‘Advice From The Dalai Lama’ (1993)

Written by Rob Hogendoorn

6 minutes

After the Dalai Lama’s meeting with Western Buddhist teachers in 1993, Jack Kornfield reported on this meeting in talk at Spirit Rock Center in California. Kornfield had been one of the moderators during this meeting. His report was published in the Fall 1993 issue of Inquiring Mind, with a brief introduction by Kate Lila Wheeler. The full report, ‘Advice from the Dalai Lama,’ is available here.

Throughout his report, Kornfield gushes about the Dalai Lama’s decisive contribution to the meeting. Also, he quotes some of his policy intentions concerning some desired reforms. For instance:

“Someone asked the Dalai Lama about the problems left behind by some famous Zen masters or great lamas who will bop into a town, give initiations and vows that students take for the rest of their life, and then two days later the teacher goes off to teach in another city, leaving the students with no support.

The Dalai Lama thought about it and said, ‘I must talk to the Tibetan teachers. Definitely you should not give practices and initiations unless you are sure that students are fully prepared, and that they understand and can use the practices in their life. This is not something to bring crowds, or something to play with.’ Suddenly the Dalai Lama became quiet for a minute, and then he looked up sheepishly and said, ‘You know, of course, I am doing this with the Kalachakra initiation too. But maybe this is different.’

The Dalai Lama was referring to the fact that he is one of the few people in the world who is empowered to give this wonderful teaching on the Kalachakra, the wheel of time, and on the awakening from the illusion of the whole cycle of birth and death. He continued, ‘You see, sometimes I think that maybe if I just go and teach about ethics, no one will come. So I say the Dalai Lama is doing the Kalachakra initiation, giving these great teachings, and then many thousands of people come. Then I teach them about kindness. Actually I’m not so concerned about the Kalachakra initiation. I use these occasions as a vehicle to teach universal compassion. I think that is okay.’

Our discussion with the Dalai Lama shifted to the role of the dharma teacher, and how isolating it can be, and how one needs time to rest. Someone said that as a teacher it was important to be ‘off duty’ sometimes. The Dalai Lama was puzzled by this expression and asked, ‘What does this mean, “off duty”?’ We tried to explain what we meant, and finally he figured it out. ‘Oh,’ he said, ‘Off duty.’ He sat silently for a few minutes and looked at us Western teachers, his gaze traveling around the room. Finally he said, ‘Bodhisattva off duty? Buddha off duty? Very strange concept!’ After our laughter died down, the Dalai Lama continued, ‘You might not be teaching all the time, but your responsibility is to your practice. Every place you are must be your practice, no exceptions.’

We talked about what to do when we have a conflict with our own teachers. For example, what if someone finds that their teacher is doing something unethical, and yet they have taken these great vows which bind their spirit to that teacher? For people who have that experience it can be a great agony, because they love their teachers and yet have discovered these terrible things were going on.

The Dalai Lama told us, ‘You know, it was the same for me. When I was younger, in Tibet, I had two regents who were supposed to care for Tibet until I came of age. These regents, who were also my teachers, were power hungry and began to fight among themselves. They even got the Tibetan army involved, and it was terrible for our country. At one point I even had to call in the Chinese army, which was a very terrible thing, because the consequence of that was further loss of Tibetan freedom. These are terrible things. I had to publicly denounce my own regents and teachers to all of Tibet and say, “This is wrong, this is not following the dharma.” You must always let people know when things are wrong. Put it in the newspapers if you must do so. Tell people there is no price that is worth paying to cover up that which is wrong. We must let people know.

Talking about corruption in high places inevitably led to the subject of sexual misconduct. Someone brought up the practice of tantra, which teaches the marriage of masculine and feminine energies, and makes use of a symbolic wedding and sexual union. These tantric practices are depicted in paintings of men and women joined together, and there are stories of teachers who engage their students in such exercises. The Dalai Lama was asked about these stories, and if there was such a practice.

His Holiness replied that there were stories about gurus such as the great Tibetan teacher Tilopa who had sex with various students who were subsequently enlightened. Then he said that he didn’t know how to do this practice. He said, “People have asked me to do this practice with them, but I’m a monk so it is never appropriate. Truthfully, you can only do such practice if there is no sexual desire whatsoever. The kind of realization that is required is like this: If someone gives you a goblet of wine and a glass of urine, or a plate of wonderful food and a plate of excrement, you must be in such a state that you can eat and drink from all four and it makes no difference to you what they are. Then maybe you can do this practice.”

Then somebody in the back of the room said, “If we want to make sure someone is ready to do this practice, at least we now have a taste test.” After the laughter died down, someone else asked, “How many lamas or teachers can do this?” The Dalai Lama replied, “Very few.” Then one of the women sitting in the circle said, “Well, who?” And he thought for a while and then he looked up and said, “Zero. Nobody that I can think of.”‘

Kornfield continues:

‘Then she said, “We would also like there to be a council to look at the inequities between men and women and to figure out ways to change these things, especially as Tibetan Buddhism comes to the West.”

The Dalai Lama told the women that he would call a council. They asked him when he would call it. He replied that he would do it soon. They asked him how soon. He finally said, “Okay, six months. I will do it in six months.”

A couple of Tibetan monks from Europe also spoke in a very candid way with the Dalai Lama. They told him they wanted a special teacher training for Tibetan lamas who are coming to the West, so that they can learn about the emotional and psychological problems of students they’ll encounter; the ethical issues that have beset teachers; and the ways they can support Western teachers and students. The Dalai Lama told the monks that he would set up such a training.

That particular morning meeting was fantastic. As the Western nuns and monks presented their concerns, the Dalai Lama listened and began dealing with them immediately.’

In closing, Kornfield notes:

‘The spirit of our meeting with the Dalai Lama was very empowering. At one point he suggested we might drop the titles. We don’t necessarily need to call ourselves lamas or roshis. He encouraged us to change the teachings to fit our own culture. He said, “Even I am not sure about some of our teachings about heaven and hell realms. So maybe the Dalai Lama is a heretic too, except that I am the Dalai Lama, and they cannot kick me out. But you must see what is true for yourself.” We must look at what is true for our culture. As Western teachers he supported us to make these changes even if some of our Asian teachers don’t understand.

Finally, together as a group we drafted a letter that spoke of the issues we had discussed. We went over this letter with the Dalai Lama, and it was wonderful to watch him listen to all the points of the letter, because his mind was so lucid and diplomatic. He would stop us and say, “Is that the best word? Maybe people will feel that is judging or condescending. It doesn’t honor them. Let’s change the language a little bit.” It was like being with Thomas Jefferson. He had the most exquisite lucidity of mind and brought great compassion to his selections of words.

At the close of the last meeting, we were all giving prayer shawls and scarfs to the Dalai Lama, and he was giving gifts and blessings back. Then he looked around and said to us, ‘You know when we began you were all so serious and so respectful, and you had so many problems. As the week went on I saw everyone smiling more and more. Today everyone is smiling and very happy. I think that means we had a very good meeting.’

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.