The sorry story of the death in a cave in the Arizona desert at the Diamond Mountain centre (on which I don’t see any point in commenting) may give us cause to wonder how easy it is to tell when a Dharma group, for instance, is heading for la-la land. Following a discussion on the “Kagyu” mailing list at Yahoo, the following points seemed to emerge:
1) We should do lots of research. This is so easy, these days, using Internet search engines.
2) We should take everything with a pinch of salt. Anybody who puts their head above the parapet in any field is likely to find some enemies. The motivation of those enemies may be nothing more than a mixture of stupidity and jealousy.
So just because somebody is attacked on the Internet does not itself mean there is anything wrong with them. Equally, just because somebody is widely praised and has glowing descriptions on Wikipedia doesn’t mean they are okay.
Anybody can contribute to Wikipedia. It seems to be one of Wikipedia’s problems that the entries for prominent people, politicians for instance, are carefully tended by lackeys in order to present a positive view and minimise criticism. The clever lackeys don’t remove the criticism altogether, of course, in order to create an impression of honesty.
3) A proper lineage is vital. But a proper lineage is not a final guarantee
- people, both teachers and students, go off the rails. Some break with their lineage but don’t admit it to the outside world; some people fake their lineage. I have seen one site, for instance, where “Lineage” is a prominently featured heading. Clicking the link opens up an attractive page or two, but on close reading it turns out to contain nothing substantial at all. Just a vague reference to the 84 Mahasiddhas. No reference to any actual teachers. An inspiration, perhaps, but not a lineage.
4) We mustn’t be fooled by charisma. We can sometimes be so desperate for a connection to a genuine source of spiritual inspiration that we are entirely taken in by somebody with an energetic personality and a lot of enthusiasm.
If we then invest our time and devotion in their movement, the process of realising how flaky it is can be slow and painful. In some cases it can also be expensive!
5) We shouldn’t assume that a large number of followers means that the leader must be okay.
6) Exclusivity, and a lack of reference to other recognised teachers is a bad sign, recognition from other prominent lamas is a good one.
We must remember, however, that Tibetans, if I may say so, are often two-faced to an extent that would be quite appalling in, say, a Western politician. (I don’t say unusual, just appalling!) The last thing most Tibetans want to do is rock the boat.
So if a teacher has been seriously misbehaving, the almost instinctive reaction of many Tibetans will be to hush it up, close ranks, and hope that the problem goes away. The idea of saying something like “Lama XXX, Nth Somethingorother Rinpoche, whose activity I used to approve of, has gone bad. I made a mistake supporting him, I no longer do so, and I will no longer visit his centres” would be utterly mortifying to almost any Tibetan. They would be much more likely to say “Yes, there have been a few slight criticisms of Lama XXX resulting from karmic obstacles, but he is a very great Lama nevertheless”.
(I do fear that this attitude could be a problem for Tibetan Buddhism, particularly the monastic institutions, if they fail to be honest when cases of sexual abuse come to light. Think of the Catholic Church, and how disastrous its failure to recognise this problem has been, both for victims and for itself.)
7) This is life. There is no single, infallible test. There is no substitute for using our own intelligence.
That, however, is all run-of-the-mill preamble. I do in fact take strong issue with one view that was strongly expressed by some contributors: that names should not be named.
What are we supposed to do? Are we to darkly whisper that there are “lamas” who have gone off the rails in one way or another, be it drunkenness, be it drug abuse, be it sexual abuse, be it financial exploitation, be it physical or mental cruelty or be it simply fakery, or be it the kind of case where somebody with no extensive knowledge or experience has manoeuvred themselves to a position where they can parade up and down as a recipient of respect? But are we then not to say who we are talking about, or what we actually know?
Are we still going to leave newcomers in the dark? Or are we going to leave it to others to do the dirty work of actually saying what the accusations are against certain people, and what the evidence is? Or are we going to compromise, and say things like “Well I can’t say anything, but if you Google the name of Lama XXX together with the word ‘scandal’ you’ll find out”?
There is a lot, an awful lot, we have to learn from Tibetans, as I’m sure most followers of Tibetan styles of Buddhism will agree. But the tendency to simply be silent about problems, smile in public, and hope that they’ll go away is not, I believe, something we want to adopt. On the other hand, of course, there is a shrill style of scandal-grubbing, popular amongst second-rate journalists, that we also want to avoid. But surely the middle way is the solution, not the adoption of “ignore it and it will go away”.
Many contributors to that mailing list, and readers of this blog for that matter too, are westerners, and in the West we have traditions, admittedly often ignored or perverted, of openness, truth and honest enquiry. If we, the Buddhists, don’t live up to the better parts of our Western traditions, Buddhism will not thrive here. It is therefore my view that we actually have a positive, sometimes painful, duty to name names.
When we do so, we must also be honest about our sources. Presenting an accusation as a fact or a rumour as a truth will not help at all. We must always be clear about what is a mere story, what we have witnessed ourselves, and what we may not have witnessed but for which there is good evidence. Yes, there are dangers. There is a risk of getting carried away by sectarianism or by a desire to demonstrate that our own “group” is better than another. But surely the dangers of half-truth and half-secrets muttered behind dusty lace curtains are greater. Aren’t they?
So that is my plea: let us be yogis and bodhisattvas, not mice. If we know something is wrong, let’s say so, and not leave newcomers to walk into the same old traps just because we were too precious to get our hands dirty.