Not So Recent

Written by Rob Hogendoorn

Apologists who rise up in arms against Stephen Batchelor’s recent exposé on the Dalai Lama’s refusal to sign the Open Letter he co-wrote during his meeting with Western teachers (March 16-19, 1993) would do well to realise that they may have missed that Batchelor merely repeated to Élodie Emery and Wandrille Lanos what he had already written in 2011.

In ‘Gods and Demons’, chapter sixteen of Confession of a Buddhist Atheist, Batchelor wrote:

“During the 1980s a number of scandals had erupted in the Western Buddhist world, usually involving sexual relations between teachers and their students. The Dalai Lama told us that he had received several letters from Western women who alleged that their Buddhist teacher had coerced them into having sex on such grounds as ‘it would purify their negative karma.’ He was very upset about what he heard. He worried that the media attention given to such incidents damaged the reputation of Buddhism and weakened its potential as a force for peace and good in the world. In the course of our discussions, he kept returning to this theme. It soon became clear that one of the reasons he was being so generous with his time was that he wanted us to help him tackle this problem in an effective way.

As our discussions drew to a close, he suggested that we compose an ‘open letter’ in which we summarized some of the conclusions we had drawn from our meeting. I was selected to be the scribe. After we had worked through several drafts, I read the letter aloud to the Dalai Lama. He listened attentively and constantly suggested changes in wording and emphasis. For the first time, I witnessed his sharply honed political intelligence at work. In the crucial paragraph concerning teachers’ ethics, we had written: ‘Each student must be encouraged to take responsible measures to confront teachers with unethical aspects of their conduct. If the teacher shows no sign of reform, students should not hesitate to publicize any unethical behavior of which there is irrefutable evidence.’ This was the point the Dalai Lama was most keen to get across. He hoped that such public exposure would enable the victims to be heard and the malefactors to be shamed, thus breaking any cycle of abuse.

It took weeks for the Dalai Lama’s private office to ratify the document. And when it was finally returned to us for publication, it was unchanged except for one thing: the sentence in which the Dalai Lama personally endorsed the text had been deleted. Without his endorsement, the open letter gave the impression that twenty-two self-selected Western teachers had taken it upon themselves to issue a decree to the entire Buddhist community. From the moment the Dalai Lama first suggested writing an open letter, I had assumed that I was drafting a joint statement that would be released by the Dalai Lama and our group. I fully agreed with the content of the letter we published, but the whole experience left me with the slightly unpleasant taste of having been used. The Dalai Lama had succeeded in communicating his concerns’ and proposing a solution, but by removing his endorsement from the letter, his staff ensured that he did not have to take any responsibility for what it said. Once again, I became aware of how what appeared on the surface to be a shared cause between Tibetans and Westerners could also conceal conflicting agendas and expectations.”

The June 1993 issue of Shambhala Sun presented yet another take on the 1993 meeting by Lama Surya Das (also known as Jeffrey Miller), who had acted as co-chair. His article included a version of the ‘Open Letter’ that listed the Dalai Lama as primus inter pares of 23 signatories, which suggests that this had been the original plan. However, Alexander Berzin and Sylvia Wetzel have recently corroborated Batchelor’s claim that the Dalai Lama’s signature was withheld for political reasons of his own.

In 2020, Surya Das was forced to admit that he has had sexual relationships with adult women who attended his retreats in the past, claiming that they were “consensual.” It was alleged that he asked women to meditate while sitting naked in his lap as early as 2001.

Surya Das - Toward a Western Buddhism-A Conference with His Holiness the Dalai Lama (Shambhala Sun 2 (1) June 1993 pp. 42-43, 61)

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.