Wouldn’t it be comforting to have a pope: unimpeachable, indefatigable, infallibly in charge of whatever we are supposed to do and think, a father to our childish selves to guide us on the path to god?

No such luck for the questing Buddhist, though many seek in the guru the wise father they think they never had. In the transmission of Buddhism from its Asian homelands to its Western mission grounds, no element of the tradition has become so problematic or stimulated such a fuss as the question of authority. Who is the boss of a dharma practice? Is it the guru or the disciple? How do we translate the teacher-student relationship from its Asian setting, which was conservative, hierarchical, authoritarian, monastic, collective, and mostly male, to a Western culture that values creativity, is egalitarian, democratic, hedonistic, individualistic, and coed? What is happening to lineages that have been sustained for centuries within cultural boundaries by teachers and students of common backgrounds, but have now passed into the hands of free thinkers whose worldview is so different from their teachers’? For a religion cut loose from its moorings of culture and tradition, where does authority come from? How are newcomers to evaluate authenticity? Who is in charge of the dharma in the land of the entrepreneur?

One might begin an inquiry into this twenty-first-century puzzle by asking who has ever been in charge of the evolution of the dharma? The awakening of Shakyamuni under a tree in Bodhgaya is the seminal event for all branches of Buddhism. In that realization resides the infallible, unimpeachable authority at the heart of the tradition. And it is from that space that Buddhist teachers are meant to transmit their lineage, each tradition drawing its authenticity from an unbroken chain of realization traceable back to Shakyamuni Buddha. That, in any case, is the theory.

In the final days of the Buddha’s life, as recounted in the Mahaparinibbana Sutta, the Buddha had quite a bit to say about how to proceed after he has gone:

Therefore, Ananda, you should live as lamps unto yourselves, being your own refuge, with no one else as your refuge, with the Dhamma as a lamp, with the Dhamma as your refuge, with no other refuge. And how does a monk live as a lamp unto himself…? Here, Ananda, a monk abides contemplating the body as body, earnestly, clearly aware, mindful and having put away all hankering and fretting for the world, and likewise with regard to feelings, mind and mind-objects…. And those who now in my time and afterwards live thus, they will become the highest, if they are desirous of learning.

Bonnie Myotai Treace, Director of the Zen Center of New York City, has described this teaching as one of her initial attractions to Buddhism. “What I loved most initially about Buddhism was where the Buddha’s teaching ended, which was essentially ‘Don’t trust me, be a light unto yourself.’ The fundamental kind of koan that resides there just seems so full of life. That if you trust him saying, ‘Do not trust me,’ then you’ve denied the teaching and the teacher. If you don’t trust him, then you’ve denied the teacher and the teaching. So where are you left? That very subtle, somewhat humorous and very alive way of working with the basic matter of, How do you trust? What do you trust? Who are you? Who is anybody else?”

So the koan hangs there, worrying the Western Buddhist mind: What do you trust? Whom do you trust? It is a particularly modern and Western problem. The Asian Buddhist is as born to his or her religion as the American Catholic, Mormon, or Methodist. In Asia, authority derived from universally recognized great teachers who were validated by the lineage and the respect of the culture at large. In old Tibet, says Sogyal Rinpoche, bestselling author ofThe Tibetan Book of Living and Dying, “choosing a particular path or teacher to follow was far safer. Lineage served as a crucial safeguard: It maintained the authenticity and purity of the teaching. . . . In fact the whole point of lineage is to preserve the purity of the teaching.”

The essence of lineage is the transmission of realization, the awakening of wisdom and compassion. But surrounding this formless core are many layers of formal structure, the details that make up a “religion,” the practical process of the way the training is done and “has always been done.” Realization, once you’ve got it, is easy enough to carry around. But no Buddhist masters making their way to the New World from Japan, Korea, Tibet, or Burma have ever brought a suitcase big enough to carry their culture with them.

Symbolic of what is left behind is the fact that the first two pioneers of Zen in America, D. T. Suzuki and Nyogen Senzaki, never received from their teacher, Soyen Shaku, formal dharma transmission, which authorizes one to be a Zen teacher of the dharma. Ironically, according to one observer, their lack of pedigree made Senzaki and Suzuki perfect first emissaries to the United States, itself a product of disrupted lineages.

The explosive disruption of organic Tibetan culture by the Chinese Communist invasion is also a story of lineage transmission thrown into disarray. Among the first generation of “great lamas” who escaped Tibet there was no question that the spiritual power was in the hands of such towering figures as the Dalai Lama, the Karmapa, Dezhung Rinpoche, and Dudjom Rinpoche. But the cultural apparatus for selecting and grooming subsequent generations had been upended— forced to recreate itself in alien circumstances. Though heroic efforts have been made in India and Nepal to reconstitute the facilities for traditional training, the isolation and single-minded focus of the “spiritual culture” of Tibet is forever lost.

In fact, the first Tibetan teachers to make a significant impact in the West were not the widely revered hierarchs, but younger teachers, figures of little or no renown in their native Tibetan communities. In the New World, realization of the path was still the core criterion for what makes a great teacher. But the universal respect of the community was no longer the validation required to attract a large following. The skill-set necessary for that included a talent for communicating with a Western audience, a dynamic energy, and an entrepreneurial spirit. Such qualities are in fact characteristic of a bodhisattva, but the point here is that the career path for a guru had changed. The West had become the land of opportunity for any Asian spiritual teacher who could get a visa and cultivate a following.

Confucius said, “He who, by reanimating the old, can gain knowledge of the new is fit to be a teacher.” Asian Buddhism could never have found a place in the West without some degree of innovation, and the inevitability of change is, after all, a fundamental insight of the tradition. But in this world of entrepreneurial teachers, disconnected from cultural context and institutional restraint, once change begins, where are the lines to be drawn, and who on earth has the authority to draw them?

Ken McLeod calls himself a “meditation consultant,” and sees his students individually on a regular basis in Los Angeles. After trying to run a “more or less classical center,” he decided that this first-generation model did not allow for sufficient personal instruction. “I came up with the idea ‘I’ll be a meditation consultant.’ That evolved to something loosely based on the therapeutic model, though what I do is not therapy at all. I don’t have a temple or a meditation center or anything like that; I have an office.” McLeod studied with the Kagyu master Kalu Rinpoche, sitting two three-year retreats and serving as Rinpoche’s translator. He found that the elaborate performance of Vajrayana ritual in which he was trained did not fit with the busy and complex lives of his students. “So I stressed the practice of resting with the breath. And developing some space and openness as a basis for practice.” In his last meeting with his teacher, McLeod took the opportunity to explain what he was doing: “There was one phrase that Rinpoche used over and over again—”The point of the dharma is to help the mind.’ That is what I have striven to do.” He does not see himself as setting out to teach in a nontraditional way, but as responding to the conditions in American society. “I feel very deeply that the process of practice is internalization of understanding. It doesn’t really matter what tradition or what form it comes from. I’ve taken what I’ve learned from my teacher, which I value very, very deeply, and tried to express that as clearly and as accessibly as possible for people in this culture. And I don’t see a lot wrong with that.”

The motivation to adapt the presentation of the dharma is always expressed in terms of making it “accessible.” Today in the West, different streams of Buddhism are meeting and intermingling in a way that is unprecedented in history. Out of this conversation, says Joseph Goldstein, cofounder of the Insight Meditation Society, is emerging the very beginning of a “Western Buddhism” that is “unique to our cultural conditioning” [see p. 68]. The defining characteristic of this Western Buddhism, he believes, will not be adherence to some philosophic system or sectarian viewpoint, but an allegiance to “a quality of mind that we are famous for. And that is the quality of pragmatism. . . . What works to free the mind from suffering? What works to accomplish the heart of compassion?”

But John Daido Loori Roshi, the Abbot of Zen Mountain Monastery, is concerned about a rush to “Americanize the tradition without really appreciating its 2,500-year-old history. . . . It’s just like everything else we do, it’s rushed—quickies, instant food, instant enlightenment. I think we just need to be patient.” Sogyal Rinpoche reminds us that while we are busy trying to exorcise the “cultural paraphernalia from the East. . . . We, of course, bring with us the cultural preconceptions of the West, which may be even harder for us to identify and dissolve. This is part of the challenge. Not to remain too rigidly traditional, but to adapt in an authentic manner; neither to hurry too much nor to wait too long, but to find a middle way.”

This begs the question: Where is the middle way between orthodoxy and reform? Every sincere teacher is striving for that balance. But there are those who feel that the traditional modes of practice have been working for millennia and are emphatically not in need of reform. They maintain that the whole notion of a “Western dharma” represents a fundamental misapprehension of the timeless and universal truth that the dharma represents.

Sangye Khandro is an American who has served many years as a translator and, most recently, is the author of The Lives and Liberation of Princess Mandarava. In an open letter published on the Internet (www.jeweldakini.org), she has denounced the idea that dharma is something to be reformed. “Don’t you think it is illogical to reject Asian teachers, after learning from them, because they are from a foreign culture, and then call this new form of Buddhism ‘American’ because it is in this culture? . . . Is it really possible for the blessings of the Dharma to grow old like an ordinary material substance or perishable food?”

Traktung Rinpoche, an American who leads the Flaming Jewel Dharma Center in Ann Arbor, Michigan, sees the quest for a “Western Buddhism” as a process of co-optation by the dominant consumer culture. He sees changes made by innovating teachers as merely attempts to make their product “more palatable” to the marketplace by removing what is “radical or uncomfortable about it.” In a piece called “Buddha and Marcuse” (www.damtsig.org), he accuses Lama Surya Das, Stephen Batchelor (author of Buddhism Without Beliefs), the Vietnamese monk and peace activist Thich Nhat Hanh, and this magazine of being a part of a “Western Buddhist movement” whose goal is to subvert the radical nature of Buddhism, to absorb it into the culture within the parameters of the culture itself. In other words, they will allow Buddhism, but only a Buddhism castrated and robbed of anything “alien” that might act as a basis, outside of commercialized values, for radical social and personal transformation. Through strategic assimilation, he says, the power of change is stripped while the facade is celebrated. Lama Surya Das, who did eight years of retreat under the widely renowned masters of the Nyingmapa school—Dudjom Rinpoche, Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche, and Nyoshul Khen Rinpoche—says, “I don’t really believe people when they tell me they’re doing things the way their teachers did. Can you give me any examples that I can’t question seriously? It’s hard. Because it’s not possible. It’s new times, new places.”

Also seeking a middle way, Lama Suyra Das leads “silent, vegetarian, brahmacarya (celibate) Buddhist meditation retreats.” The meditation hall is arrayed with a traditional altar, brimming with potent photographs of his teachers—the twentieth century’s greatest masters of the dzogchen lineage. But his combination of mantra chanting, dzogchen meditation, and question-and-answer sessions presents a shift from the traditional textually-based teaching methods.

Lama Surya Das says he developed his approach during ten years of translating for his teacher, Nyoshul Khen Rinpoche. “Khenpo used to say, ‘I was on the subway in Paris and I saw people there who, if I could just give them the pith instructions—I could see that they were ripe for it—they would awaken.’ This was mind-blowing. We were like, ‘What is he talking about? Giving these teachings to anybody on the subway!’ But it’s a matter of karmic connection, a spark. It’s not a matter of everybody doing the same curriculum—one size fits all.”

Stephen Batchelor points to an incommensurable divide between the reformers and the traditionalists: the former are rooted in “Western liberalism, with values such as equality, freedom of speech, relying on evidence, and valuing things like non-hierarchy.” The traditionalists, on the other hand, “believe unconditionally in the omniscience and infallibility of the lamas. That is not a position that is open to negotiation. It is simply a matter of right versus wrong.” Ironically, he discerns a common motivation: “The bizarre thing is that both sides have exactly the same belief in what they are doing. One side believes they are preserving the dharma by keeping it alive in a language and a form that works in our times, while the other believes they are preserving the dharma by keeping it unchanged in the forms that they’ve inherited. It’s really just a difference of strategy.”

It is here, in the nature of the “enlightened master,” that the rubber meets the road in the movement of this foreign religion to its new home. For the most part, Westerners have entered into the role of “discipleship” with some enthusiasm, even relief at finding an authority figure who leads from a genuine source of wisdom and compassion. All might have gone well in this regard, except that it emerged over the years that some Buddhist teachers, some of them monks, were having sex with their students. We live in the desire realm—the realm of existence in Buddhist cosmology where the predominant obscuration is desire. So it is not surprising that physical desire arises between teachers and students, and not surprising that there is so much confusion and disagreement over how to understand it. There are basically two interpretations.

One point of view was emphatically expressed by the Dalai Lama when he spoke with a group of Western Buddhist teachers in 1993. “I think that kind of thing is really very harmful for the Buddha-dharma,” he said. “Basically, all these problems are due to a lack of inner strength, self-discipline.” For these teachers, there is a gap between their insight and ability to talk about the dharma, and their life. “Academically they have the qualities or authority to teach, but when it comes to the real practice, they are not adequate.” The Dalai Lama pointed out that within the Vajrayana tradition of Tibetan Budhhism, sexual yoga is allowed only by practitioners for whom alcohol, urine, excrement, animal, and human flesh are all equally enjoyable. About most, if not all, contemporary teachers who indulge in sex with their students, he says, “If we put some urine in their mouths, I think they will not enjoy it.”

The alternative view is rooted in the need to cultivate faith in the teacher’s capacity to lead you to enlightenment. In the Vajrayana, this takes the form of viewing the teacher as the Buddha. There is a Zen saying, “While looking for a teacher, eyes wide open. Once you find the teacher, eyes shut.” In Vajrayana, “shutting the eyes” means viewing unconventional or seemingly unethical behavior by the teacher as compassionate skillful action, precisely calibrated to benefit the student in ways that can only be understood from the perspective of the teacher’s transcendent wisdom.

Sangye Khandro writes, “The nature of faith is to trust in sublime beings in order to receive the blessing of wisdom energy that benefits self and others. . . . Having faith is surrendering one’s body, speech, and mind to the object of one’s devotion and respect. In the case of Buddhism, the object of devotion is the Buddha represented by the spiritual teacher.”

Each encounter between a student and a teacher is a unique moment. How you react when things get weird depends on the nature of your relationship to the guru, where your values lie, your understanding of the divergent teachings of the Buddha, and which ones you are relying on at that stage of your practice. What is right or wrong for a particular student at a particular time is an individual judgment. Though some may say, “The student entrusts herself to the guru, and therefore it is the guru’s responsibility to lead in a wholesome manner,” the truth is that the power is always in the hands of the student: “Should I stay or is it time to go?” How prepared is the student to exercise sound judgment in the presence of the blinding light of his or her spiritual mentor?

In July of this year, at a conference organized by Tricycle and Open Mind Productions, Joseph Goldstein proposed four foundations for a reliable spiritual authority. First, we must recognize that a guide is essential if we want to make progress on a spiritual journey. We must find someone who has greater wisdom than we have, and we must surrender to “the wisdom of the teacher, because they can take us beyond our own understanding.” Like searching for the most skilled surgeon or automechanic, “We look for the person who knows the most about that particular area. So it makes sense that spiritual authority resides in the wisest person around.”

But who is that? As the dzogchen teacher Tsoknyi Rinpoche has said, there is no machine that can measure a person’s realization. Goldstein believes that “most of the people who are teaching really have some combination of wisdom and ignorance. . . . People can have a real transforming understanding, transforming insight, enlightening experiences in some areas, and still be immature in other areas.” The second foundation of a sound authority is an internal one: the factor of mind Goldstein calls conscience, trusting in our own intuitive wisdom—“that quality in us that knows when something is right and something is wrong. . . . We need to bring this to bear as well in spiritual communities and in assessing spiritual authority. When is it off? When is it wrong? Because the person involved may not be completely integrated or completely wise.”

In regard to practical matters, as the third foundation we need the wisdom of the sangha, the group wisdom, because “even a very enlightened being might not have any idea of how to run an organization or balance a budget. And so in that context a group wisdom can be very valuable.”

Finally, in order to discern a true spiritual authority, we must base our judgment on a serious study of the tradition. “The Buddhist teachings are vast,” says Goldstein, “and it is only if we undertake a study of them that we can begin to put our own experience, and even the words of our teachers, in a bigger context.”

What is clear from this discussion is that students have the responsibility to make informed and mature choices. The Dalai Lama says, “The real authority of the teacher is given by the student. No one else. Deciding, ‘This will be my teacher, I will follow this person’—that becomes the guru and disciple.”

John Daido Loori Roshi agrees, and emphasizes that “the students need to trust themselves, not just intellectually, but intuitively: Is this the right person to teach me? Does this person have something to teach me? Can I receive, am I willing to receive, the teaching from this person?”

But if the student is, by definition, less wise than the teacher, how is she to make sound judgments about the teacher’s words and actions? The answer must be conscience, common sense and intuition, all informed by the study of basic Buddhist doctrine and ethics. Vasubandhu, the great Indian scholar of the fourth century, in his commentaryVyakhyayukti, quotes the Buddha:

By studying one will understand phenomena.
By studying one will turn away from sin.

By studying one will turn away from what is useless.
By studying one will attain nirvana.

The current student of Buddhism is blessed with an ever growing abundance of material that can inform her journey into the dharma. In Buddhism and Language, José Cabezón, Professor of Tibetan Buddhism at UC Santa Barbara, points to the central role that reason has played in establishing validity and authority in the tradition. When it came to determining the authority of texts that, from the historical point of view, entered the tradition centuries after the passing of the Buddha, the debate rarely focused on the authorship of the text. The debate instead revolved around the intended meaning of a text, and whether or not that was definitive, or required interpretation.

Cabezon writes: “The emergence of new scriptural material and the reinterpretation of already extant texts is a sign of the vitality of a tradition. Thus, the Mahayana sutras, the tantric scriptures, and even the Tibetan dgongs gter (teachings said to be intuited in a ‘revelatory’ fashion even to the present day) bring with them a steady influx of creativity into the tradition. It seems that to have dismissed these works as apocryphal would have been to skirt the real issue, that of their meaning.”

In this context, all the “words of the Buddha” are “perfect” and “free from fault”—but that does not mean that they are free of logical fallacy or that they do not require interpretation. “They are not claiming that all of the scriptures are unconditionally true, but that they are pragmatically true . . . . Because they are all conducive to the spiritual development of those who hear them.” The diverse teachings of the Buddha were “spoken in accordance with the intellectual faculty of various human beings,” and are all valid because they are all effective for leading certain human beings out of suffering.

If all the scriptures are the valid word of the Buddha, which ones express his final thought? The means for determining the ultimate intention of the Buddha is the reasoned analysis of whether a scripture expresses ultimate reality. If the Buddha knows the ultimate truth, then his definitive scriptures will teach the ultimate truth, and the ultimate truth can be determined by means of reason. “With this hermeneutical strategy, in which rationality becomes the guiding principle of interpretation, the focus changes from considering the word of the Buddha as true to considering truth to be the Buddha’s word (or at least his ultimate intention or purport).”

This model for interpreting the authenticity of scripture is suggestive of ways in which we can think about authority and authenticity among teachers and teachings as well. The “four reliances” are often cited as the Buddha’s answer to questions of authority:

Rely on the doctrine, not on the person.
Rely on the meaning, not on the words.
Rely on sutras of definitive meaning, not on those
     of interpretable meaning.
Rely on wisdom, not on ordinary consciousness.

This hierarchy reminds us of the Buddha’s deathbed exhortation to “let the dharma be your refuge.” It is the dharma that we receive from the teacher, not the person of the teacher that matters, and it is the meaning of those teachings that we must attend to. Definitive teachings are those that point directly to the ultimate truth, emptiness; those requiring interpretation are stepping stones to that. The final and ultimate reliance is the nonconceptual wisdom that realizes emptiness itself.

If the tradition can accommodate deeply contradictory scriptures and validate them all as conducive to spiritual development, why shouldn’t reformist teachers and their newfangled modes of presentation be judged by the same standards? Let us put aside the “persons” of those teachers and attend to their words. Let us focus on the meaning of their words. Let us use learning yoked to reason to establish their validity, their conformity to the tradition, their ability to express reality, the teaching of the Buddha.

Joseph Goldstein sees the “One Dharma of the West” as being centered on the question, “What works?” Jose Cabezon points to an “empiricist and pragmatic imprint on the tradition” that has always been there, noting that the Buddha urged his followers not to accept his doctrines purely on the basis of his exalted status. In the Ghanavyuha Sutta he advised, “Do not accept my dharma merely out of respect for me, but analyze and check it the way a goldsmith analyzes gold; by rubbing, cutting, and melting it.”

There is room in this empiricist, pragmatic tradition for experimentation: for trying new things to find out what works. There is risk, to be sure, in all experiments, but the modern student has at her disposal the education and information to analyze and check the modern teacher the way a goldsmith analyzes gold. How long has this teacher studied and practiced? Who with? What do they teach and how does it conform to the scriptures? How does their behavior conform to the precepts of the tradition?

Based on an informed search for a teacher, each student must make a wise choice and then engage in sincere practice. On that basis the question, Whom do you trust? is gradually transformed into: Does it work? After a few decades of dharma practice it is easier to see what does not work for Western students, what alienates them, what they fail at, what drives them away from practice. But to come to some kind of grand conclusion about the results achieved by contemporary teachers will take a long time, and the only scorekeeper will be history, the evolution of the Three Jewels in their new homeland. “We have a saying in Tibet,” says Sogyal Rinpoche. “’In time the dust will blow away and the gold will remain.’ What is authentic will last.” The particular forms of the tradition are not what lineage is about, says John Daido Loori Roshi. “What’s critical is the transmission of the dharma. The transmission of enlightenment. That’s what’s transmitted. And that enlightenment can manifest itself in many different ways.” But for this American Zen teacher there is no rush to give birth to an intellectually fabricated American Buddhism. Rather, he advises, let it evolve organically, in its own time. “As soon as something comes up,” he continues, “people want to reinvent the wheel. The wheel has been turning for 2,500 years. We should take notice.” ▼

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