A Disheartening Article: Stuart Lachs & Rob Hogendoorn on the Dalai Lama

Update Jan. 2022: Stuart Lachs wrote an article in reply to this article and the subsequent discussion to it we had on this blog. My comment to Stuart’s article can be read here. (Tenzin Peljor)

By Joanne Clark

It is one thing to assess the actions of an individual in the public domain. It is quite another to assess that person’s motivations and character. The latter involves not only assessing the actions themselves, but discussing the many possible reasons for acting that the individual might have held. This must be a nuanced, contextual and many-layered discussion for truth to be told. In the recent article, ‘Not The Tibetan Way’: The Dalai Lama’s Realpolitik Concerning Abusive Teachers, by Stuart Lachs & Rob Hogendoorn, they attempt such a difficult task.

And indeed, their ambition is impressive. From the Dalai Lama’s relationships with nefarious world players to his involvement with abusive lamas to his relationship with Tibetan politics and institutions, the article addresses an extensive agenda. Investigating each of those issues alone could well demand an entire article because of the historical, cultural, religious and personal dimensions necessary for a full, truthful understanding. However, instead, the authors leave out important dimensions and address the issues together in a single, rather narrow narrative.

They state:

: …in this paper we intend to take the Dalai Lama at his word, that is, to look at some of his words and actions as a tried and tested religious leader, with long noses, to smell in the front and behind, to inform the public in an honest and objective way. We will assess his personal responsibility and accountability by viewing the Dalai Lama as a media-savvy, power-wielding religious authority, whose doings exhibit the same measure of logical consistency and transparency as that of a reasonable priest.Lachs/Hogendoorn

Sadly, this is already not a nuanced or contextual endeavor. In this statement, the authors have narrowed their field of investigation and created a strawman. How can you “inform the public in an honest and objective way” when you begin by viewing the Dalai Lama as a “media-savvy, power-wielding religious authority”? Already, with colorful language and a limited lens, they have dashed hopes of considering the Dalai Lama as a spiritually motivated being or a culturally motivated being—or even as a human being who brushes his teeth and gets tired and loses his temper sometimes—and the statement itself becomes something of an oxymoron.

And here is an example of how that narrow context (and colorful language) distorts their case:

The Dalai Lama’s conduct is very consistent indeed: his attitude towards abusive teachers mirrors his transactional relations with dubious or even murderous ‘old friends’ who he perceives as political supporters.Lachs/Hogendoorn

And here is the footnote for that statement:

120. The Dalai Lama is very much a political player. He was one of the few world political figures along with UK Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and US President George H.W. Bush who sided with General Augusto Pinochet of Chile to help keep him from being extradited from England to Spain to stand trial for crimes against humanity. No doubt, much pressure was put on the Dalai Lama to get him to stand for Pinochet’s defense against extradition. Author unknown. (1999). Forgive Pinochet, says Dalai LamaLachs/Hogendoorn

However, if you follow the CBC link to this story you will find this:

Visiting Chile as part of a South American tour, the Dalai Lama said, “in the Pinochet case, as an individual, now old,” it might be best to forgive him, the Nobel laureate told reporters in Santiago.

“I think forgiveness is important, but forgiveness does not mean to forget about what happened.CBC

I find it interesting that the authors would present a footnote introduced by a clear statement of opinion. Nonetheless, the Dalai Lama’s statement to the CBC is clearly not a political statement, but is in line with his lifelong spiritual view on compassion for the person, while still condemning the action. And it is consistent also with his compassion for criminals, such as those that he released upon taking up his position as young leader of the Tibetan people. (He used to view these prisoners from his window as a young boy). It is also consistent with activities he has engaged in with criminal rehabilitation.

As in this footnote, there’s an implication made throughout the article that by associating with a criminal, one might have criminal intentions oneself. Hogendoorn describes this as “the Dalai Lama’s carefree, high-risk dealings with less than thoroughly vetted characters.” Sadly, this insinuation forgets that Buddhists, who have committed to the wellbeing of all, will associate with criminals and heroes both. They will be concerned about the wellbeing of both. Again, spiritual motivation is not considered.

And in the following instance, the authors even rely on an unscrupulous character themselves to make their assumption of guilt-by-association hold!

This happens as the authors attempt to prove the Dalai Lama’s complicity when he accepts an invitation to an event in Albany, NY that had connections to Nxivm, a corrupt, cultic group that was under criminal investigations. Here is footnote 125:

125. When The Daily Mail wrote that the Dalai Lama was paid $ 1 million to endorse Nxivm in 2009, the Dalai Lama’s Office was quick to publish a clarification: ‘We wish to categorically state that His Holiness the Dalai Lama never takes an honorarium or fee of any sort, nor does he require that any payment be made to charities or organizations, as a condition of his making a personal appearance. Therefore, the reported allegation has no basis. Neither His Holiness the Dalai Lama nor the Dalai Lama Foundation ever received the alleged $1 million in connection with His Holiness’s appearance in Albany.’ Perry, Ryan. (2018)Lachs/Hogendoorn

And then the authors refute this statement from the OHHDL, by sourcing none other than Indy Hack, a long time, anonymous conspiracy theorist, who has been attacking the Dalai Lama with fictitious narratives and threatening, sometimes blackmailing, NKT survivors for over a decade:

Indy Hack and Frank Parlato responded by validating ‘a source who declared that the Bronfmans offered the Dalai Lama one million to speak for NXIVM and that it was her impression that there was never any concern about his or one of his organizations accepting it.’ Hack, Indy & Frank Parlato.(2018). Further questions about the Dalai Lama’s Million Dollar Visit to NXIVM Sex Cult. Frankparlato.com. Retrieved April 3.Lachs/Hogendoorn

This lack of due care regarding the sourcing of their allegations is too bad. If they need to source authors such as Indy Hack to make their point, then I suggest that they need to find another point.

Any spiritual dimension that might have informed the Dalai Lama’s motivations and actions are sadly not considered in this article. That is a big missing piece in their case in my opinion. Also missing, in an article that pledges to “take the Dalai Lama at his word,” is very little of his actual word. They seem to rely on short quotes from the Dalai Lama from obscure “gotcha” moments of the past instead of his published written statements or public speaking events. And sadly, I found distortions in those source materials as well.

For example, instead of sourcing the current statements the Dalai Lama has made regarding why he doesn’t directly intervene in cases of lama abuse, Lachs and Hogendoorn prefer to provide readers with a 1989 statement from His Holiness during an interview with Nancy and John Steinbeck, a statement that wasn’t published until 2001. And instead of providing the complete, accurate quote from the book, Lachs and Hogendoorn deceptively paraphrase a portion of it. This paraphrase shifts the context and meaning of the interview significantly, thereby distorting the context of the Dalai Lama’s response.

Here is the direct quote of this portion from the Steinbeck’s memoir:

We [John and Nancy] wondered if His Holiness was aware that many lamas were hoping he would accept a position as head of all the lineages, like a pope. This would create a system of checks and balances that was lacking when Trungpa Rinpoche and other lamas started abusing their power.The Other Side of Eden; Kindle location 4662

And here is the paraphrase of that from Lachs and Hogendoorn, distorting the actual question:

The Steinbecks’ plea that the Dalai Lama might take the lead in establishing a mere modicum of oversight fell on deaf ears, witness his response to their call to action in 1989 […]Lachs/Hogendoorn

A “mere modicum of oversight”? That is quite different from asking the Dalai Lama to “accept a position as head of all the lineages, like a pope”!

And here is the response from His Holiness which Hogendoorn/Lachs quote directly:

[The Dalai Lama replied] “I am a believer in nonsectarianism. I try to provide as much motivation as I can. I have no interest in promoting myself. There are no Dalai Lama centres, no Dalai Lama monastery. Wherever I can contribute, I am willing.”

To our dismay, he continued. “It is not the Tibetan way to confront errant behaviour on the part of the lamas. We prefer to let them learn about their mistakes on their own.”2001, John Steinbeck, Nancy Steinbeck, The Other Side of Eden; Kindle location 4662-4666

Anyone who has followed the Dalai Lama and understands the history and culture and religious significance of Tibetan lineages and power dynamics would know that such a provocative suggestion (particularly in 1989)—asking if he would “accept a position as head of all the lineages, like a pope”—would likely trigger a strong reaction from him, a need to quickly quell such a suggestion. His Holiness’ response must be viewed within that context, with that powerful nuance—which is a different perspective than if we thought the context was the much milder, non-provocative one created by Lachs and Hogendoorn.

This is a distortion of meaning and given that the rest of their citation is a direct quote, I question if it could be a deliberate deception—why didn’t the authors directly quote the entire exchange? Then a complete discussion on the Dalai Lama’s possible motivations for his response could have followed. I would also observe that “fell on deaf ears” is a further distortion because the authors place an editorial slant on the Dalai Lama’s response that isn’t based on fact. This is particularly distorting based on the fact that the Dalai Lama participated in a conference with Western Buddhist teachers only 4 years after this interview in which the issue of Trungpa’s behaviors is addressed and the Dalai Lama makes clear and direct statements during that time. Those statements are not included here.

Another contextual perspective is that this interview occurred in 1989, when the Dalai Lama’s English was not as good as it is now. In this context, the statement “We prefer to let them learn about their mistakes on their own” might not contain the somewhat flippant meaning English speakers attribute to it. It might have been a translation from Tibetan or broken English. It might have been the Dalai Lama’s intent simply to convey that lamas have independence and he cannot tell them what to do, he is not pope. It is also difficult to trust accounts of conversations that happened twelve years previous to being published.

Nonetheless, Lachs/Hogendoorn use this quote as an “eerily accurate description” for why the Dalai doesn’t directly intervene in cases of abuse:

Some have discredited the Dalai Lama’s statements as recorded by John and Nancy Steinbeck as inauthentic—‘fake news,’ before the term gained currency. However, there is no reason to doubt their credibility. In fact, the Dalai Lama’s words ‘We prefer to let them learn about their mistakes on their own,’ sound like an eerily accurate description of his actual behavior. The Dalai Lama does prefer this. He acts as if he feels no moral responsibility to the public at large when it comes to associating with abusive lamas. And in doing so, he is the spitting image of a reasonable priest.Lachs/Hogendoorn

Of course, because they have left out important dimensions to the conversation, their conclusion here—that the Dalai Lama “acts as if he feels no moral responsibility to the public at large when it comes to associating with abusive lamas” and “is the spitting image of a reasonable priest”—lacks validity as well. Not only is this statement clearly false, as the Dalai Lama has, in fact, stepped forward to demonstrate moral responsibility towards the public in cases of abuse, their conclusion also lacks an important contextual framework.

That contextual framework would reveal the limits of the Dalai Lama’s power, particularly within lineages other than Gelug. Current events demonstrate that. At present, if Sogyal Lakhar were still alive, it would likely be business as usual at Lerab Ling and other Rigpa Centres, except that Sogyal’s abuses might be more circumspect. This is despite the fact that the Dalai Lama has spoken out in support of the eight ex-senior students of Rigpa, who wrote a letter exposing Sogyal Lakhar’s abuses and spoke out against Sogyal Lakhar’s abuses himself.

Rigpa now has an “ethics code,” that stops short of condemning abuse in the case of Vajrayana and their advisory lamas have all refused to speak out against Sogyal’s misbehaviours, all of which were confirmed in the extensive Silken Report. I and a hundred other concerned ex-Rigpa students wrote a letter to forty lamas, simply asking them to indicate whether or not they approved of Sogyal’s actions, as exposed in the letter and confirmed in the Silken report. We received only three responses to those and two referenced the Dalai Lama. In addition, the letter from the eight ex-Rigpa students also referenced a quote from the Dalai Lama.

I am not making these observations to claim that his acceptance of teaching engagements helped or not in efforts to end abuse, but only to question the authors’ statement that he has acted as if he had “no moral responsibility” and their assumptions about his authority in lineages other than Gelug. The teachers now teaching in Rigpa centres have still not acknowledged that Sogyal’s behaviours caused harm. One frequent teacher of Rigpa students (and recent visitor to KTD), Dzongsar Jamyang Khyentse Rinpoche, has recently stated during an interview with the magazine of the German Buddhist Union that with the pure vision of Vajrayana, one could observe rape and see it as pure and therefore, would not call the police.¹

So this is an example of the reality of Tibetan Buddhist culture and religion that must be the prism through which we view the Dalai Lama’s actions in order for truth to be told. He is one of few lamas working to move forward within the Vajrayana in such a way that students can be assured of safety. It is not simple and his powers are clearly limited. Such a context is lacking in this article.

Further, also left out in this article are the accessible, current and nuanced explanations by the Dalai Lama himself about his power and how it differs from the pope, written in clear, careful English. I see no reason for this lapse unless the motivation is not assessing the full truth but selectively cherry-picking evidence.

Here is one such recent explanation from the Dalai Lama which the authors could have used for a fuller truth:

Because students are new to Buddhism, they may have blind devotion and obedience to spiritual mentors. Hearing about the great merit gained from making offerings to spiritual mentors, they may give them many donations and gifts—things that someone living in India would not have. The teacher becomes spoiled by the gifts and esteem of the students, and if he is not careful, this could lead to his taking advantage of well-meaning students.

I have received many letters from people in other countries asking me to do something about this, but it is not in my control. Tibetan Buddhism is not organized like the Catholic Church with a pope and Vatican administration. I cannot make someone return to India or force him to stop wearing robes. When I teach, I give clear instructions about suitable behavior for teachers, both monastic and lay. If people do not listen to me then, it is doubtful that they will heed instructions from my office or the Department of Religious and Cultural Affairs.2018; HH Dalai Lama and Venerable Thubten Chodron; The Foundation of Buddhist Practice, Library of Wisdom and Compassion Volume 2; p.119

In this way, what the authors leave out in this article is just as problematic as what they include, in my opinion. The Dalai Lama has done more than any other religious leader to address the problems of abuses within Dharma Centres, particularly as he has empowered survivors and Westerners themselves to act. How can they assess his intentions without exploring the full picture of what he has actually done? This the authors fail to do.

Certainly, there is a discussion to be had about the Dalai Lama’s actions over decades in the context of abuses within Dharma centres and whether he could have done more. The authors do make a strong statement that the Dalai Lama was responsible to act as an “international Buddhist policeman” (Mathieu Riccard’s words) or “morality police” (the author’s terms). Those claims have worth and could be discussed. However, they can’t be had outside of the context of his own words, his place in history, and culture, geography (how does he police lamas who act in a different country?) and his commitments, mainly spiritual, in life.

This is the nuance and context lacking in this article, particularly as the authors are not simply claiming that the Dalai Lama failed to act as he should have but that he intentionally failed to act to prevent harm in order to protect his own self-interests and those of his institutions. Their agenda of proving intent is ambitious and demands a full investigation.

Further, their colorful language is another example of how truth is affected throughout this article. Instead of making statements of fact, e.g. such as “the Dalai Lama suggested he might be the last Dalai Lama” and then explaining the context of such a statement, they state:

Throughout the 14th Dalai Lama’s reign, he kept Tibetans dangling with the possibility that he might be ‘The Last Dalai Lama’—effectively a form of political blackmail. He frequently hinted—and sometimes threatened—that his lineage will end with him.Lachs/Hogendoorn

And they then fail to explain the context of such a statement. And when I checked the sources for it, I couldn’t obtain them. It is too bad with obscure, hard to obtain sources that the authors fail to even provide quotes from their sources so that readers can have some understanding of why they might conclude that the Dalai Lama is “threatening” Tibetans to a form of “political blackmail.” And given that already several of the sources that I have checked are distorted, then this biased language, without explanation or quotes, becomes a problem. And this type of colorful language permeates the article.

I have a confession. I have not investigated this entire article line by line, nor checked all the sources, primarily because most of them are very difficult to access. Doing so would demand a great investment of time and stamina—and I have seen enough distortion in the sourcing and enough of the non-contextual approach to their evidence and argument to distrust the authors’ conclusions. This is disheartening. There might well be valid points the authors have made in the article. However, in my opinion, these would be undermined by the lack of editorial integrity and what is missing.

And yes, disclosure, I have devotion for HH Dalai Lama, whose sane and grounded approach to life and Dharma has been an important part of my own spiritual path. I also believe that he is an important ally in efforts to reform Western Dharma communities and bring the Dharma honestly and ethically and safely to the West. I am saddened that this article acknowledges nothing of that.

However, I am certainly willing to have open discussions about his actions in regard to our problems—and discussing whether they might be politically motivated or not. However, those discussions must be contextual, nuanced, unbiased and HONEST in my opinion.

We have to start with truth. I would not be writing this article if I hadn’t discovered the deceptive alteration the authors had made to the quote from the Steinbeck book. The Trimondis and Indy Hack have done enough damage to truthful dialogue over difficult issues in Western Tibetan Buddhism. We don’t need any additions to that.

¹ Interview with Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche in Buddhismus aktuell:

Q: What should learners do if their master not only drinks liquor or asks them to tease a princess – you tell a story to that effect in your book – but commits physical violence against his students or rapes them?

A: As I said, if you have not examined this guru and if you have not decided to accept him completely as your guru, then you should call the police and make his behavior public. But if after intense examination you have fully accepted this person as your guru, then at that moment when he is drinking liquor, teasing a princess or doing whatever, you will not consider his behavior as inappropriate. Because in the meantime, your projection, your perception has changed.

An editorial note by the blog owner:
The views expressed are that by the writer.

Personally I am friend with the writer, Joanne Clark, and with Stuart Lachs. I’ve posted articles on my blog and website written by both of them. So far I didn’t read the article by Rob and Stuart in all its details. Glancing through the intro and grossly over their article my eyes caught footnote 120, so I wrote to Stuart: “The intro of the article seems to give the direction which the article seems to prove. I saw in one footnote the so called Nazi Tibet Connection and what I read there is quite undifferentiated and based on already spread myths and tactics of conspiracists like Trimondis or Goldner (or far left wing people): the Dalai Lama met bad people (Waffen SS, Beger) so he is bad, neither considering the circumstances or complexities of the situations and past or how this came into being.”

In a private discussion Stuart convinced me that by accepting the invitation by Sogyal Lakar to inaugurate Rigpa’s Lerab Ling temple, it can be plausibly argued that the Dalai Lama “endorsed” Sogyal Lakar. The complexities within the Tibetan culture and past tensions between Nyingmas and Gelugpas might have contributed to the Dalai Lama’s decision. (see also this opinion article: The Dalai Lama and Sogyal Rinpoche: A Roaring Silence?) It would be a journalistic standard practice to ask the Dalai Lama why he did that and if he sees this as an error in retrospect.

After having glanced through Stuart’s and Rob’s article, I agree with Joanne, the complex spiritual and cultural motivations, intentions and values the Dalai Lama holds and is committed to as a Buddhist monk and as a deep admirer and follower of the altruistic Bodhisattva path – which guide his mental, verbal and physical actions – seem to have been ignored in this article. (And these are in general ignored by Rob Hogendoorn). Ignoring these can well serve as a means to portrait the Dalai Lama as a type of a dubious character who lacks integrity. To give just one example of the Dalai Lama’s spiritual ways of thinking which influence his verbal actions: as a general spiritual attitude for instance, I’ve never heard or read anything where the Dalai Lama speaks of anyone in condemning or very negative words. Be it his most active enemy, Geshe Kelsang Gyatso, founder of the New Kadampa Tradition, or the biggest enemy of his people, mass murder Mao Tse Tung. The Dalai Lama has for anyone a good word. As the Benedictine monk, Anselm Grün, once said (paraphrased): ‘Who has not met himself yet condemns others.’ Spiritual values, which guide the Dalai Lama’s verbal and bodily actions, are easily overlooked and cannot be seen and understood by people who look on him from a merely mundane-political perspective. Looking through a black-and-white ideological lens on a complex and very colourful figure like the Dalai Lama can only taint one’s examinations and conclusions. Moreover, ignoring complex spiritual and cultural motivations and values, simplistic judgements based on projections and prejudice will most likely take the lead.
– Tenzin Peljor

© Header image: His Holiness visits Dallas. Visit of His Holiness the Dalai Lama to the Bush Center. Photo by Grant Miller for the George W. Bush Presidential Center. (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)