Without names, so that timeless lessons can be universally learnt, the below is based on an actual incident.
There was a public Dharma talk with many misconceptions shared. A teacher, having taken the reasonably calculated risk of recommending it to some students earlier, after realising there were these mistakes, swiftly sent clarifications to the students, including the speaker and organisation. As the speaker had a retreat coming soon, there was discouragement from attending it too, in case more misconceptions might be shared during talks in the retreat. To set an example, the teacher apologised for the recommending and de-registered from the retreat. However, there was the offer that if those who still choose to attend it become confused, they can clarify with the teacher.
The points of clarification with some photographed slides of the talk were also sent to another teacher for a second opinion, who warned of similar problems in classes before. This second teacher has even more specialised and direct knowledge of the issues involved. A few of the teacher’s students also discussed after the talk together, arriving at the same points of concern. Thus, the points mentioned were definitely not one-sided.
Some who missed the fact that the clarifications were already sent to the speaker and organisation felt that the teacher should clarify before sending the message to discourage participation in the retreat. However, the clarifications were already sent through three channels, which were more than adequate. As the talk had ended, the clarifications had to be sent to students who were there.
In the hope that the speaker makes amends in time, the teacher went the extra mile of sending the clarifications to the speaker swiftly after the talk, which not many others, including teachers would do. Playing safe and as basic damage control, the teacher was being responsible by discouraging participation in the retreat that was starting in less than 35 hours’ time. As dreaded, (at least) one of the highlighted mistakes was repeated in the retreat.
There was no need to clarify in terms of asking the speaker any question, as the mistakes highlighted were clearly mistakes, while the corrections with right views sent required time for the speaker to digest properly. The speaker could also reply if further clarifications were needed. To date, even after the retreat, there is no reply.
Were divisive issues in the talk due to differences in opinion? At least one of the repeatedly asserted statements amounts to slander of a historical Patriarch, that can confuse many, causing a split in the Buddhist community. Also, the organisation founded by this Patriarch today remains one of the major thriving Dharma centres propagating the related teachings. It is not that any Patriarch would be offended but that the lineage of Patriarchs was carefully formed over much time, such that discrediting one casts doubts on the great contributions and teachings, that were crucial for the harmonious development of the whole lineage.
Were the talk and retreat different events? Well, past retreats included short talks. Was there was discrediting of the whole organisation? Neither the name of the organisation nor speaker was mentioned in the clarifications sent to the students. There was nothing personal. It was about sharing corrections to protect the integrity of the Dharma, and to protect Dharma practitioners. That was all. Will participants naturally sift out what they do not understand or disagree with in talks and retreats? Those not proficient in the teachings might get confused without even knowing they are being confused.
Was withdrawing from the retreat drastic? It was due to concern that some students who attend it might think along the line that ‘if my teacher is attending it, everything taught should be fine.’ The teacher’s participation would indirectly endorse a speaker already known to have inaccurate teachings. Even if the teacher can spot the wrong teachings personally, the students might not be able to do so fully.
Risking being misunderstood and unappreciated, yet, out of genuine concern, the teacher is known for being forthright in clarification of misrepresented Dharma, in classes and writing, online and in publications. The teacher also strongly advocates active enquiry, open discussion and critical thinking in classes. The teacher also meticulously researched and translated teachings for a live session of clarification with the students. The teacher is always on the lookout for good Dharma activities to recommend with rejoice, but only after careful selection, often postponing clashing classes so that more can attend them together. Not many other teachers recommend others’ activities, what more postpone their own activities for them.
This case of mis-recommendation was simply a miscalculation, that was not really the fault of the teacher, due to the generally good reputation of the organisation and recommendation by others. Yet, apology for mis-recommendation and clarifications were swift. There was absolutely no benefit for the teacher to speak unfairly on what was recommended sincerely before. The teacher sincerely wishes that many teach the precious Dharma accurately, so that many can learn it well. It was mentioned that the only reason that there is active teaching on the teacher’s part, is that there are not enough teachers teaching accurately. This case further affirms so.
Allegiance should first and foremost be to the Dharma, never having blind faith in any organisation or teacher, even if famous, because organisations are made up of many unenlightened ones, who, like ourselves, surely still make some mistakes. The Dharma is always the supreme authority. As the Buddha taught, we should rely on the Dharma; not on any person (who is not a Buddha). It can however be challenging to differentiate the Dharma from organisations and teachers that offer it, and to differentiate emotional attachment from rational assessment. The more this is so, the more mindful we must be.
If we are not strict and clear on what are authentic Dharma teachings, how can we learn the true Dharma, what more to practise, realise and propagate it? As in the koan of ‘Wild Fox Zen’, even a wrong word used can lead to terrible consequences for both teachers and students, leading to fall to rebirth as an animal for 500 lives. What more to say, of many wrong words that form many wrong sentences? Responsible teachers will never risk their students’ spiritual lives. Responsible teachers will be quick to correct, while always urging continual proper learning to ensure that students are staying on and walking forward on the right path.
Here is a simple question to conclude with. If any one of the Patriarchs are alive now, will they encourage even a single person to attend a retreat conducted by someone who slanders a Patriarch, thus misrepresenting their unified teachings on the whole? It is surely extremely unlikely that they would. The teacher was simply protecting the students, by warning accordingly as a responsible teacher would, while also remaining open to clarify with those who disagree, or who are confused. Last but not least, the teacher sincerely hopes that all teachers and students will gather precious lessons from this case, just as the teacher personally did.