A Remarkable Historical Document

Written by Rob Hogendoorn

3 minutes

After the much-discussed meeting between the Dalai Lama and Western Buddhist teachers in 1993, Josh Baran, the Dalai Lama’s PR-advisor in the United States, wrote an ‘Open Letter Regarding the Conference of Western Buddhist Teachers’ (September 3, 1993).

First off, Baran writes: “The most remarkable thing about these meetings and discussions is they are ten years late. We can all agree that these issues have been screaming out for attention for easily ten to fifteen years. In 1980, I remember sitting with former members of Dharmadhatu talking at length about the sexual demand of both Trungpa and Osel—that was 13 years ago.”

Also, Baran notes: “Sexual harassment is against the law. If any senior executive makes inappropriate sexual advances through words or actions, that person would be immediately fired and the firm could be sued. If this company allowed sexual harassment to go on for months or years, the firm would be liable for huge damages. Question: Why should Buddhist organizations and teachers be held to a lower standard than conventional businesses? And lastly, trust me, if any of the rationalizations I’ve heard from Buddhist (and other) groups were used in the business context, you’d be laughed out of court.”

And: “More thoughts on teachers in Buddhism. One of the reasons that dealing with problems in the Sangha is so difficult is because it brings up the whole question of what it means to be a teacher in Buddhism. What does it mean to a Tulku, Rimpoche, Vajradhara, Roshi, Lama, etc? Not in the ideal sense, but in real life? Are all these teachers living enlightened Buddhas? Are they almost enlightened? 75%, 50%, or only 10%?? I know that these questions are not supposed to be asked.”

Baran continues: “I firmly believe that if Buddhist teachers were more open and honest themselves, not having to, in any way, exaggerate or mystify their enlightenment, if they could stop trying to appear perfect, and if the students could be much more normal and adult in their interactions with their teachers, a lot of problems would be reduced. Could we create a new model in the west of learning from teachers who are clearly imperfect?”

Also, he wryly notes: “I don’t believe I have ever met a perfect teacher, or for that matter, a fully enlightened Buddha. I’ve met a lot of teachers who functionally claim this mantle, but it is simply not true. And nearly all the teachers will say and write that they are human, they shouldn’t be worshiped or put on pedestals—their words are meaningless—it is how they function in daily life where so many demand that they be treated as gods. I don’t believe I’m being cynical. The Dharma is not served by wishful thinking.”

Baran - An Open Letter-Regarding the Conference of Western Buddhist Teachers (03-09-1993)

This open letter is a remarkable historical document indeed.

Given his stature as the Dalai Lama’s PR-advisor, it seems reasonable to assume that Josh Baran’s letter had a wide circulation, at least in Western Buddhist circles.

Moreover, it shows that at that time, leading Western Buddhists were fully aware, or were made fully aware, that the known abuse cases went back at least fifteen to twenty years.

Furthermore, the open letter demonstrates that at least some Western Buddhists—or at any rate Josh Baran—made the right diagnosis and asked the right questions in public.

This begs the question: what happened to these questions? Who answered them? Who heeded these diagnoses? Who determined if this treatment actually worked?

Remember: the Catholic Archdiocese of Boston sex abuse scandal surfaced in early 2002, nine years later, courtesy of the Boston Globe.

The first issue of Tricyle: The Buddhist Review appeared in 1991. Shambhala Sun (now: Lion’s Roar) was established in 1995. Buddhadharma: Practitioner’s Quarterly was launched in 2002.

What did these ‘independent’ Buddhist magazines do to cover the dangerous situation? Did they keep close tabs on the developments? Did they warn the unsuspecting public about the inherent dangers existing at the time?

Did Buddhist reporters follow-up on the grand-sounding intentions that leading Western teachers uttered almost thirty years ago in their Open Letter?

Or did Western Buddhists salve their conscience with the thought that their concerns about the rampant abuse had been ‘discussed’ with the Dalai Lama and thereby adequately addressed—even though ‘His Holiness’ refused to sign off on it?

The Network for Western Buddhist Teachers - An Open Letter (1993)

About the author

Rob Hogendoorn

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.