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Tulkus' Conference on Nonsectarianism

Alexander Berzin
Unofficial Summary Report of the Fourth Nonsectarian Conference
of the Incarnate Lamas and Abbots of All the Tibetan Spiritual Traditions
Sarnath, India, December 5-8, 1988

The conference was convened at the request of His Supreme Presence, His Holiness the Dalai Lama, and organized by the Council for Religious and Cultural Affairs, Dharamsala, and the Central Institute for Higher Tibetan Studies, Sarnath. Approximately 350 Incarnate Lamas (Tulkus) and Abbots attended from all five Tibetan spiritual traditions – Nyingma, Sakya, Kagyu, Gelug, and Bon. Several foreign observers were invited as well. The agenda was to discuss the future of the Tibetan spiritual traditions in the Indian subcontinent, Tibet and foreign countries, and the relationship with science and foreign religions.

The main theme of the conference was the preservation of all the Tibetan spiritual traditions, lineages and cultural aspects, without sectarian distinction, especially in light of the future of Tibet. The assembly unanimously reaffirmed the leadership of His Supreme Presence, His Holiness the Dalai Lama, and requested him to continue to be the leader and uphold the responsibility for the welfare of all the Tibetans, especially in terms of political negotiations with the People' s Republic of China.

Numerous suggestions were forwarded by many of the delegates and presented at three general meetings and two working sessions of six smaller groups. Among them were:

  • Everyone needs to combine efforts and resources to preserve whatever lineages or cultural aspects were in the most danger of being lost.
  • There needs to be a common set of prayers, chosen from those translated from Indian sources, for the Buddhist monasteries of all traditions and also for the foreign Dharma centers, so that there would be a unifying sense that all are Buddhist. Then, in addition, each would have its own special rituals.
  • There needs to be less emphasis on the external development of ornate temples and buildings, and more on the internal development of the practitioners.
  • The monastic rules need to be kept more purely, and there needs to be different categories of robes for those holding different levels of vows so that, for instance, married Lamas with lay vows do not wear the robes of a celibate monk.
  • More emphasis needs to be paid to educating not only the monastic, but the lay Tibetan community in Buddhism, Bon, and Tibetan cultural aspects.
  • There needs to be as much energy put into Dharma education and teaching in Tibet as has been done in foreign countries. The best teachers need not be sent abroad, but need to put their main focus on teaching in the monasteries in India, Nepal and Bhutan to ensure the future of Buddhism and Bon.
  • There needs to be more control over the sending and travel of Lamas in foreign countries, perhaps under the supervision of the Council for Religious and Cultural Affairs. More emphasis needs to be placed on giving basic foundation teachings in foreign countries, and there needs to be more control over and restraint in giving advanced tantric initiations and teachings to those who are unprepared.
  • The best measure to prevent divisive sectarianism is education. Therefore, just as there have been exchange programs between Buddhist and Christian monasteries, there needs to be similar exchange among the monks and nuns of the five Tibetan traditions.
  • More research and attention needs to be placed on the Bon tradition to establish the antiquity and uniqueness of Tibetan civilization. This will help counter the Chinese attempts to show Tibetan civilization as being a mere offshoot of Chinese with some borrowed aspects from India.
  • Effort needs to be made in preserving the Tibetan literary traditions and improving the standard of Tibetan language use.
  • Simple books on science and foreign religions and philosophies need to be translated into Tibetan and taught at the monasteries and lay schools so as to form the basis for dialogue with modern foreign ideas.
  • Modern education needs to be added to the monks' and nuns' training in the monasteries.
  • The essence of the Buddha' s teachings is the Four Noble Truths and the two truths, whereas with skillful means the scriptures teach a physical description of the universe that was in harmony with the currently held beliefs of ancient India. Therefore, steps need to be taken to research how to present the essence of Buddha' s teachings in harmony with modern theories of science and geography, while bearing in mind that the currently held theories may change in the future.

Many further suggestions were made by the participants. These will be compiled and, although there is no official declaration from the conference, steps will slowly be taken to try to implement some of them.

Everyone agreed that this conference was a historic occasion. Although it was the fourth non-sectarian conference held of all the Tibetan spiritual traditions, it was certainly the largest. It is hoped that more such conferences will be held regularly in the future, perhaps inviting Tulkus from Tibet next time as well. In the meantime, there will be committees of representatives from each of the Tibetan spiritual traditions to work on these proposals in the spirit of nonsectarian cooperation.