The Rise of Confusion in the Student-Teacher Relation

Initial Contacts between Western Seekers and Tibetan Spiritual Teachers

Since the migration of the Kalmyk Mongols to the Volga region of European Russia in the early seventeenth century, the Tibetan form of Buddhism has been present in the West. Over the centuries, contact increased as Germans settled along the lower stretches of the Volga and czars recruited Kalmyk horsemen into the imperial army. Slowly, the Kalmyks' beliefs and Buddhist practices attracted the attention of Western spiritual seekers.

Language barriers and a lack of translated materials naturally led to an initial romanticization. For example, the nineteenth-century Russian mystic Madame Blavatsky, the founder of theosophy, popularized the image of mysterious spiritual adepts sending secret teachings telepathically from Himalayan caves to especially receptive persons in the West. This image fired the imagination of many sincere seekers and led to further inflation of Tibetan masters and the types of relationship possible with them. Tibet has long stood high at the pinnacle of the "mysterious East."

Fittingly, the first contact with Tibetan Buddhism in the United States came with another migration of Kalmyk Mongols. Displaced in Germany after the Second World War, a group of them settled in New Jersey in the early 1950s. In 1955, Geshe Wangyal, a great Kalmyk teacher, moved to America as their spiritual leader. Bursting the bubble of fantasy, he introduced many Americans, including me, to the more realistic face of Tibetan Buddhism.

With the exile in India in 1959 of His Holiness the Fourteenth Dalai Lama and about a hundred thousand of his followers, more opportunities opened for Westerners to meet authentic Tibetan Buddhist teachers. The earliest crew of foreign seekers consisted mostly of young spiritual adventurers who traveled to India and Nepal in the late 1960s sparked by romantic ideals. I too was part of that wave, though I came as a more sober Fulbright scholar rather than as a hippie on a magical mystery tour. With few competent translators and scarcely any reliable books available, much remained incomprehensible. Relatively easy access, however, to the older generation of masters, including the Dalai Lama, his tutors, and the heads of the four Tibetan traditions, more than made up for this limitation.

Deeply moved by our initial impressions, many of us began to build relationships with these spiritual teachers and started to learn and to practice Tibetan Buddhism. With no precedent available from our Western backgrounds, most of us modeled our relationships with these teachers after those between Tibetan disciples and their spiritual mentors. Some even adopted Tibetan dress. The promise of an alternative, Shangri-la culture spurred on our interest.

Most young Westerners of the sixties generation had little or no respect for their elders at home. Unable to understand the hardships our parents had faced with the Depression and the Second World War, we found the older generation materialistic and emotionally stiff. We sought openness and unconditional love. Our clumsy attempts at free love with each other had failed to remove our underlying tension and alienation. On the other hand, the natural warmth and acceptance we felt from the Tibetan masters was undeniable, even if the spiritual practices behind their attainments remained incomprehensible. The authenticity of these teachers' realizations spoke loudly to us. Here, at last, were persons worthy of respect – something we had desperately sought, though perhaps only unconsciously. With joy and enthusiasm, we freely prostrated at these masters' feet.

The Establishment of Dharma Centers and the Start of Confusion

The phenomenon of Western Dharma centers began in the mid-1970s as a natural outgrowth of enthusiasm and of several additional factors. The Chinese Cultural Revolution was raging in Tibet and the destruction of the monasteries that had begun in 1959 was nearly complete. The Tibetan refugees in India felt insecure. Many of them had witnessed firsthand India's border war with China in 1962 and its wars with Pakistan in 1965 and 1971. Unable to support the millions of Bangladeshi refugees they had initially accepted, the Indian authorities had sent them back. They might easily do the same with the Tibetans.

At the same time, the Tibetan refugees in Nepal watched with apprehension as the Chinese built a road with military capacity between Lhasa and Kathmandu. Two decades earlier, the Chinese had done the same between Western China and Lhasa. As tension grew, Sikkim became an Indian state in 1975, throwing the Tibetans settled there into great uncertainty. Feeling threatened from all sides, Bhutan soon took measures to foster cultural unity and national pride. Tibetan refugees living there began to feel unwelcome. Throughout the Himalayan regions, Tibetans looked for safer havens in case of emergency. The wish for a secure home is universal.

Several older Tibetan teachers had moved to the West at the end of the fifties and the beginning of the sixties. They had kept a low teaching profile, primarily associated with universities. A few younger high-ranking Tibetan monks had also come to the West in the late sixties and early seventies, mostly to receive modern education. Responding to the growing thirst for spiritual guidance, they began to teach Buddhism in the West by the mid-seventies, with some of them using nontraditional, adaptive methods. They soon invited their own teachers from India and Nepal to tour the West and to inspire their students.

Initially, the great Tibetan masters they invited mostly imparted tantric empowerments (initiations), performed with elaborate rituals. Tantra is an advanced form of meditation entailing visualization of multi-headed, multi-armed Buddha-figures (deities). Receiving empowerment is the entranceway to this practice. The primary motivation of the Tibetan masters in performing these rituals was to plant seeds of positive potential (merit) in the minds of those attending, so that these people would reap beneficial results in future lives. After all, the average Tibetan would attend such ceremonies with the aim of receiving these seeds. Most Westerners who went, however, had little if any thought of improving future lives. The majority came out of curiosity, or to fulfill their fantasies of the mystical East, or to find a miracle cure for their problems. With hardly any translation or explanation of the proceedings available, peoples' imaginations soared. The exotic splendor of the rituals enchanted many, and Tibetan Buddhism soon became the latest fad.

In response to the enthusiastic interest among Westerners and to the mounting insecurity felt in India and in the surrounding countries, many Tibetan teachers from both the older and younger generations thought to establish a base in the West. Nearly everyone who came founded his or her own center for study and meditation, usually referred to as a Dharma center – Dharma means Buddha's teachings. No such phenomenon had existed before in the history of Buddhism. Previously, teachers who traveled to lands that were new to Buddhism had established only monasteries, not meditation and study facilities for laypeople.

Some of the more dynamic teachers attracted groups in several cities and countries. To meet the growing demand, a few of them invited other instructors – known as geshes or lamas – from the Tibetan communities in the Himalayan countries to live and to teach at their various centers. Also coming from insecure backgrounds, many members of this second wave of teachers similarly wished to create stable situations for themselves in the West.

Most of these junior teachers would have remained unnoticed in Tibet or among their fellow compatriots in exile. Circumstances, however, thrust them in the West into positions of spiritual authority normally reserved for those of much higher attainment and then left them to manage on their own. The abbots and heads of the four Tibetan Buddhist traditions do not serve as supervisors for those under their care. Their primarily role is to preside over ceremonies and, if they are monastics, to ordain monks and nuns. Thus, isolated from their teachers and peers, and lacking any checks or balances, many junior teachers in their loneliness adopted modes of behavior familiar from pre-communist Tibet. They assumed the roles of benevolent lords of spiritual fiefdoms, to be supported and served with loyal devotion.

The Western students who returned from India and Nepal played the other side of these teachers' fantasies by mimicking the behavior they had seen Tibetan disciples show toward the highest masters there. Those without personal experience of Asia learned this mode of conduct by watching how their Tibetan teachers treated their own masters on tour in the West. Traditional teachings on so-called guru-devotion and the advanced practice of seeing the teacher as a Buddha, when only superficially explained and poorly understood, led to further confusion.

Further Forces Leading to Misunderstanding

Several additional forces played a role in shaping the relationships that grew between Western students and Tibetan teachers. Most Tibetan teachers came to the West with little, if any, previous information about the basic beliefs of Western culture and took for granted that Westerners share most, if not all Tibetan assumptions, such as the existence of rebirth without a beginning. Moreover, most of these teachers were unaware of the wide diversity of cultures and customs that they would find. To most Tibetans, all Westerners are Injis – the Tibetan term for the English – and share the same cultural background. The average Tibetan's picture of the diversity of Western countries is about as jumbled and vague as is that of most Westerners concerning the rich palette of Asian societies.

The few adventurous Westerners these teachers might have met in India or Nepal were certainly not representative of what they would find in the West. Nor did their experience with Indian or Nepalese culture prepare them for the encounter. They had to face not only teaching laypeople rather than exclusively monks, but also addressing a mixed audience of men and women rather than exclusively men. Moreover, Western women were assertive and demanded equal treatment with the men. For many Tibetan teachers, the cultural gap was more than they could handle. The widely held impression in India, gained from movies, that all Western women are open and eager for sex did not help matters.

In addition, many Tibetan teachers were the only persons from their land to live in a particular city or country. Alternatively, they were there with merely a lone attendant or translator with whom they could speak their mother tongue. When faced with the language barrier in India or Nepal, most Tibetans had learned the local vernacular. The ability to communicate was essential for shopping and for all other practical aspects of life. In the West, however, these teachers led a privileged existence, with students readily available to serve their daily needs. Consequently, many Tibetan teachers did not learn the language of the country they were in and thus they became rather isolated. They had little or no contact with the real lives of their students. Many retreated into an inner world and spent most of their time either reading or meditating.

Further, with the end of the Cultural Revolution and the Chinese relaxation of the Tibetan-Nepalese border, large numbers of Tibetans flooded to India in the 1980s. Deprived for more than two decades of the possibility of becoming monks and nuns, these "new arrivals" flocked to the monasteries and nunneries. The geshes and lamas teaching in the West had already borne the burden of expectation for raising the funds to build the temples for the reestablished monastic institutions. Now they received unrelenting pressure to finance the housing and feeding of the newly ordained monks and nuns.

The Rise of Unhealthy Relationships

The dynamic of these forces led in many cases to less than optimal relationships between Western spiritual seekers and Tibetan teachers. Westerners, for the most part, speak their minds openly, whereas Tibetans tend to verbalize less or to speak circuitously. For example, if offered a second helping of dessert, Westerners straightforwardly accept if they want more. Tibetans, on the other hand, typically refuse three times before acceding. Immediately saying yes indicates greed and attachment. Because of cultural differences such as these and the universal policy of teachers' not sharing their personal problems with their students, the lack of communication steadily worsened. Members of the Dharma centers had little idea of the emotional and financial pressures their Tibetan teachers were facing.

Sexual, financial, and power abuses soon began to occur. Traditional Tibet also had its share of religious corruption. No society is immune. However, abuse did not happen to the extent that Chinese communist propaganda would lead us to believe. On the other hand, not everyone who was a teacher was a saint, despite what starry-eyed Westerners might fantasize. The challenging circumstances of living in the West merely brought out the worst in some of the teachers who were already prone to scurrilous behavior.

As senior Western practitioners also began teaching Tibetan Buddhism in the early eighties in the West, a lack of proper supervision sometimes led to instances of similar abuse among them. The older generation of truly inspiring masters was slowly but steadily passing away. Power struggles over succession and Dharma-protector issues among respected spiritual leaders within the Tibetan community added fuel to the growing confusion. Dharma protectors are powerful, invisible beings enlisted by great masters to safeguard Buddha's teachings from destructive forces. Most Western seekers have little understanding of protectors or of the sociopolitical issues underlying the disputes about them.

By the late 1980s and early nineties, the situation became critical. Scandals surfaced and received public outcry. Disillusionment followed in many circles. Some Westerners left their teachers in disgust and gave up Buddhist practice, while others went into states of denial and became defensive. Dharma groups polarized over succession and protector issues and by the mid-1990s several began making public protests against the others. The image of Tibetan Buddhism and its spiritual leaders became tarnished. Cynical circles freely used pejorative labels such as "authoritarian," "patriarchal," and "sexist."

As the millennium drew to an end, many Westerners called for a purely Western Buddhism, free of irrelevant religious and cultural trappings of the East. Differentiating the essence from the trappings, however, is never a simple task. People sometimes discard important factors in haste, without deeply examining the possible consequences. The zealous attitude of such people reminded others of Victorian scholars and missionaries self-righteously proclaiming "Lamaism" a degenerate form of Buddhism. Consequently, furious debate flared up between "traditionalists" and "modernists" within the Western Buddhist community. Debates included the language to use for performing rituals in the West and the place of belief in rebirth in following the Buddhist path.

Now, as the twenty-first century dawns, many of the problems persist and fallout from them remains unresolved. Public protest, abuse, and heated debate still occur. As with recurrent scenes of violence and injustice on television, the recurring misconduct has led some Dharma practitioners to become indifferent. No longer believing in anyone, many find their spiritual practice has weakened and become ineffective. Resolution of the problems and a healing of wounds are desperately needed so that sincere seekers may get on with the work of spiritual development. The student-teacher relationship as understood and developed in the West needs re-examination and perhaps revision.