Dalai Lama Turns Spotlight on Fallibility of Buddhist Teachers in Public Address
A recent public address by His Holiness the Dalai Lama contained a firmly worded note of caution for Dharma students against ignoring the personal failings of lamas and Buddhist teachers. The Dalai Lama urged students not to be afraid to publicize misconduct or ethical lapses by their gurus, nor to indiscriminately accept teachings without subjecting them to critical analysis.
Speaking on 1 August at his inaugural address for a seminar on “Buddhism in Ladakh” at the Central Institute of Buddhist Studies in Leh, in the northern Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir, His Holiness gave a far-reaching speech on the relevance of Buddhism in the modern world, giving voice to many of his most deeply held concerns and commitments for the future of Buddhism.
His address also acknowledged recent public criticism from students of the controversial conduct of the renowned Nyingma teacher Sogyal Rinpoche. “Recently, Sogyal Rinpoche, my very good friend, has been disgraced,” the Dalai Lama noted. “Some of his own students have now made public their criticisms.” He underscored that misconduct or unethical behavior by a teacher could have serious consequences for Buddhist institutions as a whole, reaching far beyond repercussions for the individual concerned.
On 14 July, a detailed letter signed by eight senior and former members of Rigpa, an international network of Buddhist centers founded by Sogyal Rinpoche, was circulated among members of the organization and subsequently became public. Addressed directly to Sogyal Rinpoche, the letter describes in distressing detail various abuses allegedly committed by the Rigpa founder accompanied by calls for major change within the community.* In a written response to the allegations,** Sogyal Rinpoche has declared that he plans to “follow [the students’] advice and enter into retreat as soon as possible”—later confirmed in an official press release from Rigpa.***
The Dalai Lama recalled similar examples of alleged misconduct by Buddhist teachers, urging students that the best course of action in such cases is to expose ethical lapses to public scrutiny. “Many years ago in Dharamsala . . . at a conference, some Western Buddhist teachers, some Zen masters, and some Tibetan Buddhist masters created a very bad impression among the people,” His Holiness related. “Then I told them, these people don’t follow Buddha’s advice, Buddha’s teachings; we cannot do this. The only thing [to do] is make it public! Through newspapers, through radio, make it public. These lamas, although they don’t care about the Buddha’s teachings, they may care about their face. I told them at that conference, almost 15 years ago.”
The Dalai Lama emphasized that no Buddhist no teacher should be considered above reproach. “You should not say: ‘oh, this is my guru, whatever guru says, I must follow.’ That’s totally wrong!” he exclaimed. “The Buddha himself mentioned ‘my teachings, you must examine.’ Similarly, if a particular lama says something, you examine whether this goes well according to the Buddha’s teachings, or according to the circumstances in society, then you [can] follow. If the lama says something and you investigate [and find] that it’s not proper, then you should not follow the lama’s teaching—even the Dalai Lama’s teaching. If you find some contradiction, you should not follow.”
His Holiness observed: “I respect all religious traditions, because they all are of benefit to humanity—Christianity, Judaism, Islam, the various strands of Hinduism, Jainism, Sikhism, and so forth. However, only the Buddha advised his followers in this way:
O monks and scholars,
As gold is tested by burning, cutting and rubbing,
Examine my words thoroughly
And accept them only then—not just out of respect for me.
(The Office of His Holiness the Dalai Lama)
Inauguration of Seminar on ‘Buddhism in Ladakh’ (The Office of His Holiness the Dalai Lama)
Inauguration of Seminar on ‘Buddhism in Ladakh’ (Video, The Office of His Holiness the Dalai Lama)
Dalai Lama denounces ethical misconduct by Buddhist teachers (Lion’s Roar)
Ethics in the Teacher-Student Relationship: The Responsibilities of Teachers and Students (Interview with HH the 14th Dalai Lama, Tenzin Gyatso)
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