An Open Letter to the Buddhist Community

In the early 1990s, a meeting was held in Dharamsala, India between the Dalai Lama and the Conference of Western Buddhist Teachers, which included twenty-two well-known Western teachers such as Stephen Batchelor, Jack Kornfield, and Robert Thurman. The Conference agreed on six key points of emphasis for sharing the Dharma in the West. While Shin Buddhists were not included in this particular meeting, all Buddhists, including Shin, should heartily support, for example, the Conference's emphasis of working towards creating a better world for all forms of life (i.e., rather than simply being concerned with “building membership”), guarding against the ever-present dangers of sectarianism, and being open to adapting the presentation of Buddhism to serve the West. As these teachers clearly state, “We need to exercise careful discrimination in distinguishing between essential teachings and cultural trappings.”

Here are the six points of agreement:

1. Our first responsibility as Buddhist is to work towards creating a better world for all forms of life. The promotion of Buddhism as a religion is secondary concern. Kindness and compassion, the furthering of peace and harmony, as well as tolerance and respect for other religions, should be the three guiding principles of our actions.

2. In the West, where so many different Buddhist traditions exist side by side, one needs to be constantly on one's guard against the dangers of sectarianism. Such a divisive attitude is often the result of failing to understand or appreciate anything outside of one's own tradition. Teachers from all Schools would therefore benefit greatly from studying and gaining some practical experience of the teachings of other traditions.

3. Teachers should be open to beneficial influences from secular and other religious traditions. For example, the insights and techniques of contemporary psychotherapy can often be of great value in reducing suffering experienced by students. At the same time, efforts to develop psychologically oriented practices from within the existing Buddhist traditions should be encouraged.

4. An individual's position as a teacher arises in dependence on the request of his or her students, not simply being appointed as such by higher authority. Great care must therefore exercised by the student in selecting an appropriate teacher. Sufficient time must be given to making this choice, which should be based on personal investigation, reason and experience. Students should be warned against the dangers of falling prey to charisma, charlatanism or exoticism.

5. Particular concern was expressed about unethical conduct among teachers. In recent years both Asian and Western teachers have been involved in scandals concerning sexual misconduct with their students, abuse of alcohol and drugs, misappropriation of funds, and misuse of power. This has resulted in widespread damage both to the Buddhist community and to individual involved. Each student must be encouraged to take responsible measures to confront teachers with unethical aspects of their conduct. If the teacher shows no sign of reform, students should not hesitate to publicize any unethical behavior of which there is irrefutable evidence. This should be done irrespective of other beneficial aspects of his or her work and of one's spiritual commitment to that teacher.
It should also be made clear in any publicity that such conduct is not in conformity with Buddhist teachings. No matter what level of spiritual attainment a teacher has, or claims to have, reached, no person can stand above the norm of ethical conduct. In order for the Buddha dharma not to be brought into disrepute and to avoid harm to students and teachers, it is necessary that all teachers at least live by the five lay percepts. In cases where ethical standards have been infringed, compassion and care should be shown towards both teacher and student.

6. Just as the Dharma has adapted itself to many different cultures through out its history in Asia, so it is bound to be transformed according to conditions in the West. Although the principles of the Dharma are timeless, we need to exercise careful discrimination in distinguishing between essential teachings and cultural trappings.
However, confusion may arise due to various reasons. There may be a conflict in loyalty between commitment to one's Asian teachers and responsibility to one's Western students. Likewise, one may encounter disagreement about the respective value of monastic and lay practice. Further more, we affirm the need for equality between the sexes in all aspects of Buddhist theory and practice.

Though these are difficult and ongoing problems, the Western teachers were encouraged by the Dalai Lama to work to creatively resolve these issues and not surprisingly, his support and advice served to inspire each participant's resolve. Overall, the meeting might have been best summarized by participant Stephen Batchelor (author of Buddhism Without Beliefs):

"Our meeting with the Dalai Lama was like an empowerment, an initiation, in the true sense of the word. Above all it served as a confirmation of something we had intuitively known to be true all along but had found neither the courage nor the words with which to express it. The connections we formed with one another disclosed a whole new dimension of the term "sangha"--spiritual community." Batchelor closed his summary by quoting the Dalai Lama's own parting words: "Past is past. What is important? The future. We are the creators. The future is in our hands. Even if we fail, no regrets. We have to make the effort."

Text signed by:
Fred von Allmen
Ven Ajahn Amaro
Ven Olande Ananda
Martine Batchelor
Stephen Batchelor
Alex Berzin
Ven. Thubten Chodron (Cherry Greene)
Lama Drupgyu (Tony Chapman)
Lopon Claude d'Estre
Edie Irwin
Junpo Sensei (Denis Kely)
Brendan Lee Kennedy
Bodhin Kjolhede Sensei
Jack Kornfield
Dharmachari Kulananda
Jakusho Bill Kwong Roshi
Lama Namgyal (Daniel Boschero)
Ven. Tenzin Palmo
Ven. Thubten Pende (James Dougherty)
Lama Surya Das (Jeffrey Miller)
Robert Thurman
Sylvia Wetzel

For more info:
The Network for Western Buddhist Teachers
4725 E. Sunrise Drive, Suite 137
Tucson AZ 85718.

Real World Menu | Home