The Great American Buddhist Teachers Council

by Rev Danny Fisher, The Buddhist Channel, June 24, 2011

Lama Surya Das Speaks to Danny Fisher about the 2011 Buddhist Teachers Council

For those who use the internet at all to help them track news about the growth and development of Buddhism in America, discussion of the recent Buddhist Teachers Council has been pretty hard to miss in the last couple of weeks. With the gathering being closed and by invitation only, and almost no information provided to the public about the event in advance of it, web chatter about the “Maha Teachers Conference” reached a fever pitch on Twitter and blogs especially. A Huffington Post article and some blogging by conference participants following the meeting offered some details, but also inspired additional questions.

<< Gathering of the largest number of American Buddhist teachers at any one time, recently held at the Garrison Institute. Photo courtesy of Roshi Joan Halifax

One of the conference’s main organizers, Lama Surya Das – the mighty American-born Tibetan Buddhist teacher, founder of the Dzogchen Center in Cambridge, and author of such books as Awakening the Buddha Within and Buddha Standard Time – very graciously and with typical warmth and humor agreed to answer some questions and clarify aspects of the event for curious readers. Here is our Q&A….

The announcement about the conference at the Garrison Institute website really didn't explain much about the purpose of and goals for the gathering. It stated only that about 230 teachers would be present and, among other things, would be considering "the promise and the pitfalls as the Dharma spreads more widely into medicine, science, healing, education, the arts and all aspects of Western culture," "how to preserve and adapt the Dharma in new conditions without losing depth," and passing the torch as it were from "elders to the next generation." Can you tell us a little bit about how this meeting came together, and what outcomes the organizers were hoping for?

This international Buddhist Teachers Council was over two years in the planning, yet we wanted to keep the materials and plans for schedule and topics fairly light, flexible, and open to emergent developments…among those who were actually present…when the time actually came around. Of course the general theme was according to Buddha's injunction that "Followers of the Way should get together regularly in order to help maintain a healthy and flourishing sangha and community."

Thus everyone we could think of was invited who represented the different groups and traditions of Buddhist teaching in the West, regardless of tradition, background, skin color, gender, personal prejudice, etc. Of course, the thousands of Buddhist teachers, translators, and academics etc. in the West could not all be accommodated, so we set out to fill the hosting Garrison Institute on the wooded banks of the Hudson River with 200-240 of the most leading, long term, dedicated, English-speaking and representative teachers spanning the entire spectrum of Buddhism in the West, while consciously including for the first time 45-50 young Dharma teachers (under age 45).

They were all there, or at least represented: from the monks and nuns to the house-holding laypeople, from the true believers to the new Buddhist atheists, from the meditators and yogis to the scholars and academics, from the sutra translators to the mindfulness-only instructors, from the organizationally and institutionally-minded center-and-temple builders to the non-institutional anarchist deconstructionists, from devout Buddhists and devotees to meditation teachers who don’t identify themselves as Buddhist, and so forth -- all flying their flags, banners and emblems in one way or another, whether gross or subtle. Why not?

Yet it heightened my awareness about the absolute necessity of broadening true diversity in our Buddhist groups and community, something more challenging than I'd ever thought it would or should be, and the challenges of holding harmoniously together in one place or coherent framework the various strands and currents of Dharma in the West.

One bright young star, a married Dharma teacher, mother and author, explicitly questioned at a plenary session if it was our group's conscious intent to come out of this large council with the intent to further “The Mindful Society,” as had been mentioned in the original invitational materials. Why not “The Enlightened Society,” “The Awakened Society,” “The Harmonious Society,” “The Peaceful Society,” “The Wise Society,” “The Compassionate Society,” or fill-in-the-blank, she penetratingly asked? Several others, including some European voices, stated their feeling that the large council and its interpersonal process was too mindfulness-tradition oriented and west-coast or even American-style for them.

How much joy and love, wisdom and experience, dedication and commitment and creativity and originality there was in the main gathering room, coming in so many directions and at almost tangible in so many different ways and dimensions. I was very moved much of the time with the feeling of meeting for the first time many true brothers and sisters on the path, especially the young'uns (30's and early forties). I liked and appreciated almost everyone. There was a little status-seeking and posturing and jockeying for position, and raising the banner of their own center, guru or project, but it was fairly minimal, given the outsized personalities present and the unremitting passion we all bring to these things. The second three days with 185 teachers was too busy and fragmented, I felt, and included too much process (about how we were going to spend our time together) and not enough content for me, though there were definitely some historic moments, insights, good laughs, memorable stories to take home and recount, and even some revelations.

Maybe it would have been best to drop the idea that there would be any issue we could really get into deeply, given the time and numbers of diverse people present – and instead just relish the positive qualities of coming together in this way and moving forward together for the benefit of the Dharma and the world, which needs it so much.

Over the years, I've found that one of the definite benefits of these gatherings is to help nurture and nourish people who may be working in isolation. Too many good-hearted  people find themselves in a teaching role without much or even any teacher training, and only practitioner training, or without a living master-teacher to supervise and encourage them further on their own path of enlightenment so that they don’t get stuck or plateu’d, not to mention side-tracked or burnt out, along the Way. Some of us have been discussing for years the need to develop and further refine effective and suitable models for thorough teacher training programs. How lonely it is for so many teachers, challenging, and both isolated and isolating -- especially in our own post-modern and increasingly secular and economically stressed culture. And how dangerous it is to be isolated; too many teachers who have fallen by the wayside are examples. I like to remember the African saying: "If you want to go swiftly, travel alone. If you want to go far, travel together."

Gelek Rinpoche, the Asian elder at the council and spiritual advisor of the Garrison Institute, told us that when the Tibetan refugees first came out of Tibet in 1959, several dozen of the leading Tibetan lamas eventually gathered after some time at Dharmasala with the Dalai Lama and had a council to discuss where they were, what possibilities and potential were available, what to do, and how to survive, preserve their precious heritages both spiritual and cultural, and flourish themselves and with their refugees communities in the new world of India. Lama Gelek mentioned that he sees this kind of council as part of continuing in that important and necessary direction.

All in all it was very collegial, without much politics or hidden agendas, and harmonious. Some good things are already starting to come out of it, like the first nonsectarian gatherings of Vajrayanist teachers in the West, following long behind the  Zen teacher and Vipassana teacher meeting tradition held almost annually over the past two or more decades.
I understand from talking to another participant that the conveners saw this as one in a continuum of meetings that have been happening over the years and have typically been smaller. Is this correct? If not, can you put this into context for us in terms of other ecumenical Buddhist teacher gatherings that have happened? How was this one particularly significant?

This meeting was the latest in a series of ecumenical or trans-sectarian (triyana) conferences begun by some of us with the Dalai Lama in March of 1993, for ten days in Dharamsala, India, principally at my and the Dzogchen Foundation's initiative and leadership. (See the two-hour Mystic Fire video In the Spirit of Free Inquiry from that first groundbreaking conference, including 40 Buddhist meditation teachers from many if not most of the traditions and from around the world, Asian and Western.) This week-long conference with the Dalai Lama was repeated in 1994 and 1996, with a core group and some changing participants, depending on peoples schedules and interests, with the Dalai Lama's keen interest and participation in a circle discussion in his large audience and living room. After that the meetings moved West, and took place at Spirit Rock, at Mt. Madonna Center, at Green Gulch Zen Center, in Boston, at the World Trade Center several months before 9/11, and elsewhere on a fairly ad hoc basis every year or two with many of the same organizers informally aligned with me and soon Jack Kornfield as the informal Western Buddhist Teachers Network, with the Dalai Lama as our senior advisor and nonsectarian Buddhist sponsor. All this work culminated in a large gathering of almost 300 Buddhist teachers with the Dalai Lama, Maha Ghosananda of Cambodia, several Tibetan lamas, Asian Theravadin monks and nuns, and other leaders East and West at Spirit Rock Center in Woodacre, Marin County, CA, for several days in 2001.

At lunch one day during that meeting, the Dalai Lama told us that it was now up to us to keep meeting, and he gave us his blessings and encouragement to continue to do so.
Smaller subgroups of Dharma teachers have continued to meet around the country, beneath the radar, over the years, as wanted and needed, to discuss various matters of mutual interest, including various possible forms of collaboration, current issues, personal issues, and the like. Questions often involving such things as monastic and lay practice today, gender equality, social justice, diversity, hierarchy and democracy, translation and study of traditional texts, balancing study and practice, the changing face of Buddhism and religion in the world today, preservation (authenticity) and adaptation (innovation), breadth and depth, integrating mindfulness and spirituality into daily life, engaged Buddhism, Buddhism's encounter with modernity, the essence of the teaching and study of liberating Dharma, pedagogy, training students, teacher training, and so forth, etc.

This one – which owes much to the efforts of Jim Gimian (publisher of Shambhala Sun) and other Dharma teachers on our ad hoc inviting committee, including Judith Simmer-Brown, Norman Fischer, and some of the staff at Garrison (such as David Rome and Erin Koch) – was deemed as significant for a couple of prominent reasons, by the organizers and a few other interested parties and savvy elder advisors…

1. To gather the pioneers and elders of American Buddhism and Buddhism in America and discuss the present and future of Buddhism here and in the world, and particularly its continuance, legacy, and special qualities for benefiting the world, while many are still alive, perhaps for the last time. (Many have passed away in recent years, including most recently Charlotte Joko Beck Sensei, John Daido Loori Roshi, E. Gene Smith and Ven. Gerard Godet of the Tibetan tradition, and Robert Aitkin Roshi.) Numerous Asian teachers resident in the West have also passed away since the last gathering, in 2001 at Spirit Rock. A great deal of questioning, inquiry, discussion and learning – informational and philosophical both – came out of this aspect of the gathering. One respected pioneer teacher and meditation center founder stated what he thought the absolute bottom line was in terms of authorizing a student to teach and carry on his line. Others discussed what is the very essence of Buddha Dharma, where their personal practice is currently at, and so forth.

2. To discuss in a fairly informal and intimate setting, out of the public eye or the media watch, where we and Buddhism are at – or seem to be at – what it is, how it's unfolding and evolving, and what if any kind of future near and far we can foresee and wish to help shape, for the benefit of one and all. Thus the first three days of pre-council conference, from June 5-8, was comprised of small groups of a few dozen invited teachers, old and young, and the three day council itself (June 8-11) included almost 200 invited teachers.

3. The intent to explore the passing on of the lamp (transmission) and mantle of teaching/mentoring to the next generation teachers, generally and specifically regarding those who might be present and ready, willing and able to uphold our lineage(s) going forward. I must say that the NextGen group of Dharma teachers from around the Western world, mostly Americans, exceeded all expectations and stepped up to the plate in their inimitable, bold and insouciant way. Questions came up including how can the Elders best serve the new generation; how we as Elders can sustain, back and help the younger generation empower themselves while getting out of their way and genuinely serve as midwifes at their delivery; how the new generation of both students and teachers can experience the kind of immersion some of us benefited by being trained in over the early decades of Dharma moving from east to west (Sixties through Nineties), with many of the true pioneering, late, great Buddhist masters present among us at that time.

Can you help us understand why, beyond the simple space issues at the Garrison Institute, it was decided to do this one "out of the public eye or the media watch?" I ask because this seemed to be an issue that rubbed Buddhist bloggers and others the wrong way. Additionally, some of the past gatherings have been open – I was at the New York meeting in 2001 as an audience member, for example. And, of course, with issues of accountability and transparency getting pushed broadly every time a scandal arises in a Buddhist community, I suppose concern might be understandable among students.

This Buddhist (practice) Teachers Council – which was not for academics, scholars, translations per se, unless they were teaching dharma as a practice in the west – was a little different than the public and for-profit “Buddhism in America” conferences that Al Rapaport organized in Boston and in NYC and in LA as well. But, in fact, AP reporter Rachel Zoll, Jaweed Kaleem from The Huffington Post, and Tricycle and Shambhala Sun too were invited and there.

We decided that in order to have honest and open, frank exchanges about certain difficulties and issus, people would feel more safe and free, even in large groups, if a certain amount of confidentiality was provided, like in a support group, rather than a very public meeting or conference gathering with the public and whomever attending.

We thought that Garrison could and should videotape the discussions for our future use and archival purposes and as a record, but the teachers gathered during the first days of the six voted to stop taping for much of it in order to ensure deeper and more candid exchanges.
In his article about the conference that he wrote for The Huffington Post, religion reporter Jaweed Kaleem wrote, "Most attendees at the Maha Council were white, many were men, and the average age skewed toward the 50s." I talked to a few conference participants who felt that this wasn't exactly accurate. Can you share with us your sense of the conference demographics? Who was well represented? Who would you like to see better represented in the future?

These conferences are among the most diverse and representative of any kind of similar gatherings in the world, the western world, and certainly in the Buddhist community. Needless to say, we can continue to strive to do better and be more conscientious regarding gender equality, diversity and inclusiveness, and form and structure as well. Between 4-500 Buddhist teachers of all the various traditions east and west were actually invited to this MahaCouncil or Great Gathering, and approximately 190 actually came, many of whom actively participated on the spot in the emergent nature of the conference’s activities and forms, some of whom have volunteered to help organize further such gatherings.

Jack Kornfield was quoted in Kaleem's piece as saying, "There is still a pretty big divide between temples and teachers whose communities are of immigrants and those who are called convert Buddhists. I don't know how to address this." Would you agree with that assessment, and, if so, did any ideas for addressing this divide in the future emerge from the conference?

This is a tough one, and accurate. Few among us as yet seem to know how to adequately address this division, or even to what extant it is a problem and needs to be addressed. Ethnic immigrant communities are fairly insular in their country of origin and sect practices and activities, for example involving their native languages and priests and monastics in leadership roles, and involving native rites and rituals, faithful followers and devotees, family and lay community participation and orientation, etc. Western Dharma centers, of which there are several thousand in North America alone, are generally more English-language and meditation-oriented, for the most part, led by immigrant teachers and masters lay and monastic as well as authentic homegrown Buddhist teachers trained either in Asia or, more recently, the West. In these Western Dharma centers and Buddhist meditation groups and retreats, mainly populated by converts with Judeo-Christian roots, philosophical study and meditation training is usually emphasized over rituals and beliefs; questioning and discussion often plays a significant role; and students as well as teachers – sometimes, but not always – interact or even study and practice with teachers and kindred spirits from other Dharmic traditions, one of the unique hallmarks of Western Buddhism. Psychotherapy and other modern scientific healing and health modalities are also more prominent and popular among Western Buddhists than the ethnic Buddhists, which also sets the groups apart.

The absence of almost all of the invited notable Asian teachers long active in the West at the conference was somewhat disappointing, and may auger a new era and generation of Western Buddhism. I particularly missed their presence, though the cross-cultural issues are certainly there when we do get together and not everyone agrees they should and can be fruitfully included. However, it seems unfortunate that we don't have their experienced voices, perspectives and traditional concerns heard among our teacher sangha right now, and it may auger ill for both us and them going forward in these turbulent and uncertain times.

Lastly, what was personally beneficial or exciting to you about the conference? What would you want to share about it with others?

I think that perhaps the most beneficial outcome of these conferences, councils and gatherings is the vibrancy of Dharma exploration and development in this new world, and our mutual experiencing of the common ground and convergences we all share, as Dharma practitioners and teachers. Also, we come to further experience and appreciate the differences and divergences through making genuine contact with others we might not otherwise encounter or understand, especially those from other schools, sects and lineage traditions which rarely if ever encountered and new each other in the Old World.

My friends and colleagues often say that many of the most meaningful encounters we have had at these conferences and councils, over the years, occur among individuals and small groups in between the cracks of the various sessions and group activities, panels, and presentations – at meals and on walks, in the bathrooms, etc. I personally love seeing old friends and colleagues, exchanging views and experiences, and catching up with them and where their thought and path is at during this stage of life: what they're doing, struggling with, and accomplishing; and exploring together questions such as: What is the leading edge of our personal practice or our sangha community and its combinations of depth and breadth, traditional and adaptation, outreach and in-reach, in this time and place here in America and Europe. How can I and we best fulfill our bodhisattva vow of altruistic compassion in action in this age and stage of my life? And, where do we go together from here, in this great Dharma Barn-Raising in America the Buddha-Full?


Rev. Danny Fisher, M.Div., D.B.S. (Cand.), is a professor and Coordinator of the Buddhist Chaplaincy Program at University of the West. Prior to his appointment at UWest, he served on the adjunct faculty for Antioch Education Abroad’s Buddhist Studies in India program. He earned his bachelor’s degree in Religion from Denison University and Master of Divinity from Naropa University, and is currently finishing his doctorate in Buddhist Studies at UWest. Visit his blog:

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