The Dalai Lama on Abuse by Buddhist Teachers or Gurus

Question to H.H. the Dalai Lama at the press conference at Tibet House, Frankfurt, Thursday, 14. September 2017

Ursula Richard: Your Holiness, I would like to ask you to say a few words about abusive behavior in Buddhist or religious institutions in general, and how we, as a society, as Buddhist communities, can deal with it and support the victims.

His Holiness the Dalai Lama: Now in America, some religious organization, the head, as a matter of fact Tibetan, I know him, he behaved … he himself disgraced. And many of his old students now publicly, sort of went against him.¹ It’s right! You see, Buddha stated, advise us, the follower of Buddha should not accept Buddha’s teaching out of faith, but rather [through] thorough investigation and experiment. If some [of] Buddha’s teaching [is] against reason or reality, then we have liberty to reject. So, some Nalanda master rejected Buddha’s own word.

Then also you see in our Tibetan tradition, some great lama mentioned very clearly that devotion to one’s guru or one’s lama is important. But at the same time, you should not follow sort of the wrong behavior of your guru. You should criticize your guru. Like that. So. Some people who blindly, blind faith go that way, it’s wrong.

We follow our teacher based on Buddha’s basic teaching. If our individual teacher carry Buddha’s teaching truly, then we follow. If lama behave some sort of rubbish thing, then we should against.

In Taiwan also now that happened, some Chinese Buddhist leader. So recently, I met, I told them.

So there is a quote from a text of Tsongkhapa from the Lamrim in the 14th century in Tibet, which clearly tells you what this relationship between teacher and disciple is: when you, as a student, perceive wholesome behavior being done by your master which corresponds to the Buddhist doctrine, then follow him, and if you see behaviors that do not correspond to these ethical principles, do not follow him and reject it. So, be in harmony with the ethical rules or consider your teacher or follow your teacher in accordance with the ethical rules that are also central in Buddhism. This is a very clear statement that it is not a matter of blindly following the teacher.²

Recently in India, also some religious spiritual leader, oh really disgraced themselves. So now, the concerned court arrest him, like that. That’s right, I feel right. If Dalai Lama do something wrong, I think you should arrest him. [laughter] I think if [Dagyab] Rinpoche doing wrong, you should arrest him. [laughter]

Recently, I met some Chinese, Taiwanese Buddhists. You see, they have some problem. One way, they feel they must respect their teacher. One way, they cannot accept their teacher’s behavior. Some sort of confusion in their mind. So in such case, study, thoroughly, what Buddha say, what our great teachers, what they say. Then no problem.

If [someone] suggests [something] that is not [consistent with]
the Dharma, avoid it. – Vinayasutra

So some students of such teachers, who behaved in an inappropriate way or behaved in a damaging way, have expressed to me that they have difficulties; they see these mistakes, the misconduct, but feel somehow also hindered by their loyalty to their master, to openly criticize him. And I have answered that this should not be an obstacle, they should free themselves from it, and they can rely on the Buddhist texts and the Buddhist principles, which, for example, are clearly expressed in the monastic rules [Vinaya], to follow the master only if he is in accordance with ethical principles, and not to follow him if he does not behave accordingly. And that is their good right, and it is important to do so. And the ethical principles of how to behave as teachers are clearly stated in the Buddhist texts. And these cases of abuse, which are reported, are clearly diametrically opposed to these principles.²


¹ Though His Holiness says here “went against him” this is not meant literally. The Dalai Lama has stressed at different times that if students have confronted their teacher with unethical behavior and the teacher doesn’t change his unethical conduct, then the students should go public. (“So, the only thing is to make it public, through newspapers, through the radio. Make it public!” – SZ)
(Footnote added after discussion with The Dalai Lama’s Secretary, Tseten Samdup Chhoekyapa.)

² These passages were translated from Tibetan into German by Christof Spitz.

With kind permission from Ursula Richard, Buddhismus aktuell
Transcribed & edited by Joanne Clark, German-English translation by TP

© Image Dalai Lama: Jan Michael(CC BY-NC-SA 2.0) | 19. May 2008 | Der Dalai Lama zu Gast in Berlin. Großveranstaltung am Brandenburger Tor