A Profession of Faith (and the Designation of a Taboo)

15 minutes
Recently, one of our readers took us to task for framing the fourteenth Dalai Lama’s transactional dealings with abusive or even murderous leaders as if his conduct were that of a perfectly ordinary, normally functioning priest. The substance of Joanne Clark’s critique rests on three presuppositions: the Dalai Lama’s true intentions are both spiritual and incontrovertible; these intentions are known by at least Clark; and they are indispensable in assessing the accountability for his policymaking acts. This raises a question: should the purity of the spotlessly clean and fresh intentions she imputes to the Dalai Lama inform and even override the examination of his day-to-day policy decisions and political motives?

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After a cursory examination of our work, Clark counseled a blanket suspicion of our ‘sourcing’ and our ‘false’ or ‘deceptive’ statements—a pointed rhetoric that glosses over her own evasive approach.1 Evidently, close reading is not Clark’s forte. However, since her defensiveness is emblematic of a submissive attitude towards Tibetan Buddhist teachers that is found widely in the Western Buddhist community, we will examine the crux of the presumed imbalance she sought to redress.

‘Nothing Special’

Hugh Davies: ‘Apple rethinks ‘great’ ads’ (‘The Ottawa Citizen’, April 14, 1998 p. D1)

The Dalai Lama was vested with the executive power of the Tibetan government for more than sixty years. In his capacity of earthly and spiritual ruler of Tibet, he interacted with modern media for more than seventy years. Still, Clark objected to our ‘colorful language’ describing the Dalai Lama as as ‘media-savvy, power-wielding religious authority.’ Even the Dalai Lama himself is wont to insist that he is ‘nothing special,’ ‘just an ordinary being’ and ‘a simple monk,’ but apparently to interpret him literally is not as intended. Although the Dalai Lama agreed to appear in Apple’s highly fashionable, what turned out to be very politicized “Think Different” advertising campaign, for Clark it seems that to simply take him at his word is offensive to her. In this ad from the late 1990s the political and commercial elements are clear. The one thing that seems to be lacking, is the spiritual element.2

As Pierre Bourdieu pointed out, being ‘nothing special’ is a common trope among clerics of all stripes. So, we proposed this tack: to view the Dalai Lama as a fully rational, transparent thinking being, whose thought exhibits at least the same measure of logical consistency as that of the average, reasonable priest. This approach serves to mark off behavior that is out of the ordinary and requires further explanation.3 While looking at the Dalai Lama’s dealings with some of his abusive and even criminal ‘old friends,’ we found no such deviations. Since his enabling behavior closely resembles that of other clerics, no special pleading is necessary: clearly, the Dalai Lama is not too holy to fail. However, we did find a lack of common feedback mechanisms that could have him change his ways. Clark’s review of our work is a testament to this impairment, for she rejects the old dictum that the Dalai Lama too must learn from experience in order to not consistently repeat the same mistakes.

Unallowable Thought

Clark claims that the Dalai Lama’s discharge of his duties ought to be seen through a different lens, perhaps reserved only for him. That is, the lens of a uniquely ‘spiritually’ or ‘culturally motivated’ being—who is commonly thought of as a living Bodhisattva or Buddha.4 Different analytical techniques yield different understandings, of course, delimited by their scope. Unfortunately, the evidential value of looking at the Tibetan leader’s exercise of his duty from a different angle than the one she deems most proper, was lost on her.

But, our discussion of the evidence is not ‘non-contextual,’ as Clark proclaims. We simply address the Dalai Lama’s handling of abusive and criminal behavior of his ‘old friends’ without imputing high-minded intentions. After all, the holiest of intentions—never mind enlightened ones—are really unknown to us, but also are meaningless unless followed through in the flesh and blood world of real people. We gave good reasons for this approach, which Clark didn’t address.

She, on the other hand, puts great stock in the Dalai Lama’s self-reports and lays down a principle of maximum charity which systematically favors explanations that construe his every doing as spiritually high-minded by default. Clark furtively points out what we fail to consider: that the Dalai Lama is a living Bodhisattva or Buddha. Of course, once one does that, one cannot judge anything he does: the true merit of his conduct is defined already. Moreover, it is defined in a way that is beyond the understanding of ordinary beings. But Clark provides no compelling reasons for this presumption. As a self-confessed devotee of the Dalai Lama, she simply takes for granted that she is able to both certify and propound his noble intentions. In point of fact, Clark’s pronouncements amount to little else but a profession of faith. Questioning this view to her is an unallowable thought.

Visceral Aversion

A visceral aversion to understanding the Dalai Lama’s governance as that by the average political office holder strikes us as indicative of a fateful lack of investigative vigor. To take on faith that the Dalai Lama’s every activity derives from imputed ‘spiritual’ or ‘culturally motivated’ intentions negates both the very political, give and take nature of his office and the accountability for the consequences of his policies—intended or not.

It is a fatalistic stance, which all but denies the Dalai Lama’s agency as the worldly head of state. However much he is a spiritually developed being, he also has at least a sixty years history as a political figure on the world’s stage. Clark’s view effectively precludes holding him accountable for the discharge of his administrative duties—an exceptional position he himself rejects.5 For Clark’s stance encourages his loyal subjects to sink into submissive impotence. Ironically, this flatly contravenes the Dalai Lama’s long-professed political ambition of bringing Tibet’s future polity in line with modern, democratic principles of government and the rule of law for all.

Evidently, she finds it exceedingly hard to fathom that leaders of democratic governments under the rule of law are routinely held accountable for acts of commission and omission notwithstanding their best intentions—if we could even know them. The question of the true nature—religious or otherwise—of the intentions of political office holders is unknown and thus left out of consideration.

Not An Uncommon View

Clark submits that ‘the reality of Tibetan Buddhist culture and religion … must be the prism through which we view the Dalai Lama’s actions in order for truth to be told.’ In actual fact, however—during the decades under discussion and on his own view—the Dalai Lama was the head of state and chief executive of a modern, albeit imperfect democracy based on the rule of law. As we pointed out in our article, the constitution promulgated by the Dalai Lama, among other things, mandated his government to adhere to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Thus wedding a peculiar notion of truth with an idealized view of Tibetan society, Clark coolly disowns the Dalai Lama’s well-considered choice to subscribe to modern political, constitutional, and legal principles that apply to everyone—himself included. How very convenient for her!6

All things considered, we find Clark’s impressionistic argumentation—loosely tied to a text, along with footnotes and sources she confesses not having read well—quite unrewarding. But hers is not an uncommon view, even among Western devotees of Buddhist leaders who are less idealized than the Dalai Lama. However, we must defer a further examination of this mentality—and some of its dangerous drawbacks—to a later time.7

  1. Clark, Joanne. (2021). A Disheartening Article: Stuart Lachs and Rob Hogendoorn on the Dalai Lama. Diffi-Cult. Retrieved November 22, 2021. Lachs, Stuart & Rob Hogendoorn (2021). ‘Not The Tibetan Way’: The Dalai Lama’s Realpolitik Concerning Abusive Teachers. Open Buddhism. Retrieved November 22, 2021. Joanne Clark claims to have worked on the article for many months before publishing it. Even so, she confesses that she has 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.’ The blog’s moderator, Tenzin Peljor (also known as Michael Jäckel and by the contraction Tenpel), in his editorial note, which is quite critical, likewise admits that he has merely ‘glanced’ at our article. We discuss Clark’s spurious claim that we ‘deceptively’ altered quotes in footnote 7.
  2. Ironically, Apple was quick to pull the Dalai Lama ads from billboards in Asia to keep from offending China. Davies, Hugh. (1998, April 14). Apple rethinks ‘great’ ads. The Ottawa Citizen, p. D4. See also: Landler, Mark. (1998, April 17). Apple Removes the Dalai Lama From Its Ads in Hong Kong. The New York Times, p. A6. Landler writes: ‘On Tuesday, Apple acknowledged that the company’s decision had little to do with the Tibetan leader’s recognition factor. He has been a well-known figure in Asia for years, with one public-opinion pollster in Hong Kong estimating that fewer than 20 percent of Hong Kong residents did not know of him. … “The Dalai Lama really stands for our message in the United States,” said an Apple spokeswoman in the United States, Rhona Hamilton. “But in China, he may not get across the message that Apple is trying to send.” Years later, Apple made Dalai Lama apps unavailable to iPhone customers in China. Sperry, Rod Meade. (2009, December 16). Apple “Thinks Different” about the Dalai Lama in China. Lion’s Roar. See also Iyer, Pico. (1998, April 26). Prisoner of Paradox. The New York Times, p. A27.
  3. For a similar approach, see: Hogendoorn, Rob M. (2014). Caveat Emptor: The Dalai Lama’s Proviso and the Burden of (Scientific) Proof. Religions, 5 (3), pp. 522-559.
  4. Simply put, a Bodhisattva is a realized being who renounces nirvana in order to be reborn in the human realm to help other beings to enlightenment. A Buddha is a fully enlightened being.
  5. Hogendoorn, Rob. (2020, November 8). The Dalai Lama and Nxivm Revisited. Open Buddhism. Retrieved November 22, 2021; Richard, Ursula. (2017). Dalai Lama in Deutschland: Mahnende Worte zum Thema Missbrauch. Buddhismus-Aktuell. Retrieved November 22, 2021; Peljor, Tenzin. (2017). The Dalai Lama on Abuse by Buddhist Teachers or Gurus. Diffi-Cult. Retrieved November 22, 2021.
  6. To her credit, Clark declares that she’s ‘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.’ She fails to explain, though, why ‘in order for truth to be told’ a discussion of the Dalai Lama’s conduct ‘must’ derive from the ‘prism’ of the ‘reality of Tibetan Buddhist culture and religion’ and an imputed spiritual attainment—as she understands them. With this, Clark provides no room for a honest, truthful discussion of his conduct based on psychology, sociology, law, political philosophy, and gender studies, for instance.
  7. Joanne Clark reprimands us for a ‘distortion in the sourcing’ of our article without giving a genuine example that holds up under close examination. However, her review is marred by factual inaccuracies and deliberate omissions. As a result, her critique is both misinformed and misdirected. First, Clark claims that the Dalai Lama’s public support for Chilean dictator’s Augusto Pinochet’s release (see footnote 120 of our article) is ‘clearly not a political statement’ but the expression of his ‘lifelong spiritual view on compassion.’ Clark completely avoids the context of the US government’s complicity in Pinochet’s ruthless coup and 17-years rule, while missing the Dalai Lama’s financial and political dependence on the USA. Instead, she opines that our take of the Dalai Lama’s transactional dealings with dubious political supporters—in Chile, for example—suggests that ‘by associating with a criminal, one might have criminal intentions oneself.’ This false inference (which we do not say or believe) allows Clark to sidestep the Dalai Lama’s longstanding relations with the Chilean diplomat and neo-nazi Miguel Serrano (mentioned in footnote 120) altogether. Also, she seems less than conversant with modern Chilean, American, and Tibetan history. Exhaustive research by Gil Loescher and John Scanlan revealed that America’s response to refugees heavily favors those facing persecution by Communist/Marxist regimes, to the detriment of refugees from right wing regimes such as Pinochet’s. Loescher, Gil & John A. Scanlan, J. A. (1986). Calculated Kindness: Refugees and the Half-open Door, 1945 to the Present. New York: The Free Press. Pinochet’s leftist political opponents are a good example. The American president George Bush, Augusto Pinochet, Pope John Paul II, and the Dalai Lama had overlapping interests—a concurrence that the Tibetan leader surely would have noted. After all, the Dalai Lama and his government themselves were obliging supporters of the Central Intelligence Agency’s anti-communist operations and propaganda for decades. As a head of state and chief executive, then, the Dalai Lama’s political motive was self-explanatory: it seems likely that he served the interests of his constituency by supporting America’s plea on behalf of Pinochet. Tenzin Peljor (see comment 28 on Clark’s article), echoes this view by arguing that the Dalai Lama took into account ‘the politics of Chile.’ Perhaps inadvertently, thereby Peljor corroborates our near obligatory assessment that the Dalai Lama is ‘very much a political player.’ Second, Clark cries foul over footnote 125. She claims that we use a doubtful source to ‘refute’ the Dalai Lama’s denial of The Daily Mail‘s claim that he received $2 million speaking fee from NXIVM-backers Clare and Sara Bronfman, heiresses of the Seagram fortune. We did no such thing. Since we are unable to adjudicate the matter, we merely reported that the Dalai Lama’s view is contested by The Daily Mail and Frankparlato.com. Besides, Clark conveniently ignores that the contested source was co-authored and published by investigative journalist Frank Parlato, whose reporting on NXIVM contributed to its demise and its leader Keith Raniere getting a 120-year prison sentence. This misrepresentation enabled Clark to ignore our stated view: the mere proximity to the immensely wealthy Bronfman sisters (who bankrolled Raniere and NXIVM with $100 million for years) alone provided the Dalai Lama with a motive to appear during the event they sponsored. Clark also sidesteps that two major universities in the area, Skidmore College and Rennselaer Polytechnic Institute, both turned down having the Dalai Lama on their campus because they did not want to be associated with Keith Raniere and NXIVM. Third is the almost triumphant pièce de résistance in her diatribe against our alleged ‘distortion’: Clark accuses us of ‘deceptively paraphrasing’ a quote from Nancy and John Steinbeck: ‘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.’ However, this looks more than a little odd to us, considering the fact that we consulted with Nancy Steinbeck on this paper pre- and post-publication. She was delighted with what we wrote, especially with the section where the Dalai Lama would have nothing to do with reigning in Chögyam Trungpa. Clark’s reproach is indeed plain silly: the paraphrase objected to is our recapitulation of the Dalai Lama telling the Steinbecks that confronting abusive behavior of Tibetan Lamas such as Trungpa is ‘not the Tibetan way. We prefer to let them learn about their mistakes.’ This is the mere ‘modicum of oversight’ we talk about. Clark’s far-fetched accusation that we deliberately mischaracterize the Dalai Lama’s (supposed) forceful rejection (supposedly) provoked by Tibetan Lamas’ suggestion that he might accept a papal role and thereby create a more hierarchal, canonical system of checks and balances, is factually wrong on more than just one count. It is well documented that in the first years of exile, the Dalai Lama did in fact adopt a more ‘pontifical’ role. This is ‘reported to be an arrangement that other religious sects reached in the early 1960s partly to simplify their relations with foreigners.’ Sautman, Barry. (2010). “Vegetarian between Meals”: The Dalai Lama, War, and Violence. Positions: East Asia Cultures Critique, 18 (1), pp. 89-144; Barnett, Robert. (1998). Essay. In Robert Barnett (Ed.), The Tibetans: A Struggle to Survive (pp. 178-196). New York: Umbrage Editions. On the centrality of the Dalai Lama, see: Woodcock, George. (1970). Tibetan Refugees in a Decade of Exile. Pacific Affairs, 43 (3), pp. 410-420; Anand, Dibyesh. (2007). Geopolitical Exotica: Tibet in Western Imagination. University of Minnesota Press: Minneapolis, pp. 53-56; McConnell, Fiona. (2013). The geopolitics of Buddhist reincarnation: contested futures of Tibetan leadership. Area, 45 (2), pp. 162-169. The decision to appoint the Dalai Lama as their spokesman was likely made during a religious conference of the heads of most all Tibetan Buddhist sects in Dharamsala in November 1963. If so, these heads were well aware of the Constitution of Tibet promulgated by the Dalai Lama on 10 March 1963. Article 29 of the constitution vested the executive power of the State in the Dalai Lama. It declared ‘the power and authority of His Holiness the Dalai Lama as the Supreme Spiritual Head of the State’ to be inviolable. In 1991, the The Eleventh Assembly of Tibetan People’s Deputies promulgated and legalized the Charter of the Tibetans-in-exile as its ‘fundamental guide.’ Article 19 of the Charter reaffirms the Dalai Lama’s ‘executive powers as the chief executive of the Tibetan government.’ By the 2000s, the Dalai Lama had broadened his power base to such an extent that Jamyang Norbu told the German magazine Stern in 2009: ‘”The Dalai Lama is not a bad person,” says the former editor-in-chief of the discontinued newspaper ‘Mang-Tso,’ “but he is beginning to stand in the way of our development.” And adds: “We have no democracy. Much is even worse today than in 1959. In the old days there were three centers of political power: the Dalai Lama, the monasteries and the nobles.” Today the Dalai Lama is the only leader left.’ Müller, Tilman & Janis Vougioukas. (2009). Lichtgestatt mit Schattenseiten. Stern, (32), pp. 26-39 [our translation from the German]. This certainly looks like the moves of an experienced, run-of-the-mill political player. The Stern article elicited an indignant response by Tenzin Peljor, among others. However, Peljor conveniently disregarded highly corroborated facts that had long been published. Hogendoorn, Rob. (2020, December 5). Knave or Fool? The Dalai Lama and Shōkō Asahara Affair Revisited. Retrieved November 22, 2021. Since 1960, the religious heads and representatives of the major sects and sub-sects of Tibetan Buddhism and the Bön tradition have held at least fourteen such meetings. ‘Tibet Documentation,’ an on line project led by Tenzin Namgyal Tethong (b. 1947), former prime minister of the Central Tibetan Administration, notes: ‘The first meeting of the heads of all the Buddhist schools was held in Dharamsala from the 9th to the 12th of November, 1963. This meeting was attended by many senior lamas, tulkus, geshes, scholars along with representatives of the Tibetan Government-in-Exile and other elected representatives numbering around 60. The meeting is considered an important landmark as it was the first step taken in exile towards religious cohesion and harmony and a united effort for preservation and promotion of Buddhism.’ Author unknown. (2017). Religion & Culture: Tibet’s Heritage. Tibet Documentation. Retrieved November 22, 2021. Serin Houston and Richard Wright wrote about the Dalai Lama: ‘His Holiness Tenzin Gyatso, the current and fourteenth Dalai Lama, commands a pivotal and powerful position in Tibetan communities worldwide. … Given this status, the Dalai Lama embodies Tibetan culture. He creates images of Tibet, builds community through alliances among resident and exiled Tibetan populations, sustains non-Tibetan and Tibetan Buddhist believers, works toward Tibetan self-determination and functions as the central locus of power and identity within the Tibetan diaspora. He also orchestrates collective and strategic resistance to the Chinese occupation through the diffusion of nationalist ideals within the transnational Tibetan social field.’ Houston, Serin & Richard Wright. (2003). Making and remaking Tibetan diasporic identities. Social & Cultural Geography, 4 (2), pp. 217-232. Fourth, Clark propounds the unsubstantiated claim—notwithstanding her emphasis on the ‘limits of the Dalai Lama’s power’—that he ‘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.’ She says this, although the Dalai Lama refused to sign the open letter on just this subject coming out of the 1993 meeting in Dharamsala with Western Buddhist teachers—a refusal we covered at some length in our article. As Stephen Batchelor, who composed the letter in consultation with the Dalai Lama, said: by not signing it, he actually weakened its impact. Clark proceeds by falsely attributing the opposite of Matthieu Ricard’s rejection of a ‘morality police’ to us, as if we had argued that the Dalai Lama ‘was responsible to act as an “international Buddhist policeman.”‘ Obviously, we make no such claim. This false rhetoric allows Clark to sidestep the actual issue: the Dalai Lama’s stubborn public endorsement of abusive and criminal teachers he is being warned about, and his accountability as a worldly, spiritual, and moral leader for his past enabling policies. Perhaps the best example of this was the Dalai Lama’s near 40-years enabling support of Sogyal Lakar (formerly known as Sogyal Rinpoche). Most likely inadvertently, after their 2018 meeting in Rotterdam, the Dalai Lama said about what he learned from four survivors of abuse by Tibetan Buddhist teachers: ‘I already did know these things, [it’s] nothing new. … Twenty-five years ago … someone mentioned about a problem of sexual allegations.’ Mees, Anna & Bas de Vries. (2018). Dalai lama over misbruik: ik weet het al sinds de jaren 90. NOS. Retrieved November 22, 2021. This is exactly the point of what our paper is talking about. Clark ends by speculating about unread sources she disqualifies without compunction. There’s really no way of addressing a self-declared lack of wide reading paired with such grievances—this is downright frivolous on her part. So, we’ll leave the determination of their merit to the reader’s discretion.

About the author

Stuart Lachs & Rob Hogendoorn

Stuart Lachs (b. 1940) is an independent scholar and long-time Ch'an/Zen practitioner. Investigative reporter and academic researcher Rob Hogendoorn (b. 1964) began researching the reception of Buddhism in Western society and culture in the early 1990s. His modus operandi remained the same ever since: independent, inquisitive and provocative.