‘The Dharamsala Conference’ (1993)

Written by Rob Hogendoorn

12 minutes

Bodhin Kjolhede’s report in a “special supplement” of Zen Bow provides additional detail on the meeting between Western Buddhist teachers and the fourteenth Dalai Lama in March 1993. Two years previously, Kjolhede had previously published ‘A Call for Enlightened Standards.’ His “special supplement” included some photographs as well as the open letter that the Dalai Lama helped draft during the meeting—but refused to sign.

Kjolhede writes about the roster of attending teachers:

“Most were in the Vajrayana tradition, and a fair number of them had practiced together for various periods in their careers. Many had lived in Dharamsala for periods ranging from months to decades, and had practiced under the Dalai Lama and/or other rinpoches and lamas.”

About the discussions that focused on sexual abuse, Kjolhede writes:

“Several of our presentations addressed the grave problem of ethical misconduct on the part of Buddhist teachers. Many of us, including the Dalai Lama, have grown increasingly alarmed in recent years at the abuse of alcohol, sex, power, and money by roshis, senseis, lamas, rinpoches, and tulkus as well as some teachers in the Vipassana and other Theravadan traditions. These are weaknesses that have bedeviled religious leaders throughout world history, but all too many Buddhist teachers are now trying to justify such behavior as ‘skillful means,’ or a form of ‘compassion.’ The term sometimes used is ‘crazy wisdom,’ or the liberated functioning of enlightened masters unconstrained by conventional morality. When the Dalai Lama first heard ‘crazy wisdom’ mentioned that day, he whirled to his interpreter in confusion, provoking a burst of laughter from us.

Generally, his understanding of English appeared to be very good, and only occasionally did he turn to his interpreter for clarification. His spoken English was much more limited, and he often spoke through the young, Cambridge-educated Tibetan monk Thubten Jimpa.

The DalaiLama’s exchange with his interpreter over the meaning of ‘crazy wisdom’ left him puzzled. He giggled in a couple of short bursts, cocked his head from side to side in the Indian style that he has assimilated in his thirty-four years living there, and mused, ‘Crazy wisdom … very strange idea….,’ adding a final chuckle.

In my first presentation I sketched out the wanton behavior of Zen teachers that has affected some centers in the West. I then described unsuccessful attempts by our second generation teachers’ group to unseat and rehabilitate a teacher who, through a history of sexual involvements with his students, has left a small population of women hurt, openly angry, and with their faith in Buddhism shaken. I also mentioned that this Zen teacher, in justifying his right to ignore the Buddhist precept on not engaging in improper sexuality, had cited as his model Chogyam Trungpa, who, despite his undeniable contributions to Western Buddhism, had openly had sex with many of his students for years. Although I did not mention Trungpa by name, the DalaiLama asked whether it was he to whom I was referring, obviously well aware of this controversial rinpoche.

Referring to the Zen teachers, he asked what attainments they might have. Unsure myself, yet giving them the benefit of the doubt, I replied that some of them had probably had a degree of spiritual insight. I then suggested, only by way of explaining the considerable popularity enjoyed by some of them, that they probably had some charisma. ‘Charisma is not spiritual attainment,’ he growled, misinterpreting my remark but making an important point.

He then offered unequivocal advice that seemed to come from years of painful reflection on this problem: ‘Publish their names!’ He then added, ‘You can write me a confidential letter. I will shout, I’m ready.If other teachers will listen I don’t know. But if countermeasures are too gentle, it won’t work.’ This was reassuring to those of us who knew of his exemplary commitment to the Sixth Precept, ‘I resolve not to speak of the faults of others, but to be understanding and sympathetic.’ Obviously he believes that the potential harm done to unsuspecting students outweighs any literal compliance with the Sixth Precept, and furthermore that it is our responsibility, when in possession of irrefutable evidence of a pattern of ethical misconduct, to publicly warn prospective students.

Later in the week this issue returned in a discussion of misconduct by certain lamas. Someone asked whether in criticizing one’s teacher one wouldn’t be showing disloyalty toward him, and the Dalai Lama elaborated: As very few lamas have realized ‘crazy wisdom,’ you can criticize bad behavior of a lama. If he is your teacher, you can praise him privately and respect him, but publicly you can speak up and state his faults. The aim is to purify Dharma, and the interest of. Buddha-dharma is much bigger than the interest of one lama. Through stating his faults you can save many disciples. This is the proper way. You can go to the lama and tell him, ‘I did criticize you publicly, I apologize.’ If he then gets angry with you, it’s another indication of his faults.

The Dalai Lama then proceeded to muddy the waters by saying that in ancient times there were a few cases of great lamas who engaged in sex with their disciples (or otherwise violated the precepts), but only to help them spiritually. For such acts to be truly selfless and compassionate, he declared, deep realization was required and complete freedom from attachment to sensual pleasure. Quoting a Buddhist text, he insisted that such detachment from the body was possible only in one who could, with indifference, ‘drink his own urine or eat his own stool.’ (One of the participants, a longtime student of the Dalai Lama, then cried out that this could become ‘the taste test’ for modern day teachers—a crack that drew gales of laughter from everyone—including the Dalai Lama.)

No matter how exceptional such teachers were, even in ancient times, pointing to them provided a loophole that modern teachers could use to exploit their students sexually. Recognizing this, someone asked how rare was the occurrence of such Bodhisattvas. ‘Very, very rare,’ the Dalai Lama warned. ‘How many are there today?’ someone pressed. ‘Zero … almost zero…,’ he said softly. He then elaborated on the ‘almost’: ‘I personally know of two hermits, living in these mountains, who may have such depth of enlightenment. They live according to the monastic precepts. They are high, high up,’ he said, speaking metaphorically, and then added ‘Me, I am only here,’ and then meekly pawed the air with his hands, in a sort of dog paddle, to mime a lowly climber struggling for every inch of ascent. This drew more laughter, but it showed the inspiring humility that is the mark of any great person.

If these hermits were two of the very few human beings deeply enlightened enough to have legitimately transcended the precepts, the implications were staring us in the face: as hermits, their having chosen to lead the simplest and arguably purest of all lives suggests that once attaining to the highest, one would no longer want to violate the precepts.

One of the participants, an American Zen teacher and a Dharma-heir of a Japanese roshi, asked the Dalai Lama how his Japanese teacher—a ‘deeply realized’ man, he suggested—could have spent the past twenty years seducing his female students. The Dalai Lama hastened to disabuse the questioner of his false assumption, quietly but firmly pointing out that a teacher with such a pattern of compulsive sexual exploitation could not be ‘deeply realized.’ Genuine realization, he went on, meant the realization of sunyata, or emptiness: that nothing has any substantial existence apart from any other thing. All things, that is, all beings, are interdependent. Such an understanding, he reminded us, would be accompanied by purification of mind and the elimination of greed, anger, and delusion. A deeply realized person, then, would lead a life of pure conduct, in accordance with the precepts.

Referring to married Buddhist priests, the Dalai Lama wondered aloud, ‘Why don’t they let their hair grow?They’re not monks. ‘This is not to suggest that lay priests shouldn’t adopt visible signs that distinguish them as ordained; clerics of every religion adhere to such customs. But perhaps the future will find more married priests willing to forego the traditional signs of celibate monkhood. In so doing they would avoid charges by Vinaya monks of misrepresenting themselves, and at the same time demonstrate a full acceptance of their life as lay priests.

Probably the most moving moment of the conference occurred during the presentation on monasticism by our two Vajrayana nuns. First an English nun in her fifties spoke of the growing sense of isolation and abandonment she has felt in her twenty years since taking bhikshuni [i.e., nuns] ordination. If there was disappointment, even bitterness, in her words, it was understandable, given what she described as the problems of monks and nuns living in the West. Most debilitating over the long run, it seemed, has been the complete lack of support from society as a whole, from the lay Sangha, and even from lay Buddhist teachers. Even worse, she continued, was that what used to be just a painful indifference toward monks and nuns by Western Buddhists has in recent years degenerated to a crippling disrespect for them. This would be understandable enough coming from worldly people outside the Sangha, she allowed, but now even the lay Sangha has gone from defense to offense. It has become common, apparently, to hear monks and nuns disparaged as misfits, or people unable to form intimate relationships, or those who shrink from the challenges of the ‘real’ world and seek to escape it via a regressive and anachronistic path. All of this would be less trying, she pointed out, if one lived in the fellowship of a monastic community, but such Sanghas are virtually non-existent in the West—and hardly more so, she implied, in Asian countries where Vajrayana Buddhism remains viable.

Her indictment lasted about fifteen minutes. Throughout it she spoke patiently, deliberately, and with deep feeling that was barely controlled by a character forged through decades of selfdenial (including twelve years living alone in a cave). It was obviously a relief for her finally to spill her frustration to this great elder, her most widely respected brother-monk in the world. The Dalai Lama listened raptly, impassively, revealing none of the grief that was soon to emerge. Instead he just murmured sympathetically and turned to the next presenter.

The second Vajrayana bhikshuni was an American of some eighteen years practice, now teaching in Seattle. She picked up where her sister had left off, cataloguing more trials that Western nuns must endure, including a lack of monastic preparation and teacher training, and the humiliation of having seen the indiscriminate ordination of emotionally disturbed men who as monks then brought dishonor on the monastic order. She, too, spoke from the heart, with a mixture of aching vulnerability and tender forbearance that can only arise from deep faith. It was too much for the DalaiLama, who may still have been absorbing the pain of the first nun’s presentation. He took off his glasses. She paused. A brief, choked laugh issued from him, and he said, ‘It makes me …tears. …’ Then he placed his face down in his palm and wept.

What else could he have done? Rage against the injustice of a world in which those who take the highest spiritual vows are neglected, at best, and often shown contempt? Demand respect for this calling which only rare individuals can understand enough to respect? Among Tibetan Buddhists, each Dalai Lama is seen as a reincarnation of Chenrezig, or Avalokita, Kannon, the Bodhisattva of Compassion. Whether this is understood literally or not, in the room in which we were gathered at that moment Kannon appeared and her heart opened in all of us.

After his tears were spent the Dalai Lama laughed, composed himself, and agreed that what can be done, at least, is improve on the selection and preparation of bhikshus and bhikshunis. He then turned to the next presenter, an American monk (from Buffalo) and another twenty-year Vajrayaner who addressed a feature of the Vinaya that has caused embarrassment, and now growing dismay, to many Western Buddhists: the inequality between monks and nuns. In particular, he decried the institutionalized ranking of all nuns beneath all monks, as shown in seating arrangements, specified by the Vinaya, in which a nun of, say, thirty years would be seated behind a monk of one day. The Dalai Lama’s response was immediate: ‘You are right. Even I find it embarrassing when I come to this section of the ordination text. This should be changed.’

To grasp the revolutionary significance of this moment, one must know how profoundly the Dalai Lama venerates the Vinaya as a moral code. At another point in the conference he had gently chided one of the Vajrayana monks for not having his right arm bared, as prescribed by the Vinaya, even though the room was cold enough to cause many of us to wear three layers of clothing. The Dalai Lama makes no apologies for his orthodox tendencies. Indeed, Buddhist lineage holders and abbots of every religion tend to be conservative.

If this dialogue in fact turns out to have been a turning point in the status of Buddhist nuns, it may be regarded as the proverbial half-filled cup. Seen as half-empty, we can ask why the Dalai Lama had not sought to purge the Vinaya of this sexist rule earlier. To be sure, he has worked hard on behalf of Buddhist nuns in recent years, especially by introducing new study programs for them in India. He must have known of the traditional seating order. Was it just unreflective orthodoxy? Cultural conditioning? Regarding the cup as half-full, however, we can admire the alacrity with which he called for change, revealing as it did his inspiring lack of defensiveness toward a system in which he is thoroughly imbedded. In any case, he hastened to add, ‘I cannot change the Vinaya on my own, you understand. But I will organize a conference of elder bhikshus and bhikshunis to make the change.’

‘When?’ pressed one of our group.

‘Within six months,’ he replied without hesitation.

In a discussion of sexism earlier, an outspoken and assertive German woman teacher had boldly opened her presentation as follows: ‘Your Holiness, I would like to lead you in a visualization exercise. Imagine that you go to a Buddhist center. You notice that all the people in positions of authority are women. The principal figure on the altar is female, and surrounded by female deities—except for their consorts. Elsewhere in the center, too, the images are all female. Browsing through texts in the library, you can’t help but notice that all the ancient masters are women, and all the accounts of great spiritual experiences are those of women.’ She went on in this manner, speaking earnestly, untilfinally resting hercase. The Dalai Lama replied flatly: ‘The main thing for women is to make sure they have equal opportunities, and if they don’t, obstacles must be removed.’ The woman made another comment (unprovocative, as I remember it), only to have the interpreter make an extraordinary departure from his role. Speaking his own mind before the Dalai Lama had a chance, he said something to the effect that women, too, must be sure to keep their own egos in check. Perhaps at a future time we will find new ways to respond to calls for equality.

As the conference progressed, what seemed to be a secondary, unspoken agenda slowly came to light. Part of this agenda, from what I could piece together inferentially, involved politics in the Vajrayana sect based on East-West and other communication problems. Apparently there were Western teachers who felt that the Dalai Lama needed to be better informed of what was happening in Vajrayana communities. Like all powerful people in positions of high authority, he is no doubt somewhat insulated by his Tibetan advisors and government officials.

This conference, organized by an American Vajrayana teacher who persuaded the Dalai Lama to serve as its Spiritual Advisor, was a way for Western teachers to speak to the Dalai Lama directly and frankly. Obviously the Dalai Lama had not been fully aware of the morale and other problems of the Western monastic Sangha, nor of the blatant sexism that has troubled so many Western practitioners. Neither did he seem to know about some Tibetan lamas and rinpoches who have succumbed to sexual and other misconduct. In fact, the Dalai Lama had inadvertently endorsed one of them, in effect, by appearing with him last year in a large public ceremony in the United States. Having then accepted an invitation to another such event with him this year, he needed to be informed of the character of the lama. When he came to sense the hesitation of the participants to speak openly in our daily sessions, he urged us not to hold back, and even to speak with him privately if necessary. I never learned of the denouement of this sub-plot to the conference.

My Vajrayana colleagues suggested, convincingly, that the Dalai Lama’s presence may have been indispensable to the success of this pan Buddhist meeting. Few if any other Buddhists alive could bring together teachers from not only the different Vajrayana lineages, but the Zen and Theravadan as well. He is worshipped by millions of Tibetans, and commands the respect of Buddhists and non-Buddhists the world over for his non-sectarian, meta-religious teaching of universal responsibility, love, compassion, and kindness. But far more important—and rare—he embodies these qualities, demonstrating each day, as he has for years, the great strength of compassion rooted in wisdom. Like Kannon herself, he hears the cries of the world and reaches out tirelessly to help and serve.”

Kjolhede - Zen Bow Special Supplement - The Dharamsala Conference (1993)

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.