At a recent conference in India, the Dalai Lama said, “Don’t follow leaders, watch the parkin’ meters.”
No, wait. Bob Dylan said that, or wrote it rather, in Subterranean Homesick Blues. But what the Dalai Lama did say at the International Conference on Secular Ethics in Nashik, India on Saturday was very similar. According to reports he urged those attending the conference, not to follow any religious leader blindly. “Question,” he said,
Buddha said investigate a thought thoroughly. Study the qualifications of a guru or a leader, meet them, observe till you develop a conviction that what the leader says can be followed.
Know the qualities of a disciple, and as a disciple conduct unbiased investigation; use your intellect and develop enthusiasm to practice what you have accepted and believed. This is the Nalanda tradition and time has come to follow it.”
This is consistent with what the Dalai Lama has been advising for a long time. In my transcript of his teachings on Nagarjuna’s Precious Garland at UCLA in 1997, he told students that when choosing a teacher you should “sniff around so that you can see from both the front and the back,” adding
Then the question is how do we determine what is being taught by a particular teacher is valid of not? And you can only do so by comparing it and relating it to your own understanding of the overview of Buddhist teachings.
It is vitally important for the practitioner to always examine whether what is being taught really accords with the cardinal line set in the basic teachings of Buddhism. If it does not accord with that cardinal line, then it is something to be rejected. This is always the bottom line to be constantly checked against the fundamental tenets of Buddhism.”
Seems like a common sense approach, and yet many people in this world routinely follow leaders blindly. They do and think what they are told without question, without reason, without using any sense at all. I know something about this. I was in a Buddhist organization where unwavering allegiance to and near fanatical devotion for the fearless leader, the President of the organization, was expected on the part of all followers. To question the President’s words or actions was, in my experience, to invite questions about your motives and provoke doubts about your understanding of Buddhism and the quality of your practice.
Once when I did question, I was told by a higher up that I should regard myself as a “disciple of a master, a cub of a lion.” Often the President referred to himself “our father.” But I already have a father. That wasn’t what I was looking for. To be fair, this organization was attached to a Buddhist sect that maintained that if a person even though the High Priest (of the sect) “is capable of making an error, that person is committing heresy.”
One of the aims of Buddhist practice is the death of the ego, but not in the degree that one becomes so depersonalized, they will give themselves over to a spiritual leader or authority figure and cease thinking for themselves. That stems from looking for something or someone outside our own lives as a source for happiness or enlightenment.
Actually, it is good to have leaders and to follow them, however, in doing so we need to exercise critical judgment, as we have already noted. Good leaders are to be valued highly, for leadership is a crucial function in our society; only we should not put them on too high a pedestal. Now, although we are primarily discussing spiritual leadership here, I feel the guiding principles for all leaders are essentially the same.
Some years ago, I shared some guidelines for leaders taken from the Tao Te Ching and perhaps it would be useful, and of interest, to repost:
Lao Tzu’s Principles for Leadership
The best leaders are those whose presence is barely known by others.
Leaders value their words highly and use them sparingly.
Because a leader has faith in others, then others have faith in his or her leadership.
When a leader’s work is done, others will say: we did it ourselves.
Govern a great nation as you would cook a small fish. Do not overdo it.
To lead people, walk beside them.
Love people and lead without cunning or manipulation.
The ancient leaders who followed the Tao did not give people elaborate strategies, but held to a simple practice. It is hard to lead while trying to be clever. Too much cleverness undermines the people’s harmony. Those who lead without such strategies bring benefit to all.
By being lower, rivers and seas are able to receive the homage and tribute of all the valley streams, thus they rule over them all. Therefore, it is a wise leader, wishing to be above the people, who by his words puts himself below them, and, wishing to be before them, follows them.
Leaders go first by putting themselves last. It is from their selflessness that they are able to fulfill themselves.
It is good to empower people, so that no one is wasted.
The best leaders are effective because they do not try to seize power. They are effective because they are not conceited, proud or arrogant.
And, don’t forget: watch the pawking metaws.
The video from D.A. Pennebaker’s 1965 Dylan documentary Don’t Look Back. That’s poet Allen Ginsberg in the background chatting animatedly with Dylan road manager Bob Neuwirth.