A month ago, Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche posted a long public statement regarding the controversy surrounding Sogyal Rinpoche. While it also addresses what he thought went wrong, he also mentions the difficulties that many western practitioners have with learning from Tibetans who teach from within the context of Tibetan culture. An interesting excerpt:
It’s ironic that today’s Western students are so eager to emulate the Tibetan way of doing things—habits which, by and large, really aren’t worth cherishing. Two millennia before the European Renaissance brought a new culture of inquiry and investigation into the modern world, the Buddha had already pointed out and emphasized the vital part analysis plays in the discovery of the nature of reality. More than two millennia before the downfall of authoritarianism in the West, the Buddha taught, “You are your own master. No one else is your master.” Neither of these pieces of advice has ever been taken seriously in Tibet. Not taking such teachings seriously is a very bad habit and certainly nothing to be proud of.
Tibetan lamas often use tantric rituals as part of local public events, which means that Vajrayana initiations take place alongside flag hoisting and ribbon cutting. This use of tantra was unheard of among the Tibetans’ Buddhist predecessors in India, where not even a trace of sacred Vajrayana transmission or ritual could be seen before, during or after its discrete performance. Tibetan lamas also openly boast about their gurus, as if they are unveiling a commemorative plaque. But I would be extremely surprised to learn that Naropa put any effort at all into building up his CV, or that he ever announced publicly that his tantric guru was Tilopa.
It might be possible to give Vajrayana initiations and teachings openly and publicly in places where the initiates are completely devoted, largely illiterate and have no academic training or custom of analysis. But it’s difficult to find that kind of person in a world that’s full to overflowing with smart-arses. So nowadays, when Tibetan lamas apply their habit of openly giving Vajrayana teachings to non-Tibetans—particularly Westerners—but forget that they are presenting these disciplines to people who read The New York Times, are groomed in critical thinking, trained to cherish analysis and contemplation, and applauded for rebelling against convention, isn’t it inevitable that things fall apart?
In stark contrast to the characteristics that mark out modern Western Dharma students, the majority of Tibetan disciples were culturally obliged to receive initiations and teachings as part of their traditional life. Very few Tibetans approached the Vajrayana with any thought of applying the proper, recommended analysis, and instead relied on blind devotion. To this day, many of us Tibetan lamas, not just Sogyal Rinpoche, stick closely to our traditional habits and therefore devote very little time to giving students the appropriate warnings and laying the necessary foundations prior to giving initiations and teachings.