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. And 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