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