The Dogma of the Buddhist Master’s Infallibility: A Reappraisal of “Buddhist Modernism”


The Dogma of the Buddhist Master’s Infallibility: A Reappraisal of “Buddhist Modernism”



Thanks for this, it’s an important article. Also, on the site I came across another interesting—and more hopeful—article that deserves its own post.


Increasingly, the Buddha’s last words about being one’s own refuge carry more and more weight with me.

Fortunately, I never had one of these modern gurus. But I have been present when a noted modern “meditation master” - who seemed to say nothing really different from all the other modern meditation masters - gave his lessons while dozens of people sat in rapt attention, seemingly expecting him to save them. He conveyed perfectly standard and normal instructions about attending to the breath and the body. But the attendees were utterly dazzled by his supposed spiritual power. The monk-teacher was fine, but the disciples creeped me out.

But the dead, oppressive hand of Buddhist religious orthodoxy, textual fundamentalism and superstition is the opposite side of this coin of extremes. Either way, you can run into a great deal of manufactured and unnecessary suffering.


I have been doing this for some years now. The taste of freedom is sweet.


Dan and Alain, this isn’t a disagreement, but part of his last words were to turn to the Dhamma as the teacher, once the Buddha had passed. At least with myself, I’m reluctant to be my own refuge, when the Dhamma is so fortunately now available to us, and we have honorable monks and nuns that can guide us on the path. I guess what I am saying is that this Dhamma is always here for us, a refuge and a guide. A roadmap as it were, to guide us when our own compass isn’t working quite so well.


It is impossible for me to have faith in the wisdom of teachers who can’t keep their own worst impulses in check.


Well, we have a lot of teachings, Anagarika, and a lot of words, but unfortunately the people who remembered the words weren’t always very good about asking what the words meant, or analyzing those meanings, and the logical connections between them, in detail. They often seemed satisfied just to commit the bare verbal formulas to memory. We can make progress by comparing the different contexts in which the same words are used, but still many mysteries remain. So in the end we have no choice but to try to gropingly match up our own inner experience with the verbal sketches. Also, not all of the words can be equally important. There are some discourses and teachings that seem extremely important to me, but that others seem to ignore pretty much.


I agree with you, Dan, that it’s not an easy task. The body of text is so large, and many of the texts may or may not be useful or relevant. This is part of the reason I am grateful and glad for SC, because I do feel that we have this opportunity to not just access the translated teachings easily, but we have a community of students and scholars that help explain and understand them. And, I really do feel that these texts are less mysterious than they may appear. It is hard work, but nothing much good in life is yielded from easy labor.

Yes, it can feel like a struggle. This SC makes a difference. It’s great to get the scholarship from say, Bhante Sujato or Ajahn Brahmali, and take that on board and have a chance at less groping and more facility with working with and understanding the key and core Dhamma. And, hopefully, the personal lens through which we view these teachings becomes a bit more clear and sharp. It’s a daunting task, I agree, but what a game changer here, including the chance to consider and reflect on the many insightful comments you’ve offered.


As the Buddha said you have to be your own refuge first then the Dhamma. You cannot put the dhamma first and you second. Why? Because you have to make sure that the dhamma is the right one and the Buddha knew that very well for himself so it is the same for each one of us. I always use my critical mind when reading Suttas.


An interpretation of “self as refuge” that made best sense for me (to date) was a monastic teacher outlining that the Buddha was teaching that, at the bottom line, it’s in the immediacy of one’s own actions, moment to moment, that release is to be worked towards. Not without the words of his Dhamma as framework, not without the personal guidance of teachers in his lineage who themselves have a lifetime of that work under their belt, but in the end it comes down to one’s “own” doing it. Merely having the opportunity to do so is a refuge.


Here is the relevant passage from the Mahaparinibbana Sutta DN 16:

Therefore, Ānanda, live with yourself as an island, yourself as a refuge, with no other refuge, with the Teaching as an island, the Teaching as a refuge, with no other refuge. And how, Ānanda, does a monk live with himself as an island, himself as a refuge, with no other refuge, with the Teaching as an island, the Teaching as a refuge, with no other refuge?

Here, Ānanda, a monk dwells contemplating the nature of the body in the body, ardent, fully aware, and mindful, after removing avarice and sorrow regarding the world; he dwells contemplating the nature of feelings in feelings, ardent, fully aware, and mindful, after removing avarice and sorrow regarding the world; he dwells contemplating the nature of the mind in the mind, ardent, fully aware, and mindful, after removing avarice and sorrow regarding the world; he dwells contemplating the nature of things in various things, ardent, fully aware, and mindful, after removing avarice and sorrow regarding the world.

Thus, Ānanda, a monk lives with himself as an island, himself as a refuge, with no other refuge, with the Teaching as an island, the Teaching as a refuge, with no other refuge. For whoever, Ānanda, whether at present or after my passing, lives with himself as an island, himself as a refuge, with no other refuge, with the Teaching as an island, the Teaching as a refuge, with no other refuge, those monks of mine, Ānanda, will go from darkness to the highest—whoever likes the training.”

The parallel in SN 22.43 is very similar.

What is interesting to me is that the Buddha in both places emphasizes taking oneself and the dhamma as refuge, but methions nothing about the Buddha or the sangha. It is easy to understand why he didn’t talk about taking refuge in the Buddha. He knew that after his death, people could no longer take refuge in him or with him. This is especially pertinent since he is speaking to Ananda, who is worried about what will become of him, given that he has so much to learn and his teacher is dying. But it is interesting that he also didn’t mention the sangha.


Doesn’t seem like neither Chogyam Trungpa nor Sogyal’s followers have ever studied DN 16’s Four Great Referrals. Even for the author of that article “Dogma of the Buddhist Master’s Infallibility”, had he read DN 16, he probably wouldn’t even bother raising the question about the infallibility of Buddhist teachers.


If she understood Buddhism, she would probably have not called them “Buddhist” teachers but rather individuals who incorporated some doctrines of Buddhism into an alternate hedonistic philosophy of moral nihilism. :hatching_chick:

… let him fulfil the precepts… MN 6


That sort of thing is part of the reason I am here on this site. I have a longish history with Zen/Chan, and was disheartened to discover some poor behaviors by people I thought of as well-respected. Then, when I delved into the history of the sects, I learned about some unsettling shenanigans that disturbed me further. I suspect that there’s something incomplete about Zen to begin with, given the heavy emphasis on the “breakthrough” experience, with little attention ever given to the other three-quarters of the Eightfold Path. I started delving into earlier Buddhist material to see where things came from and to see if there might not be a lot I was missing. Yep, turns out there was a lot I was missing. :eyeglasses:


Another interesting read on the topic.


Wow, that is a really powerful essay.

This is a Mad Hatter’s tea party, where hierarchical robes and titles, sadomasochistic austerities, and subterranean libertinism mix together in incestuous “spiritual communities” filled with distrust and rivalries – all this in a scramble for the summit of some distant “spiritual” mountain.


This is how I knew of it:

(To be clear I attended that zendo for one sit but never knew what was going on … except that some of my friends at the time dissuaded me from going there regularly).


I have two things to say about this. One is that the devotion you described might have been creapy, but, I feel that devotion can be really great. It is very important in Tibetan Buddhism, and I feel that the skilfullness in it is that if you have devotion to someone who is teaching you how to train your mind, then you can take that teaching as a ‘sacred’ teaching, which means that you take it very serously, and really try to follow it at all cost. That can give huge enthusiasm and diligence, and really help to make us follow that, rather than habitual tendencies, which may be leading in a very different direction. So that is very helpful.

The second thing is regarding Early Buddhism - I don’t think it’s really about just turning to yourself, and neither just turning to the dhamma, but that rather I feel an importance on top of that, given in the teachings as the triple refuge. And perhaps the most relevant refuge in my opinion is the sangha - the ariya sangha. That is, taking refuge in those people who have attained at least stream entry. And that seems so very important, because they have actually tasted the goal. They know with no doubt the destination of our path. And so they are invaluable to gain influence from, which may include direct guidance. At times even just being with them can, I feel, draw us in. Bring us in closer contact with that goal - just as resonating with different characters gives an affect. And this saves us also from intellectually thinking that we know the dhamma, or believing that our meditation is going the way it should, but being in a situation akin to someone lost in the mountains without a guide, and taking a circuitous route which may never take us to our goal.


How can devotion to a ‘self’ or ‘someone’ result in the realisation of ‘not-self’ (‘anatta’)?

This can also be dangerous; like suicide bombers follow their personal god at all costs.

But not EBT Buddhism.

How can a non-enlightened person know a stream-enterer? Also, where are all of these supposed ‘stream-enterers’ to train under apart from those who declare they are stream-enterers or who the unenlightened believe are stream-enterers?



I’ve never really liked that aspect of Tibetan Buddhism: the idea that one must attach oneself to a lineage in which some special spiritual power, or secret sauce, is “transmitted” mind-to-mind down through the lineage holders. It reminds me of theories like the divine right of kings , and other kinds of superstitious and magical thinking. Who’s to say who is enlightened and who isn’t? I don’t believe some master can literally look into the mind of a student and verify the presence of enlightenment, and so grant the official lineage seal of enlightenment approval. Nobody can know for sure how another mind perceives the world. What you are likely to get in this kind of culture is a bunch of people who have mastered the art of “acting enlightened” in order to project a certain impressive aura. I guess it also gets you plenty of worshipful novices bustling around with eager-to-please “guru devotion”, and that’s one way to make sure the annoying chores get done.

I am sure that this kind of magical aura can make some people feel very devoted, and maybe that makes them strive hard. But this kind of attitude also opens one up to quacks, charlatans, rogues and just dangerously abusive personalities on a power trip. And as long as the student thinks they have to wait around to “get” something from the master, and won’t make real progress until the master deigns to transmit the special sauce with a “meeting of the minds”, it seems more like a cultish technique of psychological enslavement than a healthy teaching environment.

I think the Buddha was pretty clear about the fact that he taught a practice or technique, and that he was incapable of releasing anybody. Once you learn the technique, there is nothing else to do but to refrain from worldly pursuits and from getting caught up in passions and sensual pleasure, and then sit there, observe the suffering in your own fathom-long body, work out from your own experience what mental factors seems to be causing it, and strive to bring an end to the operation of those mental factors by letting go.


I see in the world of beings
divine & human,
a brahman who lives
possessing nothing.
I pay homage to him,
the All-around Eye.
From my perplexities, Sakyan, release me!

The Buddha:

No one in the world, Dhotaka,
can I release from perplexity.
But knowing the most excellent Dhamma,
you will cross over this flood.


Teach with compassion, brahman,
the Dhamma of seclusion
so that I may know—
so that I, unafflicted as space,
may go about right here,
at peace.

The Buddha:

I will expound to you peace
not quoted words—
knowing which, living mindfully,
you’ll go beyond
entanglement in the world.


And I relish, Great Seer,
that peace supreme,
knowing which, living mindfully,
I’ll go beyond
entanglement in the world.

The Buddha:

Whatever you’re alert to,
above, below,
across, in between:
Knowing it as a bond in the world,
don’t create craving
for becoming or non-becoming.

Sutta Nipata 5.5.