What If Traditional Lamas Simply Can’t Rise To The Occasion?

Written by Rob Hogendoorn

4 minutes

Numerous leading members within Tibetan Buddhist communities in the West are enslaved by their need to always defer to some traditional Tibetan Lama’s better judgement.

The trouble is: traditionally, Tibetan Lamas know very much about very little. Sometimes not even this is true—Sogyal Lakar and Sakyong Mipham come to mind. At any rate, in many theoretical and practical matters traditional Lamas’ judgment falls short of the working knowledge that their Western followers acquired in secondary school or higher education.

Meanwhile, Western devotees’ compulsive submissiveness is one of the main reasons why so many Tibetan Buddhist organisations turn themselves into fiefdoms. The way to change this is not to cater to the Lamas’ every whim—spoiling them, as are Tibetan exiles wont of saying—but to raise the bar for their performance by standing up to them.

Something’s got to give, because the past few decades have demonstrated that Westerners aping the ‘Tibetan way’ of doing things cause far too much damage. To put slavish devotees off their stride by directly challenging their reactionary compulsions is a very good place to start. But it’s by no means the only thing that needs to be done.

The complex dynamic that triggered the slow demise of the once omnipresent, all-powerful Roman-Catholic church is at play in Tibetan Buddhist communities as well. Attendance and revenues are dropping; operational management is faltering; independent investigations and oversight by government agencies, tax offices, et cetera are gearing up; criminal investigations are in progress.

Meanwhile (former) members speak out in public and petition Tibetan leaders online. Investigative journalists report abuses with total abandon. Self-critical discourse by (former) Tibetan Buddhists on social media and blogs reveals patterns of fundamentalism, sectarianism, superstition, and blind devotion in real time.

Tibetan Buddhist organizations still lean heavily on convert Buddhists in their seventies, eighties, and nineties who act as their financiers and volunteers. But they too are subject to old age, sickness, and death. Before long they’ll be gone, and far fewer numbers of younger women and men of substance have the leisure or even the interest to act as their successors.

Look around: Tibetan Buddhist communities are greying. While the Dalai Lama expects to live to over 113 years—which I hope but don’t think he will—Tibetan Buddhism is losing its appeal and Tibetan exiles are losing public support in the West and in Asia.

The International Commission of Jurists estimated that there were 2,770,000 Tibetans in Tibet in 1953, while the most conservative estimate reckons that there were some 3,000 tulkus then. Do the math: supposedly, more than one in every 900 Tibetans was a tulku.

In exile, ever so briefly, a moratorium precluded the recognition of new tulkus. Soon enough, however, the moratorium was broken and a ‘tulku boom’ began, which was boosted by the nascent Western interest in Tibetan Buddhism. Being a tulku—or posing as one—became a very profitable revenue model.

Estimates vary, but if there are 500 tulkus living among 130,000 Tibetans in exile, these days one in every 260 exiled Tibetans is a tulku. It’s just very unlikely that all of them are spiritually gifted, never mind (somewhat) enlightened.

Even so, sincere Tibetan Buddhist converts in the West continue to believe that they of all people are capable of recognizing the enlightened ‘special beings’ among them; that these ‘holy beings’ deserve their unconditional, unquestioning devotion; and that their ‘holy acts’ are inscrutable to all but other ‘holy beings.’

They’re quite alone in that, actually.

Following a demographic analysis of Peter Harvey, let’s assume that there are 18 million adherents of Vajrayana Buddhism who all believe this practice is possible and desirable. That’s 3,6 percent of Pew Forum’s estimate of the total number of 488 million Buddhists. Statistically speaking, then, Tibetan Buddhist converts have every right to feel unique in holding these types of beliefs.

And yet, the patterns of abuse within their communities are highly similar to those among other ethnic, religious, cultural, professional communities. In fact, although the terminologies and metaphysics vary, the abuse of power—of which sexual, physical, and financial abuse are special cases—and the excuses and justifications to explain such abuses away, are highly similar across multiform societies and cultures.

We know this, because most of us are citizens living in secular democracies governed by the rule of law. Over time, religious believers in our societies, whether they liked it or not, became fully accountable to non-believers. Our citizenship empowers us to see religiously inspired abuse precisely for what it is: common abuse hidden by a guise of holiness.

The free press, the judiciary, the government, the tax office, politicians, opinion leaders, educationalists and health care professionals: none of them grant moral and legal exemptions to abusers and enablers who argue that their religion made them do it.

This is the legacy of the European Enlightenment. Credulous Western devotees of those ‘holy beings’ would do well to remind themselves of it.

Under such conditions, moral leadership in the face of sexual abuse is called for. Indeed: now that Westerners’ yearning for Shangri-la is fading and the rampant abuse by abusive Buddhist teachers cannot be denied, a public display of moral leadership may be the only symbolic capital traditional Tibetan Lamas have left.

After all, what’s Tibetan Buddhism’s true worth, when those Lamas can’t be expected to rise to the occasion? If they’re incapable of ideologically disarming and publicly shunning the common abusers who hold their communities hostage with toxic interpretations of Buddhist doctrine?

These abusive Lamas tempted successive generations of Western Buddhists into slavish, undiscriminating submission, while they internalized their warped teachings on ‘guru devotion,’ ‘crazy wisdom,’ and casual sex as a ‘path to enlightenment.’

What credibility remains if traditional Lamas are seen to be simply unable of providing such leadership? If they are seen to be ducking and diving among the remaining Western true believers because their own cultural and social conditioning compel them to?

To this day, inveterate apologists seem hell-bent on arguing that Tibetan Lamas are culturally and socially bound to self-censor, no matter what—even while they know other Lamas’ view of doctrinal matters to be dead wrong and damaging to victims, survivors, Buddhists communities, as well as the image of Tibetan Buddhism as a whole.

Evidently, these apologists see no problem in the selfsame Lamas’ public endorsements of abusive Lamas—even while recognising in private that their interpretation of doctrinal matters is patently false.

On apologists’ view, that’s just the way it is.

They fail to appreciate that such endorsements are especially dangerous when coming from Lamas who are unable or unwilling to retract or correct them in public. Why should anyone believe any Tibetan Lama declaring anything about any other Tibetan Lama at all if they can never admit to the public that they were wrong—as in, not ever?

To me, a plea to leave traditional Tibetan Lamas alone because they just can’t help themselves, projects an image of moral impotence and cultural malaise that only serves to illustrate that the rampant abuse is structural, not incidental—a feature, not a bug.

Not even the Roman-Catholic church’s attitude is that myopic.

[Slight edits and links 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.