On March 16-19, 1993, a meeting organized by Lama Surya Das, an American Lama, was held in Dharmsala, India, between His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama and a group of twenty-two Western Dharma teachers from the major Buddhist traditions. These Westerners were the first generation of authorized European and North American Buddhist meditation teachers, and all had practiced for at least a dozen years each in the schools of Japanese and Korean Zen; the four major Tibetan schools; Thai and Sri Lankan Theravada; and the Friends of the Western Buddhist Order, an entirely Western school based in Great Britain. These were laypeople, monks and nuns, psychologists, scholars, essayists, translators; some had meditated in caves, while others had Western doctorates. Most were actively teaching Buddhist meditation, not only in the West, but in Asia, Russia, and countries such as South Africa and Brazil. The aim of the meeting was to discuss openly a wide range of issues concerning the transmission of the Buddhadharma to Western lands.
The following report on this meeting was taken from Jack Kornfield’s talk at Spirit Rock Center in Woodacre, California, after his return from the Dharmsala meeting.
—Kate Lila Wheeler
In the last great teachings of the Buddha before he died, he spoke about how important it is for those who follow the path of the dharma to gather together regularly; that they gather in harmony, meet in concord and disperse in concord; that they honor the great traditions of the elders; that they speak truthfully with one another; and that they preserve the practices of awakening and encourage one another to live with peace and harmony in the world. I felt that the meetings with the Dalai Lama were held in exactly that spirit.
We gathered in Dharmsala, a little town in the far north of India, perched on the wall of the Himalayan mountains. It is the site of the Tibetan government in exile, and the meetings were held in the Dalai Lama’s residence. The Western teachers sat in a circle facing the Dalai Lama, who was flanked by six other respected Tibetan lamas. He would come in, smile, and go around and shake everybody’s hand. When the Dalai Lama shakes your hand he looks at you to make sure that you’re really there, and then the handshake lingers for a minute. He gives it that extra couple of seconds to make sure that you really make contact with him.
At the opening of our meeting, Stephen Batchelor, who is a vipassana and Zen teacher and a historian, gave a wonderful lecture on the 2,500 year old dialogue between the Buddha and the West, starting with the Greek teacher Menander, who apparently had some knowledge of the Buddha’s teaching. There are also certain sutras where the Buddha mentions the Greeks. So even at the time of the Buddha, the East and West were talking to each other.
From the beginning of the gatherings, the Dalai Lama emphasized that what truly matters is the spirit of compassion, and that which benefits beings in every form, in every realm on this earth. He spoke to us as fellow dharma teachers. He said, “Don’t think about how I can spread Buddhism. It doesn’t matter if there is even one or two more Buddhists. The only thing that matters is the well-being of each person and the well-being of the earth that we live on. This is what matters. The rest is really secondary.”
So we began to talk about our concerns. One of the first discussions we had was about who is a genuine teacher, the transmission from teacher to student, the authorization of teachers. “Strictly speaking,” the Dalai Lama said, “no one can create a teacher, no one can authorize a teacher. Only the students of a teacher can do it. If a teacher brings benefit to the hearts of those students, brings awakening to the lives of those students, then you can say, ‘Yes, that is a true teacher.’”
The Dalai Lama paused for a minute. Then he continued, “You should remember that nirvana has a beautiful scent like flowers, a wonderful flavor. You can tell when you are around people who are connected with nirvana, you can tell when you are in a place where there’s that fragrance of peace, that fragrance of well-being, that fragrance of liberation. So you should look for that, smell that, listen for that.”
The Dalai Lama told us, “You must go back and caution these Western students not to take teachers so quickly. They should spy on their teachers for many years. You must be convinced that a teacher is authentically awakened in some way that will be of benefit in your life. Only then follow them.”
Someone asked the Dalai Lama about the problems left behind by some famous Zen masters or great lamas who will bop into a town, give initiations and vows that students take for the rest of their life, and then two days later the teacher goes off to teach in another city, leaving the students with no support.
The Dalai Lama thought about it and said, “I must talk to the Tibetan teachers. Definitely you should not give practices and initiations unless you are sure that students are fully prepared, and that they understand and can use the practices in their life. This is not something to bring crowds, or something to play with.” Suddenly the Dalai Lama became quiet for a minute, and then he looked up sheepishly and said, “You know, of course, I am doing this with the Kalachakra initiation too. But maybe this is different.”
The Dalai Lama was referring to the fact that he is one of the few people in the world who is empowered to give this wonderful teaching on the Kalachakra, the wheel of time, and on the awakening from the illusion of the whole cycle of birth and death. He continued, “You see, sometimes I think that maybe if I just go and teach about ethics, no one will come. So I say the Dalai Lama is doing the Kalachakra initiation, giving these great teachings, and then many thousands of people come. Then I teach them about kindness. Actually I’m not so concerned about the Kalachakra initiation. I use these occasions as a vehicle to teach universal compassion. I think that is okay.”
Our discussion with the Dalai Lama shifted to the role of the dharma teacher, and how isolating it can be, and how one needs time to rest. Someone said that as a teacher it was important to be “off duty” sometimes. The Dalai Lama was puzzled by this expression and asked, “What does this mean, ‘off duty’?” We tried to explain what we meant, and finally he figured it out. “Oh,” he said, “Off duty.” He sat silently for a few minutes and looked at us Western teachers, his gaze traveling around the room. Finally he said, “Bodhisattva off duty? Buddha off duty? Very strange concept!” After our laughter died down, the Dalai Lama continued, “You might not be teaching all the time, but your responsibility is to your practice. Every place you are must be your practice, no exceptions.”
We talked about what to do when we have a conflict with our own teachers. For example, what if someone finds that their teacher is doing something unethical, and yet they have taken these great vows which bind their spirit to that teacher? For people who have that experience it can be a great agony, because they love their teachers and yet have discovered these terrible things were going on.
The Dalai Lama told us, “You know, it was the same for me. When I was younger, in Tibet, I had two regents who were supposed to care for Tibet until I came of age. These regents, who were also my teachers, were power hungry and began to fight among themselves. They even got the Tibetan army involved, and it was terrible for our country. At one point I even had to call in the Chinese army, which was a very terrible thing, because the consequence of that was further loss of Tibetan freedom. These are terrible things. I had to publicly denounce my own regents and teachers to all of Tibet and say, ‘This is wrong, this is not following the dharma.’ You must always let people know when things are wrong. Put it in the newspapers if you must do so. Tell people there is no price that is worth paying to cover up that which is wrong. We must let people know.”
Talking about corruption in high places inevitably led to the subject of sexual misconduct. Someone brought up the practice of tantra, which teaches the marriage of masculine and feminine energies, and makes use of a symbolic wedding and sexual union. These tantric practices are depicted in paintings of men and women joined together, and there are stories of teachers who engage their students in such exercises. The Dalai Lama was asked about these stories, and if there was such a practice.
His Holiness replied that there were stories about gurus such as the great Tibetan teacher Tilopa who had sex with various students who were subsequently enlightened. Then he said that he didn’t know how to do this practice. He said, “People have asked me to do this practice with them, but I’m a monk so it is never appropriate. Truthfully, you can only do such practice if there is no sexual desire whatsoever. The kind of realization that is required is like this: If someone gives you a goblet of wine and a glass of urine, or a plate of wonderful food and a plate of excrement, you must be in such a state that you can eat and drink from all four and it makes no difference to you what they are. Then maybe you can do this practice.”
Then somebody in the back of the room said, “If we want to make sure someone is ready to do this practice, at least we now have a taste test.” After the laughter died down, someone else asked, “How many lamas or teachers can do this?” The Dalai Lama replied, “Very few.” Then one of the women sitting in the circle said, “Well, who?” And he thought for a while and then he looked up and said, “Zero. Nobody that I can think of.”
The Dalai Lama is very interested in Western psychology, and one day our discussion focused on the relationship between psychotherapy and meditation, on the wounded student and the wounded teacher, and the fact that so many Westerners come to practice with a history of physical or sexual abuse, or family trauma and grief. The Dalai Lama was amazed to hear about this situation, even though he has been told many times how much self-judgment and self-hatred there is among people in the West. There were a series of wonderful presentations about dharma psychology, one by Edie Irwin, a woman who works with Akong Rinpoche in Scotland, helping develop a five-year dharma/therapy program. These five years include a conscious review of your personal history, and three years of work with the emotional and physical body, all as part of the preparation for deep meditation. Many of us spoke to the Dalai Lama about some of the best tools of modern therapy, from Reichian breathwork to Jungian sand play. His questions about psychology were simple: is it of benefit to students; does it help their practice; is it in accord with the dharma. He noted that in Tibet, in the big monasteries, not only did they have great meditation teachers, but also counselors. These were people who were there to attend to the needs of students in the most personal ways. He suggested that perhaps we need counselors in our centers as well as meditation teachers.
As we talked about dharma in the West, we considered how to avoid the sectarianism which is common in Burma, Thailand, Tibet and Japan, where teachers and subgroups often fight with one another and judge one another. The Dalai Lama said we must work hard not to have this repeated in the West in this next generation.
I was able to present Spirit Rock as a kind of model where we regularly invite teachers from other traditions to come and share their practices. I told them about our code of ethics and our teacher training system, how our board works on consensus, and the Interracial Buddhist Council where we are beginning to address issues of racism. The group was very interested in how Spirit Rock works, partly because many of the other dharma centers in the West were started by Japanese roshis or Tibetan lamas, with all the cultural trappings of those Asian traditions. The vipassana community is unique in that its centers have mostly been started by Westerners who organized them in a straightforward, American way. In that sense, we are really a model of what American Buddhism and Western practice might begin to look like.
One of the most interesting discussions we had with the Dalai Lama concerned the issue of women in Buddhism, and particularly how women have or have not fit into the patriarchal structure of Buddhism in Asian cultures. One of the women at the meeting was Sylvia Wetzel, who is both a vipassana teacher and a Tibetan teacher in Germany. She began by addressing the Tibetans: “Your Holiness, rinpoches, lamas, I would like to teach you a new meditation, a visualization that you have not practiced before.” All the Tibetans suddenly perked up. Then she said,
“I would like you to begin to meditate and imagine that you enter this hall, a wonderful room with a big golden Buddha at one end, and when you look closely, you see this big golden Buddha is a female Buddha, a Tara. Then you look around and all the great paintings—there are dozens of beautiful paintings on the walls—they are all paintings of women bodhisattvas, all female. And they are choosing to be female because it is the most beautiful and best way to express the teachings of enlightenment in the world. Then you look in front of you, and there sitting in the center is the 14th Dakini Dalai Lama, who has always come back as a woman because it is the deepest expression of compassion to incarnate in the world in a female form. Next to her is the 16th Dakini Karmapa and all of the other great women teachers of the lineage. And then they begin to teach the great sutras where the Buddha says this and she says that, and of course, when we use the word she we mean to include you men as well in that word. We welcome you. There’s a place for you in the back. You can sit with us but do not speak too much. In our great monasteries we teach about the benefit of being born in a female body and how, yes, it’s possible to be enlightened in a male body, although it has some difficulties, but we will assist you the best we can. If you want to, you can visit our monasteries. We have some little cottages on the side for you, if you don’t mind helping with the cooking and cleaning.”
You should have seen the faces of the Tibetans as she gave them this visualization! They may never have been presented with this issue in such a powerful and imaginative manner.
Sylvia was followed by Ani Tenzin Palmo, a Western Tibetan nun with thirty years of practice. She spent six years in a monastery in Ladakh, then twelve years in a cave in Lahaul Valley on the border of Tibet. She is a quiet woman and I didn’t think she was going to say very much. She approached the Dalai Lama and said, “Your Holiness, I would like to speak about what happens to women as nuns. The Buddha invited the sons and daughters of good families to go forth, to take ordination, as you have, Your Holiness, and to live a life of simplicity, kindness and contentment, totally devoted to truth and compassion. And it is these people, the monks and nuns, for over 2,500 years, who have gone off to become a shining example for the world. Their joy demonstrates that one can live independent of materialism, of grasping, of all the things that entangle and bring so much pain to this earth. The Buddha asks the monks and nuns to go forth and be this kind of example.”
She spoke so eloquently that I was ready to be a monk again by the time she wad finished her introduction. Then she said, “Now, let me tell you, Your Holiness, how it actually is for us as nuns. We ordain out of this great faith and wonderful inspiration, and we’re given our robes, but then a few days later our teacher leaves. We’re not told how to wear our robes; we’re not given teachings on the vows that we’ve taken; we’re not given systematic teachings at all because the women have such a low rank in the monasteries. Often we’re not given places to stay; we have to fend for ourselves and find our own food. The great lamas are too busy teaching at big centers and traveling in the West, trying to spread the dharma, and nuns are the last of their priorities. Sometimes we’re sent to help as secretaries, or to cook, or to support others. I’ve seen so many women, Your Holiness, come and ordain with a desire to live the holy life, the sacred life that you offer, and they end up so incredibly disheartened and discouraged. They try to practice, as I did in a cave in India, with so little support that in the end they leave, and it’s not because of lack of sincerity, but because no one even knew that they were there doing it.”
The Dalai Lama loves monks’ and nuns’ life. This nun spoke in such an eloquent way, that by the time she was finished, the Dalai Lama put his head in his hands and began weeping. Everybody in the room cried. The Dalai Lama finally looked up at her and said, “Outrageous.” Then he went on, “I didn’t know it was that difficult. What can I do?”
His question was answered by Ani Thubten Chodron, a nun from Seattle who said, “Well, Your Holiness, we have a list. First of all, we would like there to be a slow selection process to guide who should actually be ordained, with Western nuns and monks as well as Tibetan lamas involved in the process. We would also like there to be a nunnery which is built to train and support women teachers.” The Dalai Lama said, “Done. We will do that.”
Then she said, “We would also like there to be a council to look at the inequities between men and women and to figure out ways to change these things, especially as Tibetan Buddhism comes to the West.”
The Dalai Lama told the women that he would call a council. They asked him when he would call it. He replied that he would do it soon. They asked him how soon. He finally said, “Okay, six months. I will do it in six months.”
A couple of Tibetan monks from Europe also spoke in a very candid way with the Dalai Lama. They told him they wanted a special teacher training for Tibetan lamas who are coming to the West, so that they can learn about the emotional and psychological problems of students they’ll encounter; the ethical issues that have beset teachers; and the ways they can support Western teachers and students. The Dalai Lama told the monks that he would set up such a training.
That particular morning meeting was fantastic. As the Western nuns and monks presented their concerns, the Dalai Lama listened and began dealing with them immediately.
At our gathering we also spoke about engaged Buddhism, which is very dear to the Dalai Lama’s heart. We discussed the issues of poverty, injustice, and the arms race. When someone brought up the issue of overpopulation, the Dalai Lama said that he practiced a very gentle form of birth control. Then he looked at another monk, Ajahn Amaro, from Amaravati in England, and asked, “You, monk, what do you think of birth control?” Ajahn Amaro replied, “I think it’s a very good idea, but actually I think we Buddhists also practice rebirth control.” The Dalai Lama thought that was one of the funniest things he had ever heard.
When we were talking about engaged Buddhism, the Dalai Lama said that he has a personal crusade to stop arms sales throughout the world. He said, “If people get angry and they have weapons, they can do horrible damage. If they’re angry and they don’t have weapons, maybe they hit each other with their fists, but that’s not so bad. We must speak out about this terrible spreading of weapons. We must make a change.”
The spirit of our meeting with the Dalai Lama was very empowering. At one point he suggested we might drop the titles. We don’t necessarily need to call ourselves lamas or roshis. He encouraged us to change the teachings to fit our own culture. He said, “Even I am not sure about some of our teachings about heaven and hell realms. So maybe the Dalai Lama is a heretic too, except that I am the Dalai Lama, and they cannot kick me out. But you must see what is true for yourself.” We must look at what is true for our culture. As Western teachers he supported us to make these changes even if some of our Asian teachers don’t understand.
Finally, together as a group we drafted a letter that spoke of the issues we had discussed. We went over this letter with the Dalai Lama, and it was wonderful to watch him listen to all the points of the letter, because his mind was so lucid and diplomatic. He would stop us and say, “Is that the best word? Maybe people will feel that is judging or condescending. It doesn’t honor them. Let’s change the language a little bit.” It was like being with Thomas Jefferson. He had the most exquisite lucidity of mind and brought great compassion to his selections of words.
At the close of the last meeting, we were all giving prayer shawls and scarfs to the Dalai Lama, and he was giving gifts and blessings back. Then he looked around and said to us, “You know when we began you were all so serious and so respectful, and you had so many problems. As the week went on I saw everyone smiling more and more. Today everyone is smiling and very happy. I think that means we had a very good meeting.”