Said Rob Hogendoorn in 2004…

Written by Rob Hogendoorn

33 minutes

In 2004, some years after I stopped participating in a Tibetan Buddhist study programme that was loosely based on the traditional curriculum of Geluk monastic universities, I wrote down my thoughts on the inefficacy of the very ‘experiment’ I was part of. I’ve never shared this text outside a (very) small circle of Dharma friends. Rereading my own words now, some fifteen years later, I thought publishing my own attempt to make sense of this experience might pique others’ curiosity. So, with this longread I call upon the interested reader to ponder the dynamic I try to describe for a while. These days I would probably express myself somewhat differently—and hopefully less high-flown—but I still stand by the view I attempted to put across at the time. This is the second, slightly edited outtake from a manuscript tentatively titled Yogis and Children: Lay Study and Practice of Tibetan Buddhist scholasticism in the West. 1

My doctrine has two modes,
Advice and tenets
To children I speak advice
And to yogis, tenets
Laṅkāvatārasutra 2

Like everyone else, I am fascinated by the prospect of a popular reception of Tibetan Buddhism in the West. Also, I am duly impressed by the tremendous effort that Western converts spend in studying and practicing their new-found faith. I have to admit, though, that in my experience much sincerity and zeal go to waste. I am not even sure that we are witnessing an actual reception at all. The past twelve years, I have watched fellow Tibetan Buddhists dwell on grandiose intentions, meanwhile alienating themselves from relatives and friends, only to see them acting refractory and irritable later. From where I stand, I see a continuous arrival of eager, open-minded students of Tibetan Buddhism and a steady departure of weary, hardened students too.

For several years I was a student of Maitreya Institute, a long-running network of Tibetan Buddhist Dharma centres and study groups in the Netherlands. This centre is affiliated with the Foundation for the Preservation of the Mahayana Tradition (FPMT). It was founded in 1975 by Lama Thubten Yeshe (b. 1935 d. 1984) and is currently being directed by Lama Zopa (b. 1946). In 1992, the year I joined the institute, a highly qualified Tibetan Geshe had just arrived from India. 3 Himself a graduate from the re-established Ganden Jangtse monastery, Geshe Sonam Gyaltsen (b. 1941) has taught many preliminary courses. He was among the first teachers to implement the FPMT Basic Program, a five-year weekend course loosely modeled upon the traditional Geluk curriculum. This programme offered students a broad overview of selected topics taught within the Geluk monastic education, including the rudiments of more advanced philosophical subjects, as well as introductory-level teachings on tantra.

A typical weekend course comprised of several lectures in Tibetan, near-simultaneously translated into Dutch, supported by meditations and discussion groups led by senior students. So, the following observations and reflections on the lay study and practice of Geluk scholasticism are drawn in part from my own reading and experience; in part from my recollection of exchanges of ideas between myself, my teachers, and peers; and, lastly, from philosophical inquiries and extrapolations that I was unable to share with other members of the institute.

As to the ‘steady departure of weary, hardened students:’ Over the years, I have in fact seen many people come and go. I can sympathize with those who look back on their involvement with Geluk scholasticism with a certain amount of frustration and even indignation. I am not one of them, even though I cannot persuade myself to resume studying quite like I used too. For years, I have asked myself why this is so. And I wondered: Are these the mere contingencies of yearning and hype, or rather the consequences of religious dilettantism and wishful thinking? What exactly is the appeal of the Geluk tradition, hands down the most scholastic form of Buddhism today? Why does it arouse popular interest so easily, which then proves so hard to keep? Hopefully, these thoughts provide the start of an answer.


By now, scroll-paintings of austere Tibetan scholars and beatific bodhisattvas, as well as surreal depictions of tantric deities or wrathful protectors must adorn thousands of makeshift shrines in Western homes around the world. Worshiping these images, what do people see or expect? What perspective do Buddhist converts from the Americas or Europe share with those in Africa, Asia, and the Pacific, framing their contemporaneous engagement with ancient Tibetan rituals? Arduously visualizing Buddhist deities to identify with while cultivating a sense of ‘divine pride,’ how do they discern unwitting self-deception from genuine practice?

Many spend vast amounts of money and uncounted hours attempting to learn, retain and contemplate Tibetan scholastic philosophy, with hardly any comprehension of the overall conceptual structure and dialectical thrust that animates it. Does this not threaten the intellectual integrity of these traditions—as well as their own? Tibetan Buddhist practitioners keen on traveling, spend countless hours flying. They seek out itinerant lamas, ‘Dharma celebrations,’ ‘Awake Events,’ ‘Enlightenment Experiences,’ and tantric initiations around the globe. Braving the remoteness of Mongolia, the forbiddingness of Tibet, or the trials and tribulations of India, what exactly do they expect to find? What inspiration or revelation outweighs the immediate harm to nature and their or others’ environmental awareness? 4 If pressed, I ask myself, what justifications for such behaviour are they prepared to give?

Let me ask you something: Do these questions strike you as reasonable, well worth answering? Or do they somehow seem inappropriate, not worth asking?

Be warned in advance then, that I shall be arguing against a pervasive tendency among converts to relegate the study and practice of Tibetan Buddhism to an indefinite, untethered epistemological vacuum—somewhere between reason and revelation, inference and experience, revelation and hearsay. I shall attempt to demonstrate how Western Buddhists who banish their very conversion outside the domain of reason do so at a price: social alienation, intellectual fragmentation, and philosophical impotence. Unwittingly, they stake out any and all claims of ‘personal growth’ on grounds where they are at their very weakest, not having thoroughly examined their own point of departure at all—against all wise advice to the contrary.


The current Dalai Lama, for instance, began just about every public talk or Buddhist teaching he has held in the West with a cautionary remark to the effect that conversion to Buddhism is not self-explanatory and should be well-founded: ‘Only after thinking very deeply, examining very thoroughly, can one really determine that the Buddhist approach is, in one’s own case, more suitable and effective.’ 5 His caveat may sound like a facile inter-religious courtesy to some, but I believe it carries all the weight of Geluk scholastics’ insistence that we qualify as a reasonable person solely by force of our ability to evaluate reasoning and give arguments in accordance with the laws of logic. 6 On this view, a reasonable person is always accountable for his or her convictions—his or her own conversion being no exception to the rule.

I surmise that many Western converts who consider themselves his followers, are uncomfortably aware that they have never given the Dalai Lama’s unambiguous, sound advice due attention. This awareness adds to a widespread reluctancy to critically examine and account for their newly acquired beliefs—even retrospectively 7 Within the purview of Tibetan Buddhism, the first generation of Western converts could—perhaps—still claim ignorance of such things. But since the Dalai Lama’s books have been in wide circulation for many years now, most contemporary practitioners of Tibetan Buddhism will have read similar cautionary remarks and rejoinders at least once early on.

Western Buddhists who disavow the reasonableness of their own conversion altogether, thereby shield themselves from a public review or critique of its rationale, of course. But in doing so, they effectively surrender the very source of their own cogency. This threatens to leave them with ‘self-evident’ truths and ‘self-validating’ experiences—surely a bad break for those who pride themselves as belonging to the ‘followers of reasoning’!

Fideists and Rationalists

This last term derives from Haribhadra (b. 8th century CE) , founder of the Vikramașilā monastic university in East-India, who authored several studies of the Prajñāpāramitā or Perfection of Wisdom literature, as well as from The Elucidation of Meanings, a commentary on Maitreya’s Abhisamayālaṃkāra, which is still much used in major Geluk monastic universities.

Introducing this last work, Haribhadra distinguishes two types of trainees, who generate faith in the efficacy of the Buddhist teachings in dissimilar ways. As Geluk scholar Georges Dreyfus puts it, quoting Tsongkhapa: ‘Some are easily convinced of the validity of the tradition and thus find it easy to have faith in the Buddhist path. Hence, they are called “followers of faith” (dad pa’i rjes ‘brang). Their faith is less stable, however, since it is not based on evidence and personal appropriation but on external influences. The other type of trainees, the “followers of dharma” (chos kyi rjes ‘brang) of  “followers of reasoning” (rigs pa’i rjes ‘brang), find it more difficult to generate faith, for they will never commit except on the basis of their own understanding, relying on strong evidence. But once they are convinced, they remain firm in their convictions and are not easily swayed.’ 8

Tibetologist Matthew Kapstein, naming these two types of trainees ‘fideists’ and ‘rationalists’ respectively, notes how this distinction, which was adapted by the developing Tibetan scholastic traditions from the late eleventh century onwards, designated a ‘marked concern to emphasize a highly rational approach to Buddhist doctrine, over and against one dominated exclusively by faith.’ 9 Kapstein stresses however, that ‘a Buddhism of “reason alone” was never realized, except perhaps in the imaginations of small numbers of monk-scholars.’ Argument alone, Kapstein says, ‘seldom supplanted the authority of tradition when it came to matters of practice.’ 10

The distinction between ‘fideists’ and ‘rationalists’ identifies but one out of numerous intellectual landmarks submerged amidst the ebb and flow of competing claims to doctrinal supremacy by the emerging Tibetan schools of thought. What began as a rallying call, became a victory banner later: A visible sign of one’s allegiance to the philosophical eminence and spiritual excellence of the triumphant Geluk sect. Rationality thus became a normative ideal, loaded with cultural, political and sectarian significance. This is why Dreyfus insists that ‘an awareness of the political aspects of inter-sectarian differences is important to students and scholars of Tibetan Buddhism alike.’ 11

Ideological Markers

Introducing the inter-sectarian Sakya-Geluk debates on epistemology, Dreyfus warns that although ‘this work deals with ideas more than historical facts, the reader should be aware that the ideas I am exploring often have political significance among Tibetans. For example, the differences between Sa-gya and Ge-luk thinkers concerning the problem of universals are philosophically interesting (whatever this might mean). They parallel similar preoccupations among Western thinkers and as such have cross-cultural significance. Philosophy is not, however, the only reason they became a hot topic of controversy among Tibetan thinkers. They were brought up by Go-ram-ba and Sakya Chok-den to emphasize the differences between Sa-gya and Ge-luk traditions. Thus, they became philosophical markers of largely political disputes. Later, they remained ideological markers of differences that were essentially political.’ 12

Dreyfus goes on to say:

‘In Tibet, the importance that the topic of universals acquired was due partly to its influence upon the status and prestige of the Tibetan scholastic traditions. Each tradition claimed to truly represent Indian Buddhism, which is venerated by Tibetans as the source of their traditions. Since the problem of universals is so central to Dharmakirti’s philosophy, its correct interpretation became a sign among Tibetan scholars of having inherited the enormous prestige of Indian Buddhist masters in general and Dharmakirti in particular. This is all the more true in a commentarial tradition like the one existing in Tibet, where any philosophical elaboration must be presented as a commentary on an authoritative text. Therefore, Ge-luk views could never be presented on their own philosophical merits but only as authoritative commentaries. In this perspective, being richt as an interpretation mattered a great deal. It was taken as a justification of the superioritiy of the claims to preeminence of this school over the claims of other schools. Refuting these interpretations became a way for the adversaries of this tradition to score political points and advance their own tradition. awareness of the political aspects of intersectarian differences is important to students and scholars of Tibetan Buddhism alike. The political dimensions of the problem of universals were intensified by the practice of debate in Tibet. Debates were significant events in India, where kings attended encounters between important rival thinkers. Although this institution did not survive unchanged in Tibet, dialectics retained some of its political importance. In particular, the Ge-luk school was able to derive considerable prestige from the dialectic abilities of its scholars. Thus, although probably devoid of any intrinsic political meaning, the problem of universal came to have political significance. It became the focus of debates in which the competing status and prestige of the Tibetan scholastic traditions were at stake. In this way, this topic became a convenient way to question via philosophical debate the political supremacy achieved by the Ge-luk school after the seventeenth century.’ 13

And there is more: Dreyfus also examines how rationality actually functions within the contemporary Tibetan scholastic culture. He warns that there is a real danger of misunderstanding the role of reason within the Tibetan monastic education, when ‘Tibetan scholars are made to look too much like modern intellectuals.’ 14 

Observing how laypeople and monastic practitioners routinely draw on each other’s traditions, Dreyfus describes how ‘Tibetans both before and after exile engaged in a variety of folk practices such as exorcism, divination, healing, retrieving of life force, worship of mountain and lake deities, cults of house gods, and the like. Although not directly part of the scholastic curriculum, some of these practices figure in various ways in the scholastic experience. They provide an important background for Tibetan scholasticism and affect the ways in which Tibetan scholars see the world, which do not always faithfully mirror the normative Buddhist views they encounter in their formal education. 15


Dreyfus’ observations make clear that most monastic intellectuals are well aware of the tension between their reliance on folk practices and the normative ideals of the tradition. 16 Managing this religious ambiguity, Geluks scholastics’ preoccupation with rationality frequently carries over into domains of reality that, according to modern sensibilities, belong to the realm of magic and do not to call for arguments and reasoning at all. Citing the infamous Dorje Shukden dispute as a case in point, Dreyfus shows how Geluk rationality, coherent though its application might seem from a modern perspective, is unreflexively brought to bear upon matters that, at least according to modern intellectuals, fall outside the purview of rationality altogether. From this we ought to learn that, in Dreyfus’ words:

In the Tibetan cultural universe, a dispute over propitiating a specific protector is perfectly understandable, though deplorable. It concerns a deity whose followers—through dreams, visions and states of possession—experience him as real. In that context, using reasoning to discuss the merits of such a deity makes perfect sense, whereas this application of rationality seems incongruous to modern thinkers. This gap underlines the degree to which Tibetan scholastic rationality remains embedded in the order of the world and hence is significantly different from modern rationality. 17

Based on Tibetan commentators’ reception of Indian Buddhist epistemology, Dreyfus further notes that, although the appearance of Dignāga’s and Dharmakīrti’s works represented a paradigm shift similar to Descartes’ ‘epistemological turn,’ their primary concern as ‘Buddhist logicians’ was pragmatic, not deductive. Because the logical side to their work is always subordinate to pragmatic concerns, Dreyfus argues, formal reasonings by Indian and Tibetan Buddhist thinkers are best understood as ‘systematized rhetorical arguments,’ whose logic shouldn’t be confused with Aristotelian syllogistic reasoning. 18

Being Right

Dreyfus also observes that ‘even in the discussions of logical topics, Indian thinkers remain more concerned with practical understanding than with formal validity. This concern is noticeable in their presentation of formal arguments. In fact, Indian formal arguments are not axiomatic reasonings. They are more accurately compared to systematic rhetorical arguments. This comparison better accounts for the vital part played by the example in Indian formal argument. Examples are not intended to provide axiomatic proof but to support a rhetorical argument.’ 19

Moreover, he says, ‘In the great diversity of methods, considerations and arguments used by Indian and Tibetan philosophers, only one fact clearly emerges: all philosophical activities rely on and are intended to validate the framework given by the tradition. Philosophical problems are not discussed only on the basis of their philosophical merits but in relation to and under the form of commentaries to some basic text formative of the tradition.’ Thus, scriptural authority, as a matter of principle, vectors philosophical creativity, which aims at the articulation and justification of orthodoxy, rather than establishing metaphysical truth claims. Interpreting Indian Buddhist epistemology then, Tibetan commentators simply assume the texts they deem constitutive of their tradition to be true and complete, so that, in Dreyfus’ apt phrase, ‘to get them right is tantamount to being right.’ 20

Presupposing that there is a necessary congruence between Dharmakīriti’s texts, for instance, and truth in the field of logic and epistemology, he continues, Tibetan scholars will adopt his thought, arguing for their own interpretation mainly on the basis of logical considerations, even if—or rather, especially if—their own basic view of reality radically differs from Dharmakīrti’s. ‘They do so,’ he says, ‘because, in a tradition in which philosophy is commentarial, a philosophical point cannot be made without being properly grounded in a previous tradition.’ 21

To handle the concomitant philosophical ambiguity and cognitive dissonance, Tibetan scholars skillfully employ elaborate doxographical models and temporarily suspend their own ontologies. Or, stated differently: ‘So-called Eastern and Western religions often are based on a corpus of normative teachings in which the historical experience of their founder(s) is recorded, transformed, and given atemporal dimensions. This is an ongoing creative process, which must have a fixed point, provided in most traditions by scriptural authority. The atemporal claim to authority of scripture is the basis for the constant reappropriation of the content of the tradition which is carried out through commentarial reinterpretation.’ 22

Main Thrust

Tibetologist Jeffrey Hopkins writes that for Geluk scholars ‘the main thrust of their education while at the monastic university is not toward confirmation in meditative experience of the vision of their founder but an attempt to render the content of his vision in a consistent verbal presentation; serious meditation, for the most part, comes later in solitary retreat. (…) The endeavor at the monastic university for those who enter the rigorous series of classes (and not all do, since many do not have the capacity or the endurance) is to rediscover (or create) the wholeness of Dzong-ka-ba’s system of meaning without the slightest internal contradiction. This is done with the assumption that the founder’s many works themselves are devoid of the slightest internal contradiction, that they fit together in all aspects in complete harmony.’ 23

He goes on to to explain how, traditionally, this assumption is transmitted ‘through a teacher’s remarking at some point fairly early in a student’s training, “It is amazing how there is not the slightest internal contradiction in all of the works of the Foremost Precious One (Dzong-ka-ba)!” and then, shortly thereafter, confronting the student with an apparent inconsistency as if the student were the origin of the original proposition that there was no inconsistency.’ Thus, the process of identification is forced, says Hopkins, ‘through the teacher’s operating within a presumption of a shared perspective.’ 24

Hopkins compares the mechanisms of cultural transmission that instill in Geluk scholastics an allegiance to their particular college’s views to a warrior’s oath of fealty to his chieftain in medieval England:

The inculcation of a parochial bias is often consciously used to establish a mode of operation, much like a stage facade, that sets a scene in which other activities take place. It brings an energy to study and debate, a focus for students not yet moved in a universalistic way. The inculcated sense of the unique value of one’s college and the awesome responsibility of being a member of this club charges a course of study during which profound understanding and spiritual progress that run counter to this parochialism can be made. Adherence to a college becomes, as a student matures, an operational mechanism that alternates—sometimes in self-consciously humurous contradiction—with penetrative insights into the weaknesses of a host of philosophical positions of the otherwise favored author.’ 25

I believe that similar processes of identification, albeit more subliminal and premature, can be seen amongst Western followers of Geluk teachers as well.

Many Westerners who attend a Buddhist teaching by a Tibetan Geshe for the first time, are struck by the ‘embedded and confident rationality’ they emanate. 26 Above all, they seem so certain of what they teach. Herein lies a key, I believe, toward understanding why Tibetan scholasticism holds such an appeal to modern Westerners. Ever since Descartes, even the semblance of certainty has eluded Western thinkers’ grasp—notoriously so. So, it cannot but fascinate us, moderns, to meet a Tibetan intellectual unabashedly professing to have not even the semblance of doubt. That the supposed absence of doubt—or, rather, the waiving of the right to investigate further—is likely more of a rhetorical stance than an existential fact, however, is frequently overlooked.

The (De)merits of Doubt

Within the Geluk tradition, the main concepts used in Buddhist epistemology are introduced during a preliminary part of the curriculum called ‘Typology of Mind’ (lorig, Wyl. blo rigs). One general typology of mind in terms of correctness and preference, characterizes doubt mainly as a form of indecisiveness. As such, it can be concordant with fact, discordant with fact or neither. 27 Another typology of mind, however, designates doubt as one of six ‘root afflictions’ (mulaklesha, rtsa nyon) that adversely affect the mind. 28

Lati Rinpoché cautions that the latter description should not confuse one into thinking that there’s no such thing as ‘virtuous’ or wholesome doubt: ‘There definitely is virtuous doubt, for it is said that to develop even doubt with respect of emptiness, thinking that phenomena probably are empty of inherent existence, tears cyclic existence asunder. If this were not virtuous, it would be quite strange that it could tear cyclic existence asunder.’ 29 He emphasizes the force of doubt by citing a verse from Āraydeva’s Four Hundred Stanzas which translates as: ‘Those with little merit / Do not even doubt this teaching. / Entertaining just a doubt / Tears to tatters worldly existence.’ 30

Under the heading ‘Showing the methods of fully training the student’s mindstream making it receptive to the development of spiritual paths’, Gyel-tsap Dar-ma-rin-chen (b. 1364 d. 1432) comments that ‘when emptiness is taught, simply entertaining the positive doubt that it might be so tears wordly existence to tatters, since to some extent the fundamental nature of existence has become the mind’s object.’ 31 Because the root cause of suffering is merely a wrong consciousness—a misapprehension of self—it can be overcome by reasoning, says Lati Rinpoché, and therefore, ‘one can take the sevenfold division of awareness and knowledge as illustrative of the stages one might go through while developing correct understanding through its use.’ 32

Another lorig presentation by Geshe Rabten explains Ārydeva’s statement to mean that ‘if someone should merely be in a state of indecision tending towards the correct conclusion that phenomena are empty of inherent existence, then this doubt itself will have the force to reduce the ignorance, afflictions and tainted actions that are the causes of samsara. Therefore, we should understand that indecision such as this is wholesome whereas indecision that tends towards those beliefs that strengthen the misconceptions that bind us to samsara is unwholesome. 33 According to Geshe Rabten, then, indecision can waver, as it were, between negative and positive, unwholesome and unwholesome. With reasoned investigation ‘the wavering may cease altogether and a firms state of correct belief be developed.’ 34

Wholesome Catalyst

So, at least on some Geluks’ view, factually concordant doubt—no matter how uncertain—can operate as a wholesome catalyst in weakening the hold of false beliefs. Reasoning can loosen the grip of fundamental misapprehensions through successive stages of uncertainty, eventually culminating in incontrovertible, inferential knowledge. Georges Dreyfus therefore concludes that doubt should not be conceived as a polar opposite of faith, but rather as the opposite of belief. 35 According to Dreyfus, genuine ‘followers of reasoning’ develop faith as the determined end of the dialectic of belief and doubt. He adds: ‘Faith presupposes conviction in the validity of the tradition, but it is not limited to belief. In particular, it cannot be reduced to an endless literal repetition of the truths handed down by the tradition. Rather it is the conviction that the validity of the tradition requires and bears further exploration.’ 36

Stephen Batchelor, who conceives doubt to be a state of existential perplexity at the very core of our spiritual awareness, likewise observes that faith and belief are not equivalent, stating that ‘Faith is the condition of ultimate confidence that we have the capacity to follow the path of doubt to its end.’ 37 Whereas Dreyfus belongs to a group of contemporary Buddhist scholars that, in John Makransky’s word, attempt to ‘clarify the truth and value of their tradition from a critical perspective located within it,’ Batchelor’s main concern is to dissuade Western Buddhists from becoming so subjectively involved in a particular tradition that their critical faculty is stifled and ‘a situation is created in which what was primarily a response to an existential concern becomes in danger of collapsing into a mere means of escape from one’s dilemma.’ 38

According to these two authors, apparently, Western converts’ reasoning ought to be focussed on retrieving and securing critical perspectives that the entanglements and trappings of the Tibetan traditions tend to hide from view. On their view, faith above all amounts to a form of empowerment, an authorization to follow reason wherever it leads. Now, whatever its merit, it seems clear to me that such a view makes it all but impossible for converts to ever truly answer Tibetan calls to fealty-like unquestioning allegiance. Why is this so?


For Geluk monastics, faith in the power of reasoning is bound by the existential need for a prolonged sense of closure: ‘To be compelling, soteriological practices must be presented within a narrative embodying values central to the tradition. Such narratives in turn require larger cosmological frameworks, in which they can unfold. Buddhist practices presuppose a narrative of spiritual liberation and the cosmological framework within which such liberation is possible, (….). They make the sacrifices required to maintain a commitment to practice appear to be worthwhile. Some practices are supposed to have immediate effects, but by themselves those effects could not support the kind of intensive commitment required. Most people do not live by quick fixes; instead, they decide on long-term goals and the means to reach them. Hence, they need narratives to direct them and persuade them that they are on the right track. They also need to sense closure in the narrative, to find a point toward which their efforts are aimed and that make sense of those efforts.’ 39

Therefore, Dreyfus says, for the most part the study of and reflection on the constitutive texts of the Geluk tradition is not experiential. Whereas the study of Madhyamaka can be a preparation to meditation, most of the other topics—’particularly the presentation of the path, the curricular area to which the greatest amount of attention is devoted’—are not. These studies, Dreyfus says, are meant to instill faith in the validity of the Buddhist tradition, strengthening students’ religious commitment. Together they help constitute and elaborate a ‘universe of meaning’ in which ‘Buddhist narratives and the practices that they inspire makes sense.’ It is faith in this sense, that occupies a vital role in the development of wisdom and compassion, two virtues that are central to Buddhism. Students are habituated to this meaningful universe and the path that transcends it, Dreyfus says, to a point of ‘concreteness’ where it appears as if there are ‘self-evident (ldog ldog) paths existing out there.’’ 40

’Yet that ‘concreteness’ is itself a reification’ Dreyfus continues, for ‘the map provided by the Ornament literature does not refer to anything that exists independent of textuality. Rather, these mental constructs acquire, through text and teaching, the solidity necessary to inspire and sustain people in their actions.’41 By making such narratives appear self-evident, reason may have been eclipsed by orthodoxy. But it was not subordinated.

Existential Concerns

Surely, the worldview and existential concerns of monastics and laypeople, those who were born into Tibetan Buddhism and those who converted, Tibetans and Westerners, differ. I believe that it is precisely their existential predicament as converts—sharing neither the ‘larger cosmological frameworks’ that Tibetans are brought up on, nor the ‘ideological context’ that the rhetoric of inter- or intra-sectarian strife designates—that inhibits Westerners to ever truly answer the call to orthodoxy the way a Tibetan monastic would. Their conversion to Geluk scholasticism is partial by default—whether they realize it or not.

Through the ages, Tibetan scholastics of all denominations have elevated the mastery of ambiguity into an art form, juggling incompatible views into a seemingly coherent whole in the rarefied air of Tibetan philosophical discourse. For Western followers, more often than not, such arguments are not what they seem. Therefore, they are not to be taken at face value at all.

I wonder then, what notion of faith Lati Rinpoche had in mind, when he closed his own previous, balanced discussion of doubt with the following categorical dismissal: ‘Doubting consciousnesses are among the worst types of mind. If one is travelling along a road constantly wondering, “Is this the right road or not,” it is difficult to arrive at one’s destination. Similarly, if one is on a path of liberation and constantly wonders, “Is this a path of liberation or not?” “Will this help or not?”; “Can I attain liberation or not?’ it is difficult to make any progress in one’s meditation.’ 42

Does Lati Rinpoche’s reasoning run against Georges Dreyfus’ insistence that the validity of the Geluk tradition itself requires and bears further exploration, or Stephen Batchelor’s self-perpetuating suspension of judgement?

After all, Dreyfus wrote: ‘Unlike modern academic scholarship, scholastic investigation finds it difficult to seriously question its bases: its field of inquiry has boundaries.’ 43 Moreover, the dialectic repertoire of proficient Geluk scholars includes a certain philosophical self-effacement that amounts to an intellectual disappearance act, a pedagogy that many Western followers are hard-pressed to see through:

One could even say that many Western Buddhists seem particularly lacking in their abilities to reflect on and problematize the basic concepts of their newly adopted religion. Terms such as wisdom, path, and enlightenment are used as if their referents were perfectly self-evident. 44

So, are Lati Rinpoché’s words a genuine appeal to reasoning at all, or just another call to Geluk orthodoxy?

Holding The Clutch

Conflating the professed absence of doubt with the presence of certainty seems to be a category mistake many philosophically naive Westerners tend to make. It may well lead them to conclude that their own subjective doubt is a reprehensible lack of certainty. That is all the incentive some need to stubbornly embrace any Tibetan Geshe who knows how to hold out at least the promise of certainty deriving from rigorous rationality—something Western thinkers have long abandoned trying. 45

Worse, naive Westerners might persuade themselves that ‘to convert’ means that their Buddhist practice can’t begin in earnest unless they comply with Tibetan Lamas who are inadvertently ‘operating within the presumption of a shared perspective.’ Any reluctancy to do so, is presumed to be a fateful remnant of doubt—a spiritual ‘holding the clutch’—stalling one’s progress indefinitely. Failing to appreciate the pedagogical nature of the call to assume the ‘awesome responsibility’ of partaking in the Geluk lineage, auto-suggestive overcommitment lets them crash headfirst into a hardly known Tibetan cultural universe, as if they were novices entering a monastery or convent, severing all ties to the past.

Seen in this light, others’ overt lack of compliance is easily regarded as an immature act of defiance, masking the inability to truly commit. Peer pressure, whether objectively applied or subjectively perceived, tends to ostracize ‘dissenters,’ which makes an uninhibited, questioning attitude hard to sustain.

Speaking From Experience

By now, the reader shall probably infer that I am speaking from experience. Once, during the question and answer session right after a teaching, I asked the resident Tibetan Geshe to elucidate a certain philosophical point. As his answer was translated back to me, I realized that he had not understood my question at all: There was an apparent mismatch between my original query and the Geshe’s answer. Assuming that something had been lost in translation, I tried to rephrase my question. At this point, the Dutch interpreter intervened, stating that I had received a clear answer—effectively telling me to shut up. Although I was fuming, I kept my frustration to myself, even when a senior student afterwards told me to ‘meditate more’ so that the answer would ‘spontaneously become clear.’

I went to see the Geshe with a native interpreter, though, to discuss what had happened. I told him that I considered leaving the course—which would last for another week or so—because I was afraid that my continued presence as a senior student who asked ‘improper’ questions would inhibit novices to pose questions themselves. Although the nature of the confusion eluded him, the Geshe had in fact noticed the incident. He urged me to stay and pose any question I wanted. Although I did stay, my peers’ deafening silence on the entire episode led me into self-censorship: I disengaged intellectually, as it were, and finished the course as a noncommittal auditor.

In retrospect, I believe that the Dutch interpreter was simply incapable of translating my question. Now, it may in fact have been untranslatable. But instead of noticing this as a pertinent fact, he dismissed my line of questioning altogether. Defensively monopolizing discourse, he barred me from engaging the Geshe’s teaching on my own terms, thereby establishing a canon of ‘proper’ questions. In this particular case, the Tibetan Geshe’s inability to speak a Western language completely isolated him from my philosophical confusion.

Monopolizing Discourse

I saw a similar tendency to monopolize philosophical discourse between Tibetan teachers and foreign students in Alexander Berzin’s proposal to prospective teachers and translators that ‘Although when translating teachings it is necessary that the translator not edit or change what the Geshe or Lama has said, it is a different situation when translating the foreigners’ questions. In general, most foreigners do not know how to ask questions clearly. They have not studied debate. They speak on and on in a vague manner. If what they asked were to be translated word for word into Tibetan, it would be mostly unintelligible. Tsenshab Serkong Rinpoche always told me to translate for him only the essence of the questions, not each word. Then in translating his answer, he would tell me to answer and explain in English what he had said in a way in which the person would understand, in accordance with the way they had asked. This is another reason why it is so important to learn the way foreigners think and ask questions.’ 46

Berzin’s A Portrait of Tsenzhab Serkong Rinpoche illustrates this further: ‘Once a Western Buddhist organization sponsored a discourse that I translated for His Holiness [the Dalai Lama, RH.] in Dharamsala. His Holiness had offered to answer written questions. After each session, Rinpoche asked me to read him the questions submitted for the next day and decisively rejected any stupid or trivial ones. Often, Rinpoche had me rephrase or reformulate the questions so that they would be more profound. They should not waste His Holiness’s time or the opportunity for many people to benefit from the answer. Several times, His Holiness remarked at how excellent and deep the questions were. I learned to follow this editing process myself whenever I traveled with His Holiness.’ 47

I am tempted to ask whether Berzin ever took the trouble to explain to Western students just how unintelligible, stupid or trivial their questions were before he so skillfully edited them. Clearly, Berzin believes that to be able to ask ‘proper’ questions one has to think like a Geluk scholastic first. Seen in this light, the Dalai Lama’s praise hardly seems something to gloat about. However, I suspect that other Western simultaneous interpreters are equally tempted to philosophically transpose questions and answers twice without telling—or worse, knowing. This would explain why both teachers and students so seldom bear witness to grave cognitive dissonance or philosophical aporia. Unfortunately, the absence of such testimonies does not signify the presence of mutual understanding at all.

To me, the whole point of these anecdotes is this: The Tibetan Buddhist institute where I was studying had no mechanisms in place to mediate between my peers’ manifest unwillingness to address such issues and my personal inability to ignore them. In effect, there was no way that the Geshe—or any other Tibetan teacher, no matter how sympathetic—could prevent or pursue cascades of misunderstandings. Despite all appearances to the contrary, I found it increasingly hard to see how a prolonged, meaningful dialogue with the Geshe could ever be sustained in such a setting. In the end, this assessment was one of the reasons why I quit being a student, lacking the time and inclination to remain as a ‘noncommittal auditor.’

Intellectual Challenges

In the face of the daunting cultural and intellectual differences, the ‘stage façade’ of a shared perspective is highly unlikely to hold to a point of maturity. For instance: José Cabezón has noted how traditional Tibetan scholarship is ‘chirographically handicapped’ by a culturally induced ethos in which ‘the writing of new scholarly work is perceived not only superfluous (What necessity is there for further written clarification after that already given by the great scholars of the tradition?) but also presumptuous (How can a modern surpass those great of bygone ages?)’ 48

This intellectual ethos, whatever its relative worth might be, is increasingly challenged by the rapidly evolving and expanding modern scholarship that authors scores of works in English elucidating Geluk doctrines that evidently confirm to the highest scholastic standards. These are critical, constructive studies, written by academically trained Western (and occasionally Tibetan) scholar-practitioners speaking from within the Geluk tradition. Most classical Tibetan scholars cannot even read them, never mind rationally dismiss as being superfluous or presumptuous.
John Makransky points out that:

The contemporary need of Buddhist tradition for critical reflection is as great as that of Western culture. The two needs are, of course, connected. Buddhist traditions want to communicate themselves in ways accessible to new worlds of interest. But to do this requires not only a knowledge of new languages in which to translate the old ways, but a critical perspective upon the old ways that understands how much of them has been the product of socio-cultural and historical forces that are inapplicable to new socio-cultural settings. Lacking such critical understanding, religious traditions such as Buddhism do unintended harm to persons and to their own reputations in new settings, then repeatedly misdiagnose the sources of harm.’ 49

Makrakansky too cites the case of Dorje Shukden, noting that ‘If it were not so harmful to persons and traditions, this would surely be one of the funniest examples of the cross-cultural confusion that lack of critical reflection continues to create.’ 50

‘Great Irony’

It is only to be expected, of course, that Geluk orthodoxy would deny that its tradition is in actual need of scholarly, critical reflection—or, worse, revision—arguing that the omniscient ‘masters of old’ have foreseen and taken into account all contingencies of history, so that really there’s no need for adaptation. Anticipating such denial, Makransky wryly marks the ‘great irony’ that ‘Buddhist traditions that take pride in their knowledge of all kinds of human conditioning that cause suffering (Second Noble Truth) still lack the critical tools to diagnose the effects of cultural conditioning upon their own previous understanding and current communication, and how that conditioning now contributes to confusion and suffering.’ 51

In the face of challenges such as these, to meet students’ increasing access to expert, heterodox readings on Geluk doctrine with unreasonable demands of unquestioning allegiance by otherwise eminently rational teachers may well lead to conflicts of loyalty. In due course, I think, such approaches will only culminate in immature, fragile bonds between students and teachers. 52 Why? Because the privileging of an arbitrary Tibetan constellation of ineffable experiences, transcendent truths, and uncontestable subjective commitments, reduces Western students to complete irrelevance as authoritative Buddhist interlocutors in their own right. In effect, such a view discredits any source of legitimation other than itself.

In recent years, much has been made of the lure of Shangri-la and the dark side of Tibet. Riding the wave of an upsurge of popular interest and public funding in the West, the academic study of Tibetan Buddhism has evolved greatly. However, many contemporary converts to Geluk scholasticism remain completely unaware of exciting developments within the maturing field of Tibetan Buddhist studies. I believe that Geluks’ orthodox appeal to past masters’ omniscience cannot hold the constructive reflections of modern scholars at bay for ever. Even freethinking Tibetans recognize that modern, critical scholarship is a worthy interlocutor in its own right. After all, who’s to say whether moderns’ perspectives on Tibetan Buddhism are inspired or not?

  1. See also: Said Rob Hogendoorn in 2006….
  2. Geshe Lhundub Sopa, & Jeffrey Hopkins. (1989). Cutting Through Appearances: Practice and Theory of Tibetan Buddhism. Ithaca: Snow Lion Publications. p. 149.
  3. For a traditional description of the Geshe degree by a FPMT teacher, see Geshe Thubten Wangchen. (2007). What is a Geshe? Mandala, 17-18. Retrieved October 20, 2020.
  4. After the original plan for a pilgrimage to Tibet fell through, a group of dedicated practitioners once briefly contemplated accompanying a Tibetan teacher for a retreat to be held in at the remote Lawudo cave, somewhere in Nepal. To save traveling time, they would not trek to that area by foot but let themselves be dropped by helicopter.
  5. Gyatso, Tenzin (the fourteenth Dalai Lama). (2005). The Essence of the Heart Sutra: The Dalai Lama’s Heart of Wisdom Teachings. Somerville: Wisdom Publications. p. 14.
  6. Dreyfus, Georges. (2003). The Sound of Two Hands Clapping: The Education of a Tibetan Buddhist Monk. New York: University of California Press. p. 296.
  7. One notable exception I am aware of is Williams, Paul. (2002). The Unexpected Way: On Converting from Buddhism to Catholicism. Edinburg: T. & T. Clark Publishers.
  8. ibid. pp. 179-180.
  9. Kapstein, Matthew. (2000). The Tibetan Assimilation of Buddhism: Conversion, Contestation and Memory. Oxford: Oxford University Press. p. 240
  10. ibid. 119.
  11. Dreyfus, Georges. (1996). Recognizing Reality: Dharmakirti’s Philosophy and Its Tibetan Interpretations. New York: State University of New York Press. p. 40.
  12. ibid. 39.
  13. ibid. 40. In recent years, in an interesting reversal of means, Geluk partisans have sought to question the Dalai Lama’s stance in a religious standoff via political debates by proxy, accusing him before Amnesty International of human rights abuses against worshippers of the protector deity Dorje Shukden.
  14. Dreyfus, Georges. (2003). The Sound of Two Hands Clapping: The Education of a Tibetan Buddhist Monk. New York: University of California Press. p. 295.
  15. ibid. 297.
  16. ibid. 304.
  17. ibid. 304.
  18. Dreyfus, Georges (1996). Recognizing Reality: Dharmakirti’s Philosophy and Its Tibetan Interpretations. New York: State University of New York Press. pp. 16-17, 464.
  19. ibid. 464.
  20. ibid. 4, 5.
  21. ibid. p. 5.
  22. ibid. 4.
  23. Hopkins, Jeffrey. (2002). Reflections on Reality: The Three Natures and Non-Natures in the Mind-Only School: Dynamic Responses to Dzong-ka-ba’s The Essence of Eloquence, Volume 2. Berkeley: University of California Press. p. 5.
  24. ibid. 5.
  25. ibid. 12.
  26. Dreyfus, Georges. (2003). The Sound of Two Hands Clapping: The Education of a Tibetan Buddhist Monk. New York: University of California Press. p. 305.
  27. One frequently used, authoritative presentation of such typologies by Lati Rinpoché (b. 1922 d. 2010), a former abbot of Ganden Shartse monastery, begins by explaining that the synonyms ‘consciousness’ (jnana, Wyl. shes pa), ‘awareness’ (buddhi, Wyl. blo) and ‘knower’ (samvedana, Wyl. rig pa) are the broadest terms available for dealing with the mind. Here, ‘mind’ is conceived to be ‘individual moments of knowing, the continuum of which makes up our sense of knowing.’ (MTB, 15) Noting that consciousnesses can be divided in a number of different ways, Lati Rinpoche gives the following sevenfold division, in order of preference: 1. direct perceivers; 2. inferential cognizers; 3. subsequent cognizers; 4. correctly assuming consciousnesses; 5. awarenesses to which the object appears but is not ascertained; 6. doubting consciousnesses; 7. wrong consciousnesses. Among these consciousnesses, only type 1, 2, and 3 do in fact ‘realize’ or ‘get at’ their object, so that they are incontrovertible. Because all other types of consciousness lack incontrovertibility (or the ‘factor of certainty’), they are considered to be unreliable forms of knowledge, for ‘one will easily lose the force of one’s conviction, as, for example, when confronted by someone strongly presenting an opposite viewpoint.’ See Lati Rinbochay, (1986). Mind in Tibetan Buddhism: Oral Commentary on Ge-Shay Jam-Bel-Sam-Pel’s Presentation of Awareness and Knowledge Composite of All the Important Points. Ithaca: Snow Lion Publications. pp. 15, 23.
  28. This twofold division into ‘mind’ and ‘mental factors’ describes the various functions of consciousness. It posits mind (chitta, Wyl. sems) as synonymous with main mind (Wyl. gtso sems), or ‘that which knows the mere entity of the object being apprehended,’ and a list of fifty-one accompanying mental factors ‘which apprehend various features of that object, affecting the manner in which the mind apprehends its object and so forth.’ ibid. 35. Mental factors, in turn, are divided into 1. omnipresent; 2. determining; 3. virtuous; 4. root afflictions; 5. secondary afflictions; 6. changeable factors. As a mental factor, doubt is listed among the root afflictions, along with desire, anger, pride, ignorance, and afflicted view. ibid, pp. 35-38
  29. ibid. 107.
  30. ibid. 24. See also Dar-ma-rich-chen, & Ruth Sonam. (1994). The yogic deeds of Bodhisattvas: Gyel-tsap on Āryadeva’s Four Hundred. Ithaca: Snow Lion Publications. p. 188
  31. ibid. p. 188
  32. Rinbochay, Lati (1986). Mind in Tibetan Buddhism: Oral Commentary on Ge-Shay Jam-Bel-Sam-Pel’s Presentation of Awareness and Knowledge Composite of All the Important Points. Ithaca: Snow Lion Publications. p. 26.
  33. Geshe Rabten. (1992). The Mind and its Functions (Stephen Batchelor, Trans.). Le Mont-Pèlerin: Editions Rabten Choeling. p. 81.
  34. ibid. 81.
  35. Dreyfus, G. B. J. (2003). The Sound of Two Hands Clapping: The Education of a Tibetan Buddhist Monk. New York: University of California Press. p. 279.
  36. ibid. p. 279.
  37. Batchelor, Stephen. (1990). The Faith to Doubt: Glimpses of Buddhist Uncertainty. Berkeley: Parallax Press. p. 17.
  38. Jackson, Roger & John Makransky. (2003). Buddhist Theology: Critical Reflections by Contemporary Buddhist Scholars. London: Routledge Curzon. p. 14; Batchelor, Stephen. (1990). The Faith to Doubt: Glimpses of Buddhist Uncertainty. Berkeley: Parallax Press. p. 19.
  39. Dreyfus, Georges. (2003). The Sound of Two Hands Clapping: The Education of a Tibetan Buddhist Monk. New York: University of California Press. p. 179.
  40. Here, I bring into play a saying by the Dalai Lama that Georges Dreyfus repeatedly heard him express. He notes that many teachers and students are well aware that there are ‘in the Dalai Lama’s own words, “no self-evident (ltog ltog) paths existing out there.”‘ ibid.  p. 180.
  41. ibid.  p. 180. 
  42. Rinbochay, Lati (1986). Mind in Tibetan Buddhism: Oral Commentary on Ge-Shay Jam-Bel-Sam-Pel’s Presentation of Awareness and Knowledge Composite of All the Important Points. Ithaca: Snow Lion Publications. p. 109.
  43. Dreyfus, Georges. (2003). The Sound of Two Hands Clapping: The Education of a Tibetan Buddhist Monk. New York: University of California Press. p. 280.
  44. ibid. 281.
  45. Jeannine Chandler wrote, quoting Georges Dreyfus: ‘Many Tibetan teachers view Westerners as “nice kids” but not fully mature or trustworthy. According to Dreyfus, the cultural gap between Tibetans and Westerners, as well as the nature of the organization of Tibetan Buddhism in the West, places Tibetans at the top of the hierarchy.’ Chandler, Jeannine. (2015). Invoking the Dharma Protector: Western Involvement in the Dorje Shugden Controversy. In Scott Mitchell & Natalie E. F. Quli (Eds.), Buddhism Beyond Borders: New Perspectives on Buddhism in the United States (pp. 75-91). New York: SUNY Press. If truth be told, many Western converts give ample reason to be perceived this way.
  46. Berzin, Alexander. (1989). Advice for Tibetans before Teaching in the West. Retrieved October 11, 2020. See also: Said Rob Hogendoorn in 2006….
  47. Berzin, Alexander. (d.u.). A Portrait of Tsenzhab Serkong Rinpoche. Retrieved October 19, 2020.
  48. Newland, Guy. (Ed.). (2001). Changing Minds: Contributions to the Study of Buddhism and Tibet in Honor of Jeffrey Hopkins. Ithaca: Snow Lion Publications. p. 236.
  49. Jackson, Roger & John Makransky. (2003). Buddhist Theology: Critical Reflections by Contemporary Buddhist Scholars. London: Routledge Curzon. p. 17.
  50. ibid. 20.
  51. ibid. 18.
  52. ibid. 13.

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.