Some Clues, Some Avenues

Written by Rob Hogendoorn

2 minutes

I’ve long held that the core-business of most traditional Tibetan Buddhist Lamas I’ve observed isn’t meditating, but talking. Also, I’ve long held that social, political, and legal philosophy are Tibetan Buddhism’s Achilles heel. This very cocktail seems toxic to me.

The sociology, ethnography, (social) anthropology, legal philosophy or political science that focus on Tibetan Buddhist societies and cultures do exist. As a rule though, elite Lamas—the Dalai Lama included—are ignorant about the trove of knowledge these disciplines produce.

As a consequence, high-caste Lamas are so unversed in the discourse about power and its abuses that they’re functionally illiterate. They wield power all the time, and may abuse it too. But they have no language of political discourse to problematise their concept of power.

And yet, traditional Lamas do hold forth on living and dying in the West, on Western mentalities, lifestyles, manners, sexuality, institutions, economies, forms of government, as if they knew everything there is to know about them. Often, their audiences are barely literate in these fields themselves.

Most observers tend to forget that many—not all—pioneers of Tibetan Buddhism in the West were college and university dropouts. As Stephen Batchelor said, these trailblazing ‘hippies’ were probably unsuited for the task at hand, but interface between Tibetan Buddhism and Western society and culture they did—undeterred by any specialist knowledge.

The uncritical or even a-critical stance of these trailblazers can only have given the past batches of elite Lamas who visited and taught in the West a warped sense of our intellectual history and accomplishments.

Traditional Lamas have often expressed how impressed they were by Westerners’ insatiable curiosity and astonishing intelligence— and by our incurable fickleness too.

But I seriously doubt whether these Lamas—the Dalai Lama included—really get the measure of the understanding of power and its abuses outside the Tibetan Buddhist virtual reality they inhabit.

To me it seems as if these Lamas look at the outside world through a keyhole and determine that it must be keyhole-shaped. It renders their incessant talk about us—our society and culture in particular—empty, shallow, trivial—pointless.

Prominent members of traditional Lamas’ often decades-long Western confidantes are usually too uneducated, too untrained, too submissive themselves to provide their masters an explanation of what it really means to live in a democracy under the rule of law.

Pale shimmers of this fateful lacuna in the Western reception of Tibetan Buddhism appear in most every abuse case I’ve seen so far. And I believe that the aging Western teachers and administrators who were responsible for the problem, are incapable of solving it.

If Western teachers’ 1993 meeting with the Dalai Lama demonstrates anything to me, it’s that they’re simply not up to par to control the power that went unchecked for decades. Non-Buddhists in the outside world—journalists, lawyers, the judiciaries, legislators, et cetera—will have to stage an intervention.

Mind you, this is a long-tweet, not a full-blown account or analysis. With these general observations and brief reflections I mean to give some clues about the past, suggest some avenues of research that might be fruitful. No more.

Originally posted as a long-Tweet on October 3, 2022 (slight edits and link added).

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.