‘Further Thoughts on “The Open Letter”‘ (1994)

Written by Rob Hogendoorn

4 minutes

After he published his report on the meeting between the Dalai Lama and Western Buddhist teachers in 1993, Dharmachari Kulananda published some further thoughts on the Open Letter he had published along with his report:

“We met against the background of what some regard as a time of crisis in Western Buddhism. In the United States, especially, several Dharma groups have suffered acute crises of confidence in teachers variously acussed of the abuse of sex, power, alcohol, and money. We discussed many matters, received valuable clarification from the Dalai Lama, and, having come to what we thought of as some important conclusions, felt the need to share our thoughts and conclusions with the rest of the Western Buddhist world. For some, the belief that some Western Buddhist students were continuing to be abused by a few Eastern or Western Buddhist teachers urgently reinforced this wish to share. Thus we drafted the Open Letter and, pressed for time, broadly agreed its contents at the end of our meeting.

Back in Britain, six months after the event,I find myself continuing to contemplate those issues. The Open Letter, necessarily brief, can be read in many different ways. It is not a final or definitive document, but the initiation of what I hope will be an extended discussion in Western Buddhist circles. As one of the original signatories, I would like to share some further reflections.

The first paragraph of the letter suggests that our first responsibility as Buddhists is to work for a better world, and that the promotion of Buddhism is a secondary concern. The Dalai Lama was very concerned that we opened our Letter with such a paragraph. But what, I wonder, might he have meant? Can we really work towards creating a better world without promoting the Dharma? As committed Buddhists, do we really think it possible to alleviate the sufferings of the world without bringing the wisdom of the Dharma to bear, without practising ‘skilful means’? Clearly not. I therefore read this section as an attempt to re-emphasize the primary purpose of Buddhism itself—the alleviation of the suffering of all beings—and as a call for us all to bear this in mind as we go about creating our various Buddhist institutions.

In the Open Letter, we suggest that ‘one’s position as a teacher arises in dependence on the request of one’s students, not simply on one’s
being appointed as such by a higher authority.’ This statement derives, in part, from the tradition that one can only teach upon request. In the Tibetan and Zen contexts in particular, perhaps, with their strong emphasis on the authority of a teacher and the authority of his or her lineage, it is very important to acknowledge that the student bears at least part of the responsibility for the quality of their relationship with their teacher. But although we have begun to look into the issue, we are a long way from exhausting our enquiries. Although there is no explicit mention of it in the Letter, much of our time in Dharamsala was taken up in discussions of the nature of authority and lineage in the transmission of Buddhism to the West. This is a discussion which will run and run.

The signatories to this letter are all too aware that, as Buddhism comes to the West, we must beware of blindly importing with it a set of relations more appropriate to a previous, feudal, context.

Coming on to the question of unethical conduct amongst teachers, it must be emphasized that the emerging Network of Western Buddhist Teachers is not setting itself up as a kind of Star Chamber or Inquisition. To do so would be entirely un-Buddhistic—and would run entirely against the spirit of openness and enquiry that characterized much of our meeting. Indeed, although we can rejoice in having arrived at the common view that the Five Precepts are a basic, common foundation for Buddhist ethics, there was no clear consensus amongst us as to how these were to be interpreted and applied. Do we take the fifth precept, for example, as implying complete abstention from alcohol? Obviously not, as some of those present enjoyed an occasional social drink. Nor was there a clear consensus as to what is meant, in the third precept, by ‘sexual misconduct’. Clearly we were not advocating complete chastity: several of the teachers present were married or otherwise involved in sexual relationships. But where are the boundaries? Some of those present had current sexual relationships with people who were once their students.

All of us were concerned that students should not suffer abuse at the hands of their teachers and yet, in an age where people seem to be increasingly encouraged to think of themselves as victims—as passively non‐responsible for many of the circumstances of their lives, and where the very notion of ‘abuse’ has itself become highly problematized—were we really wise to advocate without further qualification the publicizing of ‘any unethical behaviour of which there is irrefutable evidence’?

This difficult area calls, perhaps, for calmer and deeper reflection than we were able to bring to bear during the course of our meeting. Nonetheless we made an important start, particularly in our assertion that nobody can stand above the norms of ethical conduct and in our call for all Buddhist teachers to live at least by the Five Precepts, even if these may be variously understood.

The Letter affirms the need for equality between the sexes in all aspects of Buddhist theory and practice. Is such a statement perhaps too bold, suggesting as it does that men and women have identical qualities and identical needs?

Finally we must consider the part played by the Dalai Lama in our meeting. His willingness to participate made the process possible. Without his presence it is unlikely that so many busy teachers would have given up somuch time to come together as we did. And there is no doubt that for many of the participants His Holiness’s presence lent a kind of empowerment to the proceedings. In a sense he ‘authorized’ people to speak their minds and think their own thoughts. And yet much of our meetingwas given over to questioning the very nature and validity of such authorization. We think of ourselves as Western Buddhist teachers. I hope the time will come when we will feel free and willing to meet simply as such.”

Kulananda - Further Thoughts on 'The Open Letter' (Golden Drum (31) November 1993 - January 1994 p. 18-19)

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.