‘The Living Gods and the Hidden Curriculum’ (1993)

Written by Rob Hogendoorn

7 minutes

In 1993, Peter Bishop published Dreams of Power: Tibetan Buddhism and the Western Imagination. In the preface, Bishop introduces his work as follows:

“This book is the result of over fifteen years of involvement with Tibetan Buddhism, as a student, as an instructor, as an organizer and also in a more detached, sociological or psychoanalytic role as a participant-observer. I believe the work reflects this inside/outsider position. It also reflects my involvement with archetypal psychology which has spanned precisely the same period of time.

The disquiet that I felt in the late 1970s about the way Tibetan Buddhism had become established in the West, not just in the new communities with the problematic relationship between Gurus and students, but also in the basic daily engagement between individuals and teachings, has since been confirmed by numerous other people. There seemed to be a complete lack of critical reflection on the immensely complex cross-cultural problems associated with the transfer of a system of wisdom/knowledge from one culture to another. At one extreme this resulted in an unquestioning and naïve adulation, whilst at the other end was an arrogant picking and choosing of the bits that could prove useful. Both attitudes, I believe, sprang from the same source—a kind of cultural imperialism, with all its associations of power and guilt.” (p. 9)

In Chapter Six, ‘The New Monasticism,’ Bishop discusses the ‘partial transportation’ of Tibetan Buddhism to the West, and the establishment of quasi-monastic centres there:

“At the heart of this spiritual system are the reincarnated high lamas, the Rinpoches. The Tibetan Rinpoche is presented as being beyond critique. The ordinary Western devotee does not presume to criticize, only to struggle to understand. Whilst such an attitude is common in a Guru-student relationship, Tibetan Buddhism goes one step further. As the Western Buddhist-traveller Pallis was told many years ago in Tibet, even if the lama has glaring personal faults these are ‘not supposed to impair the authority of his teaching for the disciple, or to diminish the latter’s obedience and devotion to the Master’ (Pallis, 1946, p. 274) The Master-pupil relationship in this spiritual tradition is considered to be something which transcends the actual personalities concerned. Respect must always be shown to the system of spiritual continuity. The position, and not necessarily the person, commands obedience and devotion. Tibetan Buddhism has also evolved safeguards to prevent the erosion of such system-worship. Even if the lama is glaringly deficient in monastic purity, as was for example the Sixth Dalai Lama with his erotic love poetry and regular visits to Lhasa’s brothels, such behaviour must not be taken at face value. The adept is told that such actions ‘may be planned to try your faith, or from some other motive judged in reference to standards far removed from yours or mine’. (Pallis, 1946, p. 321, Marin, 1979). Finally, it is emphasized that to criticize a lama, or the teachings, lineage and system is a grave fault. Indeed in old Tibet is was also a great sin and a crime.

Such an unquestioningly worshipful attitude towards the lama is actively encouraged in Western groups. For example, the Tibetans brought with them in exile the ritualistic and ceremonial language of the feudal court. Words such as ‘bounteous’, ‘precious’, ‘sublime’, ‘exhalted’, ‘profound’, ‘joyous’, etc. abound in texts and commentaries, and are often adopted by Westerners in a style of exaggerated piety and formal respect. Western travellers, in the past, often commented upon this florid language of Tibetan court life. Its use is ceremonial and it strictly delineates the boundaries between two imaginative worlds. This court language complements the rich monastic costumes and extensive rituals, to set apart a well-defined aristocratic fantasy from the confusions and coarseness of daily life. The language of the court is indirect, predictable, flattering, hierarchical and ornate. Everything is designed to create an imaginative gulf between the lamas and everyone else. They are considered to be fully-realized beings, the Masters who stand on the farthest shore. They are Absolute Truth. For example, any suggestion that Tibetan Rinpoches might lack worldly experience in the West (in sexual relations, careers, political action, ecological problems etc.) and can therefore only give the most general advice on these matters is invariably greeted with a reply such as: ‘but he is enlightened and an enlightened being has full omniscience’. The following conversations are typical of many that I have heard at teachings by Tibetan lamas:

NEWCOMER: He [the lama] didn’t really say anything.
REGULAR: NO,it’s us that have to listen in another way.
NEWCOMER: But he just repeated the same thing.
REGULAR: That’s because we have so many blocks he is trying to
get through.

Or another:

REGULAR: Did you enjoy the teaching?
NEWCOMER: Not particularly.
REGULAR: You came with expectations. When these don’t work out as you expect then you get angry or disappointed.

Paradoxically, such a belief-system is espoused side by side with the injunction not to believe anything one is told but to test it out; to base one’s knowledge on experience and not on faith. (Pallis, 1946, p. 274) Time and again in books or in lectures it is said that Buddhism is true because it is based on empirical experience. Indeed, this is one of the foundations of Buddhism. Nevertheless it is an ideal and not a commonplace practice. Within the communities of Westerners practising Tibetan Buddhism, the whole structure proclaims a particular truth prior to any investigation. In addition, many of the basic techniques are pseudo-scientific. Frequently they are not rational exercises at all but enactments between the individual and deep cultural fantasies (Butler, 1991).

When the lama says or does something which blatantly does not fit into this well-prepared scenario, one will invariably be told that he is testing one’s faith (Pallis, 1946, p. 321) There is a kind of Orwellian double-think in all of this. One is told that one’s faith is being tested, yet in the same breath assured that Buddhism does not rely on faith, that Buddhism has value because it is grounded on empirical and verifiable aspects of consciousness and experience. Yet, the instructions and actions of the lama must be believed because they refer to planes of reality beyond our comprehension, etc. etc. …

Despite explicit injunctions by high lamas, even the Dalai Lama, to not just accept their word but to test out the teachings through experience, implicitly the teachings are in the form of a closed system. The individual is left to find the missing answers which are known by the master. Of course, in theory the situation should not be like this. Also, it could be argued that this is a mistake which is made by many individuals in the early stages of practice. However, this study is not primarily concerned either with what should happen, nor with a small élite, but with what does happen among the wider community of those interested in Tibetan Buddhism. The Tibetan system itself must take some responsibility for this mistake, and for the attitude of uncritical belief. For example, it uses metaphors of spiritual hygiene which encourage dependence (e.g. ‘if you are sick you go to the physician and get a prescription, so why not do so on the spiritual level’). Also, the claim of omniscience, inherent by definition in any reincarnated lama, plus the densely codified iconographic and ritualistic displays create a myth of infallibility and omnipotence. At best they produce a form of benign paternalism.

In other words, such things are not mistaken views of the spiritual path, but are inherent in the dialogue between the Tibetan Buddhist system and the West. Psychological understanding of the relationship between student and teacher is obscured. The power of both reason and the imagination is diluted or, in the most extreme cases, paralysed. Jung wrote about this situation, with a measured irony: ‘The disciple is unworthy: modestly he sits at the Master’s feet and guards against having ideas of his own … [and] can at least bask in the sun of a semi-divine being. … ‘ (Jung, Collected Works 7, para 263).

From one perspective, the teacher and the entire system of Tibetan Buddhism are themselves a grand technique. They are all part of the play of the imagination. But what kind of imaginative statement is being expressed by Tibetan Buddhism as a system, as an inner network of omniscient high lamas who are believed to be the direct incarnation of divinity itself? This system is populated in its most strategic places, not by mere representatives of the enlightened mind but by its actual personifications: demi-gods in human form. Whatever this system thinks, imagines, says, does, asks or orders is believed to be absolutely correct.

Quite clearly, for many Western Tibetan Buddhists, we are living in the foothills of the cosmic mountain-Olympus, or Meru. We are in the direct presence of a community of gods and their closest attendants. The Dalai Lama is Chenrezig (the Bodhisattva of Compassion), the Panchen Lama is Amitabha and so on. Here in our midst is a living pantheon, a truly archetypal realm. It would be as if the Pope were believed to be Christ and the ecclesiastical hierarchy were believed to be the disciples reincarnated. Of course, this face of awesome power was seldom fully mobilized and Tibetan Buddhism has other faces besides this one of spiritual totalitarianism. One can only feel relief that such a script was seldom enacted in full and that many of the key players seemed as bewildered and confused by it all as anybody else. But this awe-inspiring drama resonates through every detail of ritual, every nuance of etiquette, every philosophical categorization, every iconographic systematization, every ontological pronouncement.

In the West, the difficult struggle over the place of the teacher—Guru, Lama, Rinpoche—is pivotal to the acceptance of Eastern spiritual ideas. (Trungpa, 1976) In an attempt to meet the challenge of the Guru, other images have been pressed into service—guide, doctor, shaman. But the most common move is into psychology and into envisaging the Guru as therapist. (Coukoulis, 1976). We must pay particular attention to these metaphors and to their place in the social fantasy of the contemporary industrial world. There is a history behind these most recent attempts to imagine the Eastern teacher and to assign him or her a place in the imaginative landscape of the West. For example, nineteenth-century Europeans consistently referred to Tibetan Buddhism as ‘Lamaism’. This was a derogatory label used to underline its departure and decline from so-called pure Buddhism and also to emphasize the totalitarian power of its elite. As was seen in Chap- ter Two, to imagine the lamas in such a way revealed as much about the hopes and fears of these travellers as about the nature of the lamas. The contemporary use of ‘doctor’ or ‘therapist’ is no less revealing. On an imaginative level these metaphors are rich. but when taken literally they are insidious. Certainly it is somewhat naïve to insist, as is often done, that the West’s reluctance to unquestioningly embrace the fantasy of the omniscient teacher merely reveals its psychological and spiritual immaturity. Literalizing the lama’s power can create a figure of omniscience which seems to transcend both imagination and critical reflection. The imagination becomes paralysed in the direct presence of a god.” (pp. 102-106, links added)

Bishop - The New Monasticism (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.