‘Towards a Western Buddhism’ (1993)

Written by Rob Hogendoorn

2 minutes

In 1993, Dharmachari Kulananda of the Friends of the Western Buddhist Order reported in its magazine Golden Drum on the meeting of Western Buddhist teachers with the Dalai Lama in Dharamsala, March 1993.

Curiously, just like Lama Surya Das, Kulananda’s version presents the Dalai Lama as a signatory of the Open Letter that he helped write at the end of the meeting. Kulananda thereby corroborates that it was the original plan to include the Dalai Lama’s signature.

Stephen Batchelor later wrote and said that the drafted letter was sent to the Dalai Lama’s Office to be reviewed. After much delay, it was returned with one single edit: his signature had been removed.

Kulananda writes about this meeting:

“It soon became clear that we were meeting against a backdrop of what many present saw to be a time of crisis in Western Buddhism. This seemed to be most acutely felt by the North American teachers, where several Dharma groups have recently been rocked by scandals involving, variously, sexual misconduct, alcoholism, misappropriation of funds, and the misuse of power.

The middle four days were given to meetings with His Holiness. Over the course of these each teacher had the opportunity at least once to make a ten or twenty minute presentation of an issue to His Holiness, who then had the chance to respond as he saw fit. This led to some vigorous and startling interactions. Bodhin Kjolhede Sensei, Roshi Kapleau’s successor at the Rochester Zen Center in New York State, spoke of the crisis in American Zen circles, focusing on the issues of alcoholism and sexual misconduct amongst teachers, some of whom claim that if one has “Buddha-Mind” then anything goes. His Holiness questioned the qualifications of such teachers. He insisted that charisma was not indicative of spiritual attainment and asserted that anyone who claimed that their insight took them beyond the practice of the ethical precepts had probably misunderstood the Dharma. This led on to a discussion of the same issues as they effect the Tibetan Buddhist community in the West and the suggestion that perhaps His Holiness might join in with some Zen teachers to issue ajoint statement on the subject. “But” His Holiness lamented “my relations with the Pope are closer than with Zen or Theravada….”

His Holiness thcn tried to get to grips with the notion of “crazy wisdom” which he thought a little bizarre. It is an idea used in some Western “Tantric” circles to suggest a level of behaviour so deeply founded in Wisdom and Compassion as to be beyond all apparently conventional restraint.

His Holiness made the point that in the Tantric rites which involve sexual acts, faeces, urine, semen, flesh, and alcohol are all experienced as amrita—sacred nectar. And people who claimed to use sex in this way would very likely be unwilling to take faeces or urine into their mouths. Amid some hilarity Prof. Robert Thurman from Columbia University proposed the ‘taste test’ to sort the true “crazy wisdom” masters from the merely lecherous.

‘How many people do you know who can really perform these Tantric rituals these days?’ asked Ain-la Tenzin Palmo, a British bhikshuni. His Holiness reply was succinct—’Zero.’

But there is the problem which sonic present felt quite deeply: they and others have strong Tantric bonds of allegiance with sonic of these teachers—what should they do? Again His Holiness was to the point: ‘Pack your bags….'” (pp. 18-20)

Kulananda - Towards a Western Buddhism-A Conference with His Holiness the Dalai Lama (Golden Drum (30) Augustus - October 1993 pp. 18-21)

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.