Sunday, July 3, 2011

Western Buddhist Teachers Meet the Dalai Lama

Shaping The Future?

Dharamsala, India. March 23-22, 1993

by Stephen Batchelor

Stephen Batchelor 

Before our formal sessions with the Dalai Lama began, we gathered for a preliminary meeting. "I'd like to suggest an exercise," announced Jack Kornfield, "Close your eyes and imagine the kind of Buddhism you foresee in 20 or 30 years time. The practices, the centres and the world itself ... What role does the Dharma have in such a world?"

After fifteen minutes we opened our eyes and returned to the brash furnishings of the Surya Resorts Hotel in McLeod Ganj, the former British hill station above the town of Dharamsala where the Dalai Lama has been living in exile since 1960. The rain was still streaming down the windows while we took it in turns to present our visions. For the Americans, the Buddhist future unfolded as a kind of hi-tech Walden Pond peopled by Dharma-intoxicated Bodhisattvas. The disquieting features of contemporary institutions - sectarianism, scandal and all the things we were here to talk about - had conveniently evaporated. The Europeans were more cautious. "In our cities we are dominated by a thousand years of history," pleaded Sylvia Wetzel from Berlin. A history set in stone; and if history teaches only one lesson, it is this: no one ever guesses the future.

Two decades previously, almost to the day, I had arrived in this same Himalayan village to embark on a course of study, monastic discipline and meditation. Older, balder, disrobed and married, my enthusiasm well-tempered by the cynicism of experience, I had now returned along those same dizzying hairpinned roads for the first time in 18 years, filled with a mixture of nostalgia and trepidation. The rhododendrons, the snow-speckled rock wall of the Dhaoladhar range, the pine forests, the sheets of rain and mist, the tattered prayerflags - none of this had changed. But the village had become more packed, its puzzle of buildings scrambling ever further up, down and along the hillside, its smells more pungent and its roofs had spawned satellite dishes.

At the instigation of a burly, bearded American lama called Surya Das, 22 of us were gathered here for nine days of discussions, four of which would be with the Dalai Lama. We represented most of the Buddhist traditions: Theravada, Zen, the Tibetan schools. We had all been involved full-time with the Dharma as students, teachers and writers for most of our adult lives. Some of us bore titles and robes, some had founded centres, some had explored more than one tradition, some had spent years in retreat, some had authored well-known books. Within the course of our first session together it became clear that a common experience united us far more than our different traditions divided us. The first couple of days were spent preparing for our eight two-hour sessions with the Dalai Lama. Our task was to define the themes for each session and select people to summarise our perceptions to His Holiness. The ensuing debate generated myriad hand-scribbled sheets of paper taped to every available beam and pillar in the room. Out of this chaos emerged the issues of primary concern: adaptation of the teachings, tradition versus culture, sectarianism, the role of the teacher, the use of psychotherapy, sexism, monasticism. And the monster that kept rearing its head: teacher ethics - alcohol abuse, "sex in the forbidden zone."

We wait, sunken in capacious armchairs, in a tall, chilly room decorated with thangkas of the 16 liberated saints of the early Buddhist tradition, listening to the squeak of shoes of a solitary attendant on the polished wooden corridor outside. Then a rumble of invisible voices and footsteps, the attendant urging us to stand, our own fumbling and coughing, while, at the head of a coterie of officials, a slightly stooped monk in burgundy robes and tinted glasses, grinning hugely, bursts into view. As with many who have ascended to the god-realm of media celebrity, the Dalai Lama seems oddly diminished in the proximity of the flesh. He takes his seat and looks around. With polite prompting he closes his eyes, sways from side to side, and grumbles a prayer.

The discussions proceed hesitantly and uncertainly at first. Through probing the boundaries of real and imagined protocol, we gently relax into the confidence of familiarity. The man emanates an almost restless energy, switching effortlessly from intense inner reflection to bubbling laughter. His smile floods you with a gaze of such warmth and openness that it is hard not to avert your eyes. When excited the pitch of his voice rises to the verge of a shriek, the staccato firing of English syllables breaks into a torrent of Tibetan, his hands chop the air with conviction. Then he pauses - silence - laughs, grins and beams at his interlocutor: "Yes? All right. Next?"

The Dalai Lama is simultaneously a pre-eminent upholder of the historical Dharma and one of the foremost interpreters of its meaning. He is at once highly conservative in matters of ethical orthodoxy while radically liberal in terms of doctrinal interpretation. Not only does he brush aside as trivial the adoption of Asian names, the wearing of Eastern dress and the attachment to Oriental rituals, he dismisses traditional cosmology as invalidated by science, and questions the need for belief in rebirth (while stating that ultimately meditation will lead to conviction about it). But as soon as the ethical precepts and monastic ordination as detailed in the Vinaya, the Buddha's teaching on monastic and lay moral conduct, are challenged, one hits a brick wall.

Which is what happened to Dharmachari Kulananda when he presented the reformed model of Buddhism found in the British-based Friends of the Western Buddhist Order (FWBO). The Dalai Lama nodded approvingly. "I love it." he interjected as the activities of the Order were described, only to become stern and withdrawn as Kulananda outlined a form of ordination that was neither monk nor lay, based on commitment to the Three Jewels rather than a lifestyle governed by certain precepts. Yet his difficulty with the FWBO's approach should, in principle, be the same as he would have with any of the Japanese Buddhist schools, which have likewise relinquished adherence to the traditional Vinaya: although he might feel that Zen Buddhism, for instance, is too well-established to ignore. His sympathies clearly lay with the Theravada monks present, whose truly ancient and traditional opinion on such matters he invariably sought.

He confessed that after 34 years in exile, his relations with Christians were far better than those with either Theravada or Zen Buddhists. He had met with little success in his urging of Tibetan lamas to study the other schools of Tibetan Buddhism - let alone Theravada or Zen. Yet he encouraged exploration of other traditions and the acceptance of whatever was of value in them, provided it did not entail belief in a Creator God or a soul - views incompatible with an understanding of emptiness. While expressing his own preference for Buddhism, he warned against using Buddhist ideas to disparage other religions. Again this tension: openness combined with reserve.

The complexity of his position is further compounded by his twin role as preserver of Tibetan culture in exile and visionary for an independent, democratic Tibet of the future. In respecting the conflicting demands of the conservative old-guard and the young Indian-educated radicals, not to mention those Tibetans born in a Chinese Communist-controlled homeland, he has to address very different constituencies and somehow represent them all. His success in sustaining this balancing act for more than 30 years has helped forge a strikingly independent personality, at the root of whose actions lies a transparent faith in and practice of the Dharma. Having as a young man been abruptly propelled from a medieval to a modern world while carrying on his shoulders responsibility for millions of men and women, he has had to put this faith to test in the treacherous arena of international politics. Herein, I suspect, lies the key to his undeniable authority.

Yet when he responds to our presentations he insists that he is only giving his own point of view which he does not want people to follow simply because "the Dalai Lama has said it." Often it is not so much what he says that impresses, but the integrity of the standpoint from which he says it. His authority is not so much commanding, although one is aware of a strong temptation to take it that way, as it is confirming. In acknowledging his own thinking to be based on the Geluk tradition of Tsongkhapa while clarified by insights from other Tibetan traditions, he tacitly confirms our own appreciation of the entire Buddhist spectrum available in the West. "I always remember the Buddha-nature," he remarks at one point. "It gives me great hope." He likewise affirms the Bodhisattva's powerful self-confidence. For without such a will to enlightenment, one lacks the strength to confront the negative ego. "Selflessness," he insists, "does not mean something weak."

Between these sessions in the palace, rain and hail permitting, we leave the cluttered, muddy village of Mcleod Ganj below us and walk in the hills. Around Tushita Retreat Centre I frequently meet the fresh, eager faces of another generation of Dharma students, propelled along the mountain paths by a tireless resolve for more teachings. As I sit on a rock to catch my breath, they whizz by enrapt in earnest discussion. There is something reassuringly recurrent about these flashes of the past. For, in coming to India, many of us have returned to the very source of the meandering that has led to our being here now. And it is this very meandering that unites us; this ever more subdued questioning that renders these poignantly ambivalent conversations with the Dalai Lama significant.

Ostensibly, we have returned not as students but as teachers, our relationship with tradition switched from that of recipient to donor. We are aware, nonetheless, that to be a good teacher requires that one never ceases to learn. Some of us took enthusiastically to the teaching role, some were pushed into it reluctantly, some gradually evolved towards it, one refuses to accept that she is a teacher at all. Yet a teacher, by definition, is anyone who has students. And it is the student, the Dalai Lama declares, who ultimately invests the teacher with authority by placing him or her in that role. By acknowledging that a teacher does not exist as such in his own right, one empowers the student. Why, then, in a relationship of mutual dependence, have certain teachers (of both Eastern and Western origin) in America and Europe over the past few years become embroiled in scandals? Why have they been able to exploit and abuse their students with such ease? This was an issue about which the Dalai Lama was deeply concerned. He had received letters from people who were confused and disillusioned about the behaviour of their Buddhist teachers. He wanted to know what was going on.

There are many factors involved here. The student, he noted, often fails to examine sufficiently a person's ethical and spiritual qualities before accepting him (it's usually 'him', there are as yet not so many 'hers') as a teacher. Yet the Tibetan traditions state clearly that one should devote up to 12 years of close scrutiny before taking such a step - in particular with a tantric teacher. The Dalai Lama declared bluntly that one should "spy" on one's potential teacher to perceive his merits. He compared the promotional methods of contemporary, jet-setting lamas flying around the world freely bestowing initiations to that of Chinese Communist propagandists. (Except, he chuckles, when the Dalai Lama gives the Kalachakra empowerment.)

The fault can also lie with the teacher. The Dalai Lama observed: "Many of my friends I knew here were very humble, but in the West they became proud." A simple monk catapulted from an impoverished settlement in India to a city in Europe or America to be revered and showered with wealth would understandably be prone to let such treatment go to his head. "Alcohol," His Holiness commented, "is often at the root of these problems." Of course: a tempting strategy for someone uprooted from his home-culture and thrust into a bewildering and demanding world for which he lacks the necessary social and emotional skills to cope.

This would be all very well except for the fact that most of these Asian teachers (and their Western successors) were supposed to be enlightened. But what does 'enlightenment' mean if those who have it are still subject to those less than edifying forms of behaviour from whose grip we poor unenlightened souls are struggling to be free? At the very least, one would hope, enlightenment would imply a degree of contentment. But if someone were contented, why would they succumb to the conceit of self-importance? Why would they become dependent upon alcohol? Why would they indulge in a series of transient sexual encounters and financial irregularities? Even unenlightened contented people have no need for these things.

If a teacher's actions are unethical, responded the Dalai Lama, then, even if they have practised for many years, their practice has been wrong-footed. Quite simply, they lack a proper understanding of the Dharma. There is a "gap" between the Dharma and their lives. He challenged the idea that once one has insight into the ultimate truth of emptiness, then one is no longer bound by the norms of morality. On the contrary: through revealing the web of relationships that ethically connects all living beings, the understanding of emptiness does not transcend morality but grounds it in experience.

In both the Vajrayana and Zen traditions, however, one finds historical instances of enlightened teachers, whose actions have been both unconventional and, by normal standards, unethical. It is argued that since such actions were motivated by profound compassion, precisely suited to the spiritual needs of the student, they are to be regarded as eminently appropriate. As a Vajrayana master himself, this is not a possibility the Dalai Lama could ever rule out when judging the conduct of a Tibetan lama today. For he belongs to a tradition that, in order to create the kind of faith needed for Vajrayana practices to be effective, states that any unethical traits observed in one's tantric guru must be interpreted either as projections of one's own impure vision or the incomprehensible activities of Buddhahood.

As an example of how he himself has dealt with this dilemma, he spoke of his own relationship with one of his teachers. We presumed this was his first tutor and regent Reting Rinpoche, a sexually promiscuous Gelugpa monk who, in 1947, plotted to launch a Chinese-backed coup to regain the regency. In the privacy of his meditation, the Dalai Lama continued to regard his tutor as a Buddha, while in public he condemned his actions. Likewise, he admitted, "Mao Tse-tung may have been a Bodhisattva, but I had to criticise him because he destroyed our religion and independence."

What is at stake here is the standing and repute of Buddhism itself, which, for the Dalai Lama, serves not least as a crucial component for our times in creating peace in the world. Even if one has received great personal benefit from a teacher - even if one has taken tantric vows of discipleship with him, the integrity of the Buddhist tradition must take precedence over guarding that teacher's reputation when he is justly accused of ethical misconduct. When there is incontrovertible evidence of wrong-doing, then it is one's responsibility to take action. "Make voice!" he insisted. "Give warning! We no longer tolerate!"

The Dalai Lama encouraged us repeatedly to criticise such behaviour openly, even, when all else fails to "name names in newspapers." As his own example showed, this does not mean that one has to abandon one's spiritual relationship with that teacher. Such actions are of course, hardly likely to endear one to him. So what to do? The Dalai Lama had a simple answer: "Pack your bags. A teacher can kick out your body, but he cannot kick out your mind." Although such measures may be appropriate as a practical solution, they still fail to address certain underlying ethical questions. As long as one admits of the possibility that a Vajrayana teacher behaving 'unethically' may be an enlightened tantric saint, one acknowledges a double standard: actions that are immoral for an unenlightened person can be moral for an enlightened person. And if one can never be sure whether a person is or is not such a saint, then there will always be a loophole, an escape clause, that can never be definitively closed. At the root of this, do we not encounter a clash between the ethical norms of a feudal society, with its droit du seigneur (the right of a lord to deflower a vassal's bride), and those of a secular democracy in which all are equal in the eyes of the law? To what extent are Tibetan lamas and Japanese roshis still living within the context of a feudal morality? Should one be surprised that they expect privileges which their upbringing and society deem to be theirs by right? Are we not simply the victims of our own naivety in assuming that the norms of modern Western society are somehow intrinsically 'right' and must apply equally to pre-modern Buddhist cultures?

These profoundly difficult questions of cultural and ethical relativity were those which, from the point of view of our needs, we were least able to address satisfactorily with the Dalai Lama. While he stressed that the life of Shakyamuni, the historical Buddha, should serve as the ideal ethical model for Buddhists, he acknowledged that tantric yogins should be judged by Vajrayana standards. While unfamiliar with Trungpa Rinpoche's concept of crazy wisdom ("weird," he commented to our surprise), he pointed out that a genuine tantrika should be as eager to ingest urine and excrement as alcohol. "So what your Holiness is suggesting," called out the irrepressible Robert Thurman, "is some kind of taste test." Exactly how this would be administered was not discussed. A more delicate proof of tantrika status, His Holiness added, would be the absence of seminal emission during sexual intercourse. When asked how many Tibetan lamas today fulfilled such criteria, he confessed that while he personally knew none, there were monks in the caves above Dharamsala whose practice was such that his own, in comparison, dwindled to insignificance.

The Dalai Lama was prepared to agree with the Indian scholar Lal Mani Joshi that one of the reasons for the decline of Buddhism in India may have been the popularisation of tantra. Could this not be why the Vajrayana tradition itself declares the importance of keeping its practices strictly confidential? But when, as in Tibet, tantric teachings serve not only as the underpinning of a popular religion but have been institutionalised into a socio-political structure, can the genie ever be put back into the bottle? The Dalai Lama certainly recognises the dangers to the future of Buddhism through the behaviour of lamas who believe their actions to be justified by Vajrayana ethics. So could it not serve in the interests of the tantric tradition in the West that it be challenged precisely in order for it to assume its rightful position underground?

In response to accounts of the ethical misconduct of Zen teachers in the West, His Holiness expressed concern about the nature of the Zen experience of satori. On occasion, he suggested, it is confused with either a deep state of concentration (samadhi) or simply a state of nonconceptuality, neither of which in themselves imply transformative understanding. Moreover, by focusing so intently on a single practice, as often appears to be the case in Zen, one lacks adequate tools to deal with the whole range of spiritual dilemmas. "Because mind is so complex and powerful, one single practice cannot match that." (A point he returned to in his discussion of psychotherapy.) Alternatively, the emphasis in Zen of high levels of enlightenment experience might well entail the danger of leaving lower-levels of common, neurotic behaviour untouched. He likewise wondered about Chinese Buddhists he had met who talked of experiencing emptiness but who seemed to lack human warmth. This indicated to him either a meditative lapse into sheer non-conceptuality or mental "sinking" (a subtle form of dullness) "Therefore," he concluded, "I prefer the gradual path. A big question mark over Zen understanding of shunya (emptiness)."
Bodhin Kjolhede Sensei from Rochester spoke for many Zen teachers in the West by acknowledging that while these objections may be very true in certain cases, as a broader picture they present an oversimplification of the actual complexity of the Zen tradition. They might also detect an apparent double-standard and bias; for whereas a Tibetan lama who abuses his students might be a tantric saint, a Zen Master who does the same is more likely to suffer from a deficient practice. The Dalai Lama's views on traditions other than his own were understandably less well informed than those on the Tibetan schools.

Face to face in conversation with the 14th Dalai Lama of Tibet one speaks with a person who is a living myth. Does this explain that strange polarity one feels between the shocking practicality of his remarks and the longing to sustain one's own internalised mythology of the man?

Indeed, much of what one observes supports the myth: the boundless energy, the radiant warmth, the razor-sharp intellect. But often I have witnessed him address gatherings of his own people in his own language where the myth has obliterated the man. I have heard him berate crowds of Tibetans in no uncertain terms, criticise their attachment to traditional ways and their failure to adapt. In response, they worship him tearfully, seek refuge in his Holy Presence, chat with one another, play with their children, nibble at their picnics - but ignore what he says. Is there not a tendency for us also, in our own peculiar ways, to reduce his voice to that of one crying out in a wilderness? To honour what he says but fail to realise its implications - let alone put them into practice? Listening to the Dalai Lama is to discover that "Buddha-nature" might be just a fancy word for common sense.

When asked what in Buddhism can really transform a person, he replies simply: recognition of the four noble truths, discernment between what is relative and ultimate, an altruistic attitude, insight into codependent-emergence, adherence to the five precepts, honouring the Buddha, kindness. "Most effective is thinking about the suffering nature, recognising how we remain a slave of ignorance. Our real master is ignorance, not the lama or guru. ... Ignorance is very clever and seems very kind. ... Less hatred, less desire in the mind is the mark of nirvana." A Buddhist approach to life should be one "based on reality", on uncovering facts through investigation. "If an instruction contradicts the Dharma, then reject it." And: "it is not our responsibility to increase the number of Buddhists but to make a better and happier world."

I doubt that I would be alone in confessing that the primary value of the meeting lay in the opportunity to spend a total of 16 hours in the presence of this man together with only a few other people. Although, at first naively, I may have expected that he would provide solutions to all the problematic issues on the agenda, in fact he offered a model of Buddhist integrity by which to reflect on and question my own integrity. In responding to issues he repeatedly emphasised basic Buddhist doctrines rather than suggest radically original solutions. When asked to visualise systematically a Buddhism in which all the great teachers including the Buddha and Her Holiness the Dalai Lama - were women, he smiled in acknowledgement of the validity of the exercise, but had no great insights to offer on the subject of sexism or feminism. While promising to do what he could to rectify current injustices, such as the lack of support for Western monks and nuns, he could offer little apart from raising the issue at high-level Asian Buddhist congresses. The meeting was as much an exchange of perspectives as a frank and open discussion. Again and again, he threw the ball back into our court.

It would be a travesty of what the Dalai Lama stood for to treat some of his remarks as divinely ordained commands from a Buddhist pope. I am no longer convinced, for example, that much good would be achieved by naming names of miscreant Roshis and Lamas in periodicals. For this could too easily degenerate into a self-righteous witchhunt. Far more effective, I believe, would be to try and create in the West a Buddhism rooted in its own blindingly evident principles. As a possible step in this direction we formed the 'Network for Western Buddhist Teachers' as an on-going and expanding forum to continue such discussions and thus create a new and dynamic ethical consensus.

Our days together, someone remarked, "had a bone-deep sense of rightness" about them. The meeting with the Dalai Lama was compared to an empowerment, an initiation in the true sense of the word. Above all it served as a confirmation of something we had intuitively known to be true all along but had found neither the courage nor the words to express. The connections we formed with one another disclosed a whole new dimension of the term 'sangha' - spiritual community. "Past is past," said the Dalai Lama on the last day. "What is important? The future. We are the creators. The future is in our hands. Even if we fail, no regrets - we have to make the effort."

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