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21st-Century Buddhism: 001: Western Gurus?

Take a 2,600-year-old spiritual tradition from Asia and drop it into the blender of postmodern American consumer culture. Add science and multiculturalism to taste, and mix at Internet speed. This is 21st-Century Buddhism -- a weekly blog for the Interdependence Project. In this space, I'll talk about the issues that Buddhists and other spiritual practitioners face in our time and our place. I'll also bring in occasional posts from other guest bloggers who are contemplating these issues. If you have something to say, write to me.




Episode 001:

Western Gurus?

A recent article on Huffington Post by David Nichtern -- one of my earliest Buddhist teachers and father of the notorious Ethan Nichtern -- asked some hard-hitting questions about The Future of Buddhism in the West. David and I are apparently sharing brainwaves, because I've been chewing on many of the same questions recently.

Nichtern points out the puzzling shortage of Westerners being fully empowered as teachers in the Vajrayana tradition, commonly known as Tibetan Buddhism. He says: "Either the time has not yet come for Western Buddhist gurus to manifest fully, or we have a major culture clash on our hands here." I'm thinking that it may actually be a little of both.

Clearly, Vajrayana is lagging behind other Buddhist traditions in the process of empowering Westerners as full-blown lineage holders. In the Zen and Vipassana traditions, Western teachers are now fully empowered and passing the torch from one Westerner to another. But high-level Vajrayana teachers who are not culturally and ethnically Tibetan (or Nepali or Bhutanese) are, today, few and far between. The reasons for this are complex and multifaceted, including:

  • Guru principle. The guru-student relationship is a particularly intense kind of bond that is unique to the Vajrayana tradition. It remains to be seen if Western Buddhists can relate to one another as gurus and students -- or if we're only comfortable having gurus from another culture.
  • The politics of reincarnation. In Tibetan Buddhism, lineage transmission is bound up with the institution of tulkus (reincarnated teachers) and recognition across multiple lifetimes. How this will play out as Western teachers begin to hold the lineage also remains to be seen.
  • The Tibetan diaspora. Tibetan culture is threatened with extinction in its native land. At the same time as Tibetan teachers living in exile are transmitting the dharma, they are also struggling to preserve their culture -- a culture that is, itself, intimately fused with the dharma. It is understandable if this makes Tibetan teachers reluctant to pass the lineage to Westerners who have little investment in preserving their endangered culture.
  • Bad examples. It doesn't help our case that in several of the rare instances when full lineage transmission has been given to Westerners, the subsequent conduct of those new lineage holders has blown up into scandal and embarrassment. Just this past week, we've seen scandalous articles in the New York Times and the New York Post about two high-profile Buddhist teachers, Eido Shimano Roshi and Geshe Michael Roach. Perhaps this kind of thing, which is all too common, signals to Tibetan teachers that we're not quite ready to hold the Vajrayana lineage fully, in the way gurus do.

Those are all legitimate factors to consider in assessing why the Vajrayana is lagging behind the Zen and Vipassana traditions in terms of giving lineage transmission to Westerners. You could say there are good reasons for it.

What concerns me in this is the disempowering effect it might have on Western students. Given the widely acknowledged fact that we tend to have rather low self-esteem in the first place, we might come to believe that genuine wisdom and realization is something foreign and relatively inaccessible, and that we have to make ourselves more like Tibetans in order to hopefully get a little bit of their wisdom to rub off on us. There is a common tendency to idolize and mystify the Asian teacher and believe that wisdom exists "out there" somewhere, embodied predominantly in representatives from another (exotic) culture -- when, really, those very teachers are always reminding us that wisdom exists right here, right now, in the palm of our own hand.

In a recent article on One Human Journey, I called this tendency "cultural theism." Under the spell of cultural theism, Western students may -- consciously or not -- come to regard wisdom and genuine realization as something culturally foreign and therefore relatively unattainable. Because the power differential between teachers and students in the Vajrayana tradition falls more consistently along cultural and ethnic lines, Westerners may feel they are not capable of holding the lineage or manifesting the same degree of wisdom as their Tibetan teachers.

Cultural theism probably won't begin to go away until we start seeing more fully empowered Western teachers holding lineages in the Vajrayana tradition. But then, as David Nichtern hinted at in his article, will people really be ready to accept that when it does finally happen? Will Westerners feel the same respect and devotion for a realized and empowered Westerner as they do for a more culturally exotic Tibetan teacher?

If you assume the answer is yes, take a look at how many people show up when a Tibetan lama who's barely out of high school gives a talk, versus how many show up to hear a Western teacher who's been studying and practicing for 30 or 40 years. In some cases there may be reasons for the disparity -- maybe the young Tibetan lama is recognized as a tulku, and his previous incarnation was an important teacher -- but when this sort of thing manifests as a consistent pattern, it suggests that cultural theism may also be at work.

Are we ready for Western gurus? Share your thoughts.

Dennis Hunter publishes a popular website on Buddhism and spirituality, One Human Journey. His work has also appeared on Buddhist Geeks and Rebel Buddha, and in Bodhi magazine. A long-time resident of New York City, he is currently living as a temporary monk at a Buddhist monastery in a very remote part of Canada.

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Western Vajrayana

Throughout the history of Vajrayana, there has been genuine realised teachers receiving direct transmission and practices from the Dharmakaya or Vajradhara, or any other emanations of "Buddhamind". And thus lineages started.
Yidam Practices help to deal with specific energie conditions, blockages towards Realization and further development.
Energy conditions change according to time and location and beings. Therefore, the myriads of Yidams, though in a greater context any one of them would suffice.
What do we know if this is not happening in the West????
Realized Bodhisattvas would shun publicity and large group teachings, leaving those to great teachers who speak from learned wisdom and study as this lend itself to group teaching
Genuine Buddha's activities are deployed automatically according to the needs of each being encountered, its a very individual specific activities What is done for one that may not make sense to others, even aggravate them thus not helping them.
Therefore these teachers would prefer small groups and to leave it to "Karma" to bring students to them.
Many Tibetan high Lamas have referred to this possibility in the of course, as they said they wouldn't know themselves if it occurred. If it did that lineage would take care of itself.
Not everything has to be in the limelight nor known by the large majority of the populations that usually prefers the large teachings, groups, temples , centres, rituals, "shows" etc.....and create need for administration structures and large finances.
It all works out at the end, we hope :)

Western women Lamas, in the Aro lineage

The Aro lineage of Tibetan Buddhism (within the Nyingma tradition) has several Western Lamas, including several women:


David Chapman


A very good article. Have you ever done a Rapidshare Search ( http://www.filecatch.com/trends/sa/15-09-2010.html ) before? I recommend to try it.

some sound advice

from the Kalamasutra:
Do not believe in anything simply because you have heard it.
Do not believe in anything simply because it is spoken and rumored by many.
Do not believe in anything simply because it is found written in your religious books.
Do not believe in anything merely on the authority of your teachers and elders.
Do not believe in traditions because they have been handed down for many generations.
But after observation and analysis, when you find that anything agrees with reason and is conducive to the good and benefit of one and all, then accept it and live up to it.
- Buddha
Translated in The American Buddhist Directory, 1985, by Kevin O'Neill, pg. 7

a few others

How about Traktung Rinpoche?
or that lady recognized by Penor Rinpoche?
Or Steven Segal, for that matter.
What about Lama Yeshe's Spanish reincarnation?
Gesar Mukpo recently made a documentary film called "Tulku."
There's a lot going on out there.

Reggie Ray

I can't speak to the "qualifications" issue with Reggie Ray. But there's a good podcast interview with him on Buddhist Geeks, where he talks about the reasons why he left the organization he was with before and went his own way as a "Western guru" -- and he speaks very directly to a lot of the issues we've been discussing here.

He also says that after he struck out on his own and began teaching his students at a Vajrayana level, a lot of the younger generation of tulkus and lamas approached him, saying, "Thank you! Thank you for stepping forward and doing this."

Reggie's voice is well worth listening to. Here's the link:



Good stuff.
VROT held and Patrick Sweeney holds the Kagyu lineage as transmitted from Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche, so technically, they're both examples of western gurus.
Of course, all of this begs the definition of "guru."
A credentialed, publicly and politically recognized lineage holder?
Someone who gives empowerments?
There are many charlatans out there...how can you really tell one from an authentic "guru?"
Of course there are some guidelines that come down to us from Tibet, but while some transcend culture, many of the telltale signs are from a different culture in a different century, and could confuse things more here and now than not.
I've heard that Reggie Ray gives empowerments...does that make him a western guru?
What exactly qualifies him to do so, or be labeled that?


I hear this "there are many charlatans out there" thing a lot. Seems vague and not very helpful for instilling trust in teachers.

Are you referring to someone in particular? Are you speaking from personal experience?

I have met teachers who I personally didn't have a connection with. That doesn't make them phonies. There are a select FEW teachers I would be very wary of recommending students to. Not MANY.

Charlatan was a word that Trungpa Rinpoche introduced. Let's be careful tossing it around.

A Western Khenpo in NYC

BTW, for you kids who are in NYC and are looking for examples of strong Western teachers, go see Karl Brunnholzl at Nalandabodhi NY next week. He was recently given the title Khenpo (a title that not very many Westerners hold) and is one of the most lucid and direct teachers I know of.


Good discussion

Thank you all for posting your thoughts and insights, so far. I'm on an incredibly tenuous satellite Internet connection here where I live, and it might (it will!) disappear again at any moment....so, with regrets, I won't try to respond in detail. But I'm reading.

In regards to the last comment on the VROT: what happened with him was so unfortunate, and the damage is still not fully repaired. But I've met and attended a teaching by his dharma heir, Patrick Sweeney. I heard him give a talk on samaya and it was good stuff. I have the recording and I've listened to it a few times since then, and still find it rich with insight. If you get a chance to see him teach, go.


Great discussion.
Just curious about people's take on the Vajra Regent Osal Tenzin, and his successor, Patrick Sweeney, of Satdharma as Western gurus.

Yes, but...

I personally don't care where a teacher is from. It's what the teacher says and their way of being that elicits my respect and devotion. It just turns out that for me Tibetan / Asian teachers outshine Western teachers at a 100:1 ratio!

But that's not to say we're not getting there... Part of what's holding back Western teachers is we seem to excel academically but lag in terms of practice and realization.

The ladies, and the stories

There's a big gender dimension to this too, unfortunately. Women are MIA in both the Tibetan and Western authority structures - which is just ridiculous and clearly a result of cultural bias in both East and West.

Another angle: it's not just Western gurus acting on the funky/questionable/abusive spectrum. There's a long tradition of that in Tibet too. The Tibetans just don't talk about it like we do, for various cultural and political reasons. And sometimes an Asian teacher's mystique is so strong that students justify weird behavior by saying it's enlightened activity. That may be true. If so, why not give Western gurus the same benefit of the doubt?

So much of this boils down to trusting our own practice, working honestly with our spiritual bypassing in all its forms, and relating in genuine, non-culturally-theist ways with our teachers. I already see truly great Western teachers in the Tibetan tradition. They may not be empowered yet, and in some ways that doesn't matter. In some ways it does, though, because Vajrayana practice will only put down deep roots here when we find ways to honor the unacknowledged Buddhas walking among us.

Not entirely

I wouldn't say women are entirely missing from Western structures. There are many women senior teachers. However, they aren't, typically, gurus, so your general point is well taken.

We'll get there! I hope.

A Tough Inward Look

Thank you, Dennis, for making this point so lucidly. I felt sad reading this, because it called to mind seeing my own "cultural theism" recently when a Western lineage holder came to town and I was reluctant to attend her talk. Was it because she wasn't Tibetan or from India, like both of my main teachers? Or was it (gag!) because she was female? I went to the talk and had one of the more profound experiences of inner purification I have ever had in a single evening! She clearly had the goods, and I was a little embarrassed to be surprised by that fact, as well as to admit to myself that the only reason I had really opened to the teaching was after hearing she had been proclaimed a lineage holder by a great Tibetan Rinpoche whose name I recognized.

All this in the mind of one who considers herself (a) open to the experience of truth in every moment and (b) a feminist. Would never have guessed I had this bigotry toward my own culture (and maybe also toward my own gender). A real wake-up call.

But maybe this is what it really takes for Westerners to accept Western teachers -- a genuine experience that is personally meaningful. That's the only connection with a spiritual teacher that matters, in any case, isn't it? Tibetan, Western, or otherwise? Isn't blindly accepting a teacher form another culture -- out of attachment to their "exotic" origin -- no wiser than blindly closing one's mind to a Western teacher simply because they look and sound familiar?

A slightly different perspective

Dennis, thank you for another well-written and thought-provoking column. It seems as if the concerns expressed here are about organizational and public recognition rather than whether there are western teachers whom some of us recognize as worth hearing and learning from. I can speak only from my own interest, which is the latter. I like to think that I respond to an inspiring level of clarity and spirituality rather than ethnicity in Buddhist teachers; the western teachers whom I most respect seem to avoid titles and other formal recognition, but there are respected western teachers guiding students, and sharing their impressive understanding relatively quietly.

As a formal student of two Asian teachers, with great respect for several western Buddhist teachers as well, I would suggest another, seemingly significant factor. Western culture does not promote spiritual maturity in the way that some Asian communities do. I have had the opportunity to observe that in Tibetan communities in India and Nepal, some (perhaps many) monastic schools and some secular schools (run by culturally Tibetan organizations), children are taught, both by example and through their classes, the importance of compassion and other virtues, and about interdependence. In stark contrast, western education and media seem to promote materialism and individuality relentlessly. The best Asian teachers have typically grown up immersed in spiritual values that most western Buddhists have come to relatively late, and I believe that as a result many have particular maturity in imparting the spiritual values that I, as a late-arriving western Buddhist am trying to internalize.

Good article Dennis

I think about this a lot. The lack of fully-empowered western teachers really dovetails with the very ill-defined sense of what it is to be enlightened that prevails today.

Vajrayana Buddhism has been here for fifty years now. As far as I can see, it boils down to two possible explanations: either Westerners are 1) becoming realized but are not being empowered for political reasons, or 2) they are not achieving much (or any, or enough) realization.

Whatever the case may be, it seems like there are big problems going unaddressed and unmentioned.

Regarding your points, I think there is much more stuff I would put under the category "the politics of reincarnation." The tulku thing is not the problem I don't think - the Sakya lineage barely uses tulkus to continue the lineage.

Cultural Theism

I am totally a cultural theist! What a great point. I rushed to go see Yongey Mingyur Rinpoche at the ID Project (and last year at Shambhala), with a lot more excitement than I probably would have for most western teachers. It's totally spiritual materialism - "i bet that guy with the accent is the one with the real goods." Thank you for this.

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