resident or volunteer’s race, sex, religion, age, national origin, disability, veteran’s status or any other category protected under any local, state, or federal law in the U.S. or in any country in which Sakya Monastery conducts its business or religious affairs.

Harassing conduct includes, and is not limited to, the following:

  • Epithets, slurs, stereotyping, threatening or intimidating language, jokes or hostile acts that relate to race, sex, age, religion, national origin, disability or any other protected category.
  • Written or graphic material that denigrates or shows hostility or aversion toward an individual or group based on race,sex, age, religion, national origin, disability or any other protected category.
  • Unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, and other verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature constitutes sexual harassment when submission to or rejection of this conduct explicitly or implicitly affects an individual’s employment, residence or volunteering unreasonably interferes with an individual’s work performance, residence or ability to offer volunteer services or creates an intimidating, hostile or offensive work, residential environment.

The Sakya Monastery is committed to protecting its employees, residents and volunteers from such harassment whether from its clergy, residents, employees, members, and volunteers or from non-employees such as vendors, members, clients, customers, and contractors.

All clergy, residents, employees, members, and volunteers are expected to treat each other with dignity, courtesy and respect
and to conduct themselves in accordance with this Code of Conduct. Each employee, resident and volunteer must mindfully
endeavor to exercise good judgment to avoid engaging in conduct that others may reasonably perceive or find as harassment.

In addition, everyone in any way associated with Sakya Monastery shall make a solemn promise to try to make everyone feel
safe and comfortable while at Sakya Monastery and during any Sakya Monastery organized event or gathering.

Policy: Preventing Sexual Child Abuse

The problem of sexual abuse of children, and the wave of lawsuits alleging sexual abuse, is a real and prevalent one for all churches of all faiths. Sakya Monastery’s insurance company, Church Mutual, has provided the guidelines to help prevent sexual abuse and protect Sakya Monastery from sexual abusers. These guidelines include:

  • Selective “hiring”

(a) All new clergy, residents, employees, members, and volunteers shall fill out and sign the Volunteer or Employee application booklet, as appropriate.
(b) Applications will be reviewed and references be checked.
(c) Background checks will be conducted on people who will be involved in children’s programs.

  • Developing and following a set of operational and supervisory guidelines.
  • Conducting educational programs.

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