Forest Sangha Newsletter July 1993

Devotion and Gnosis; Ajahn Sumedho
Metta and the English Problem; John Aske
An Open Letter from Dharamsala
On Returning to Ladakh; Ven. Sanghasena
Indian Summer; Ven. Asabho
The Highest Tantra; Ajahn Sucitto


An Open Letter from Dharamsala

Establishing an ancient religious form in a modern day western setting presents manifold challenges and problems for the fledgling teachers and communities that grow up around them. For the first time western teachers representing all the major schools, including our own Ajahn Amaro, gathered together in the presence of the H.H. the Dalai Lama to consider common difficulties in transmitting the Dhamma. The following is a jointly written declaration of intent which delegates were asked to publish in their respective Dhamma journals.

On March 16-19, 1993, a meeting was held in Dharamsala, India, between His Holiness the XIV Dalai Lama and a group of twenty-two Western Dhamma teachers from the major Buddhist traditions in Europe and America. Also present were leading Tibetan lamas from the four main schools of Tibetan Buddhism. The aim of the meeting was to discuss openly a wide range of issues concerning the transmission of the Buddha-Dhamma to Western Lands.

After four days of presentations and discussions, there was general agreement on the following points:
1. Our first responsibility as Buddhists is to work towards creating a better world for all forms of life. The promotion of Buddhism is a 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 danger of sectarianism. Such a divisive attitude is often the result of failing to understand or appreciate anything outside one's own tradition. Teachers from all schools would therefore benefit greatly from studying and gaining practical experience of the teachings of other traditions.

Although the principles of the Dharma are timeless, we need to exercise careful discrimination in distinguishing between essential teachings and cultural trappings.

3. Teachers should also 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 the suffering experienced by students. At the same time, efforts to develop psychologically oriented practices from within the existing Buddhist traditions should be encouraged.
4. One's position as teacher arises in dependence on the request of one's students, not simply on one's being appointed as such by a higher authority. Great care must therefore be exercised 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 the individuals 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 publicise any unethical behaviour 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 the publicity that such conduct is not in conformity with the Buddhist teachings. No matter what level of spiritual attainment a teacher has or claims to have reached, no person can be allowed to stand above the norms of ethical conduct. In order for the Buddha-Dhamma 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 precepts. In cases where ethical standards have been infringed upon, compassion and care should be shown towards both teacher and student.
6. Just as the Dharma has adapted itself to many different cultures throughout its history in Asia, so is it 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 for 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. Furthermore, we affirmed the need for equality between the sexes in all aspects of Buddhist theory and practice.

The Western teachers were encouraged by His Holiness to take greater responsibility in creatively resolving the issues that were raised. For many, His Holiness's advice served as profound confirmation of their own feelings, concerns and actions.

In addition to being able to discuss issues frankly with His Holiness, the conference served as a valuable forum for teachers from different traditions to exchange views. Already future meetings with His Holiness are being planned and other colleagues who were not present in Dharamsala will be invited to participate in the on-going process. His Holiness intends to invite more heads of different Asian Buddhist traditions to attend future meetings.

The proceedings of the meeting will be disseminated to the wider public by means of articles, a report, a book, as well as audio and video recordings.
The latter materials will be available through:

The Meridian Trust,
330 Harrow Rd.,
London W9 2HP.
Tel: 071 289 5443
For more information and comments, please write to:
The Network for Western Buddhist Teachers,
4725 E. Sunrise Drive,
Suite 137,
Tucson, Arizona 85718,