This video is an interview with Karma Yeshe Rabgye (a Western monk in the Tibetan Buddhist tradition) in which he gives good advice for students of Tibetan Buddhism looking for a teacher and particularly for those being abused by their lama. He is, of course, talking from a Western perspective, and we’ve hit the wall of cultural differences here when trying to get lamas to make public stances against misconduct, so I don’t think he’ll get far with his call for lamas to speak out. But his advice for Western students is basically: you’re a Westerner, you know it’s wrong, so don’t be bound by the fear tactics (samaya) of a feudal culture that has no relevance to you as a modern Western person, and report all incidences of criminal behaviour to the police. Lamas in the West must abide by Western law and should be given no special treatment just because they and you think they’re someone special.
I agree with his point that Tibetan Buddhism in its feudal form will continue on the fringes, but it likely will eventually die out in the West because the feudal aspects (in which he includes the tulku system) are simply not relevant to the modern world. The Tibetan Buddhism that will survive is where the lamas adapt to the modern world and needs of their Western students. Adapt or die is the way of the world, after all.
Finding a teacher
Many of the readers here are so disgusted by the behaviour of Tibetan lamas that they don’t want anything to do with the religion anymore, but others understand that despite the religious limitations, Tibetan Buddhism does have a lot to offer those seeking to understand their mind and learn effective ways of operating in the world. The question then is how do you find a teacher that won’t abuse you.
As well as checking them out thoroughly, particularly noticing whether or not they practice what they preach and whether they have a secret inner circle (particularly if it’s all young women), Karma Yeshe talks about looking at how we are as students, and asking ourselves, what do we want from the relationship and how do we see the teacher. If we see him or her as a saviour who will tell us what to do, as a daddy figure or a god, then we’re opening ourselves up to abuse.
This echoes the approach I take in my book Fallout: Recovering from Abuse in Tibetan Buddhism where I suggest that we can’t change the teachers but we can change the way we relate to them. ‘We must forge a new way of relating to our spiritual teachers’, a healthier relationship than the teachings proscribe, one where we do not fall into blind devotion.
Such a relationship, however, can only be achieved by someone who does not have codependent tendencies, someone who has clear boundaries and good self-esteem, but those who seek gurus may be weak in these areas. If you don’t think you can manage not to fall into a submissive, codependent relationship with a guru, I suggest you do some solid work with a psychotherapist before seeking a guru.
The other important point Karma Yeshe makes is that we should have many teachers. We can learn different things from different teachers. The idea that we should have one teacher for life should be discarded as it’s limiting at best and dangerous at worst. We must retain control of our spiritual path.
The only way out of this mess, I think, is for students to vow to never compromise their personal integrity, to take responsibility for their own spiritual path rather than handing control over to another, and to keep their critical thinking faculties engaged at all levels of the path rather than blindly accepting every pronouncement by a lama as wisdom. To give any of that up in the name of devotion is neither wise nor in line with what the Buddha taught.
Speaking up is Karma Yeshe’s advice, but we all know that’s not easy. Certainly it’s important to step outside of the TB conditioning so that you’re not afraid to make a police report, but stepping outside of a belief system into which you’ve been indoctrinated is really hard. It takes time. I think I’ll write a whole post on this after some more thought, but the first step is to follow any grievance procedure that is in place in your sangha, and to record all communications.
If no such procedure exists then email whoever is in charge with a formal complaint. You can google how to make a formal complaint. Also keep a record of when the email was sent, and send a copy to a another person for them to also keep a record of. Again, keep a record of all communications on the matter. Copy and paste them into a Word document.
And lodge a complaint with the police as soon as you realise you’ve been abused in some way. That doesn’t mean that you’ll be taking legal action, it just means the police will have a record of it. We have to get over this idea that good Buddhist don’t involve the police. If a crime has been committed, we need to report it. We don’t need to sue, but we do need to make a report. This is vital for any investigation, particularly if someone else comes forward with a similar experience.
If you get no satisfaction from a grievance procedure or from lodging a formal complaint, then you may wish to warn others by going public. That will have repercussions that will be hard to handle – such as vilification from sangha members (and I’ll go into them in more detail another post) – and if you decide that’s the way you want to go, the question is how best to do it. Clearly getting others together so there is more than one voice speaking out is the best option, but it’s not always possible to do that even if you know the same thing is happening to others.
If you’re a lone voice, it’s hard. Journalists can’t publish someone’s story unless it’s verified by at least one other person, and they have good reason to believe that the allegations have some basis in fact. Someone not publishing your story doesn’t mean they don’t believe you, it just means they need more information. It’s about responsible journalism. My policy here is not to be the original source for someone’s public statement of their experience of abuse.
Facebook rants don’t work. Share in a closed group, by all means, but if you want to make a clear statement, I don’t advise Facebook because it’s too easy for people to abuse you and even get your account shut down. Utube videos do work, but I suggest that you don’t allow comments unless you’re either going to ignore them all, or are prepared for abuse from the true believers.
Tell your story to the camera and make sure you begin by saying that this is your lived experience, your story, that this is what happened to you. To be even safer, do not directly accuse the perpetrator of a crime. You can say, he sexually abused me in these ways, but don’t say, ‘He’s a sexual abuser or a sexual pervert.’ That’s slander.
If there’s only you and you don’t want to do a video, I suggest making your own statement on your own webpage (they’re free through WordPress.com). Then you can share the link to it wherever you want, and blogs like this can link to it as an allegation.
Most important is to look after yourself. I suggest reading my book and seeing a counsellor.
If you’ve been in a cult, or have been a victim of spiritual abuse and institutional betrayal, reading Fallout could literally be even better than going to a psychologist, because it will go straight to the point, it will take you step by step through a process of recognizing what you’ve been through, in order to deal with it.
What do you think of what Karma Yeshe Rabgye says in the podcast? And do you have any advice for those who have been abused and are wondering what to do that I can include in a comprehensive post on the topic?
A reflection on Sogyal Rinpoche’s death and feudalism in Tibetan Buddhism.
The first thought I had on hearing of Sogyal’s death was ‘The king is dead: long live the king.’ I ignored it, thinking it was one of those useless bits of mind vomit that invade our minds, but the phrase kept popping up during my quiet times, during my morning walk or meditation, along with a sense of what unpacking that phrase might mean in the present circumstances of Sogyal’s death. Wanting to retire into anonymity, I resisted writing about it, but eventually the insistence with which the phrase kept reoccurring made me accept that, like it or not, I had to write about Sogyal’s death in light of this phrase. So here it is:
Sogyal is the king to which we’re referring here. He (along with his willing slaves, of which I was one) created his kingdom, Rigpa, and he sat on the Rigpa throne – usually an office chair – encouraged by his students, who showed the kind of deference and devotion peasants are expected to show their king.
He gathered a court around him, an inner circle of lords and
ladies, who protected him from the demands of the peasants and pandered to his
every whim. And he had a harem of beautiful women to attend to his sexual
gratification. Women who he and his court convinced were ‘special’ and lucky to
gain his attention.
This is not Buddhist in any way, it’s just feudalism. Even
Western kings prior to the time of the French Revolution had access to pretty
much any woman they chose. No one would turn away the attentions of the king.
The benefits to one’s family were considerable – see the movie The Other Boleyn
Girl – not to mention the lavish lifestyle to into which the woman
would be thrust as a concubine or mistress. Coercion into the bed of the
master, lord or king was a fact of life for woman in medieval times, as was the
brutal disregard with which they were discarded when the person with power over
them and their family grew tired of her charms.
And he had knights who went out and did his work for him:
National Directors, Study and Practice Co-ordinators, Practice co-ordinators, Finance
and fundraising co-ordinators, event managers, and so on.
Those who spoke badly of the king were publically drawn and
quartered, and so dissent was effectively squashed. The only option for those
who saw that the Kingly garb was an illusion was exile.
We even called him a ‘master’. The historical meaning of that word is ‘a man who has people working for him, especially servants or slaves’. Synonyms: lord, overlord, ruler, sovereign, monarch, liege
The true nature of the king
Few knew the true nature of any king in a feudal society. Only
his closest courtiers. And if the king was an idiot or abusive (as I suspect
many of them were, given that absolute power tends to corrupt absolutely and
the brutality of the human race in general up until the development of the concept
of human rights around 250 years ago in France), his knights and advisors
worked with that as best they could. The monarchies were good at making fine
shows to satisfy the populace that they were being taken care of – so long as
they were faithful to the crown. Pomp and ceremony and fancy speeches promoted
the idea of a truly wise and benevolent king or queen regardless of the true personality
of the regent. Sound familiar? Anything Buddhist here? Nope, just feudalism.
In the same way, us ordinary peasants had no idea of Sogyal’s
true personality. We saw aspects of it, but just as a peasant in a feudal society
would ignore any indications that the king wasn’t the noble being he was made
out to be, so did we. To see him differently was dangerous. If the illusion
came tumbling down, so did our place in the society/cult. And King Sogyal’s
knights and couriers always did the required damage control to soothe the
When I realised that Sogyal wasn’t the man I thought he was,
when I realised that although he could be kind and apparently (as I saw him)
loving, he could also be incredibly cruel, and that although he seemed very
insightful at times, he could also do incredibly stupid things, I realised that
the ‘kingliness’ I’d perceived in him had been nothing more than a projection
on my part.
I wanted a spiritual teacher who was perfect, so that’s what
I created for myself. But there never was a king. Even though we had one.
I’m reminded of the words: Mind (it exists) is devoid of
mind (it doesn’t exist). The nature of mind is clear light. (Nevertheless it manifests
as clear light.) Sogyal was not a king, nor was he enlightened, nevertheless he
manifested as a king for those who wanted a king. Despite his personality disorder,
he faithfully dispensed his kingly duties as he’d been taught to do by his upbringing
and teachers, and just as a king who is rotten to the core can still follow legal
protocol and preside over a court to dispense justice for those seeking it, so,
too, could Sogyal provide what we came looking for. If our introductions to the
nature of our mind was just a projection from our side, it still did the trick,
because the protocol for introduction, well established over centuries, was
strong enough in itself that it still worked regardless of the lacks of the
person presiding – at least for those whose minds were ready for a little nudge
in the right direction.
King Sogyal died for me as soon as I realised he wasn’t a king
(not a role model for achieving enlightenment). I grieved back in June 2017.
Now the man Sogyal Lakar is dead as well. People have their
own reactions to that, depending on their relationship to him. But regardless
of how one feels about this personally, his death likely raises questions about
death and our relationship to it.
Our personal relationship to death
I grew up on a farm. I saw a lot of dead animals. Death was simply
part of life for us. Even now I live in the country and on my walks will come
across the remains of some animal. I’ve also travelled a lot in outback
Australia where road kill is common. I’ve driven along sections of roads lined
with the desiccated corpses of kangaroos, and plucked feathers from dead birds with
which to decorate masks and hats.
I look at my family often with the awareness that death will
one day take me from them or them from me. My daughter, when she was growing
up, often told me how unusual our family was because her friends’ parents never
talked about death. My husband often says, ‘I’ll be dead by then.’ We don’t
pussy foot around the topic. My mother (93 yrs old) told me how relieved she
was that I would actually talk to her about her impending death. ‘No one else
will talk about it,’ she told me.
My father died from cancer when I was in my twenties, and that
hit me hard. I remember him saying to me, ‘I’m not afraid to die. I’ve led a
good life. I know where I’m going.’ As a Christian who lived by the words of
Jesus, he had no reason to fear. He was a genuinely good person.
I’m not afraid of death, either. I never believed the
Tibetan Buddhist stuff about bardos and ending up in lotus flowers for
centuries if you didn’t realise you were in one! And being released into a pure
realm if you did realise. Sheesh who needs that kind of pressure to remember
all that shit when you’re dying – don’t look at the dim lights or you’ll end up
as a pig! Apparently Tibetans fear death more than any other race. And it’s no
wonder. I’d be scared, too, if I really thought I’d be facing terrifying beings
in the bardos.
I prefer the near death
experience idea of ‘rapid
movement toward and/or sudden immersion in a powerful light or being of light’ accompanied
by ‘an intense feeling of unconditional
love and acceptance.’ Not only does it seem ‘right’ to me, but also
the characteristics of near death experiences have been formed from research,
not just because a ‘master’ says so.
Since any idea of death that
isn’t supported by research into people who have actually been dead is really only
a belief about death not a fact about it, you can believe the Tibetan version
or not. It’s a choice. If you’re Tibetan, it would be difficult to step outside
that Tibetan cultural perspective, of course, and near death experience research
indicates that people interpret what happens according to their beliefs. So if
you believe in the terror of the bardos, that’s what you’ll experience –
assuming there is some continuation of consciousness after death. I’m happy to
leave that question until I’m dead. I figure I’ll find out then, and until
then, the question is kind of irrelevant to me.
I figure that if we live a
good life and do our best to die in a good frame of mind, then if we do have
some continuation of consciousness, we’ll be in a good space for going forward,
and it there isn’t any continuation, then at least we will have died in peace.
What do us ex-Tibetan Buddhists we do when
This is a scary question for someone who had it all worked
out according to a tradition that they no longer believe in. If you figured
that you’d just do Guru Yoga at the time of death, and now you couldn’t
possibly do GY, what do you do?
You could follow the same idea but cut out the middle man. My
practice for a long time has essentially been merging my mind with the true
nature of reality every time I remember to do it. Another way to think of it is
turning my mind onto my own awareness or looking for the true nature of my awareness.
And that’s what I plan to do when I die.
Maybe you could think of merging your mind with that ‘being of light’ they talk
about in the near-death research. Same idea but without the bad associations.
Imagining yourself flying up into a being of light that is unconditionally
loving sounds like the kind of thing that will help you die in peace. It’s also
the kind of thing that will help you live your life in peace. No need for even
a buddha. I sometimes visualise a ball of light with all the enlightened beings
in it, all together. A kind of generic version of vajrayana. It’s great when
you’re feeling like shit. Just pop them in the sky and have them send a whole
lot of light down to fill you up. Anyway, it’s just a suggestion for
ex-vajrayana practitioners. For me it takes the essence and leaves the garbage
out of it.
Cultural perspectives on death
And then there’s the Rigpa flying circus and the homages. We’ve
talked about those issues before, but it seems that a notable number of the
Tibetan lamas, despite their cultural programming, removed their homages or made
condolences rather than homages in deference to the outcry as to the inappropriateness
of whitewashing the crimes of someone just because they’re dead. The homages
were in stark contrast to the articles that appeared in the Western media that
spoke about both his ‘good’ works and his abuse of students.
Our ideas of what is and what isn’t appropriate at the time
of death depend on our cultural upbringing.
For instance, there were arguments as to whether the original image (similar to the one below) used for the last post was appropriate. I removed it because the author of the blog and others didn’t like it and I figured since it was her blog, she should decide what image should go with it. Others complained that it had been removed, because they thought it was the perfect image. There’s no right or wrong here. We just have different ideas, and they tend to reflect your background (for me this corpse is no different to all those dead animals I’ve seen.)
To put this into perspective, I did a bit of research on death customs, and I found that there are some really weird ones. The weirdest I found was those of the Malagasy people of Madagascar, who, in an effort to hasten decomposition — what’s seen as an crucial step in the ongoing process of getting the spirits of the dead into the afterlife —dig up the remains of their relatives, rewrap them in fresh cloth, then dance with the corpses around the tomb to live music. ‘The living family members then reflect with the bodies in their laps, pose for photos, and again dance with the bodies of those they’ve lost within the tomb -before putting them back to rest.’
Until recently, female members of the Dani tribe of Western Papa, New Guinea had a finger amputated each time an immediate family member died. The Yanomami, an Amazonian tribe who live in the jungles between Brazil and Venezuela eats their dead. They see the consumption of dead tribe members as a unity-strengthening act. The Rigpa flying circus is nothing on this lot!
Parades of the deceased so people can pay their respects are something seen in both the East and the West.
Though such funeral processions in the West are grand for kings, queens, prime ministers and presidents, they don’t exhibit the kind of bling seen in the East, just a simple flag-covered coffin on a carriage or in a Hurst.
In modern embalming, practised by many funeral homes, the blood is removed from the body through the veins and replaced by injection into the arteries with a mixture of formaldehyde, glutaraldehyde, methanol, and other solvents. According to this article on different methods of corpse preservation, ‘Bodies embalmed in this manner have a shelf life of approximately 10 years’. Lenin was embalmed 145 years ago and ‘the Soviet founder’s corpse still maintains the look, feel, and flexibility of Lenin toward the end of his life. If anything, the body’s appearance has improved with age.’ No spiritual accomplishment involved there – unless Lenin was enlightened!
Long Live the King
As Wikipedia says ‘”The king is dead, long live the king!”, or
simply “long live the king!” is a
traditional proclamation made following the accession of a new monarch in various countries. The seemingly contradictory
phrase is used to simultaneously announce the death of the previous monarch and
assure the public of continuity by saluting the new monarch.’
Tibetan Buddhist practice
can continue seamlessly after the death of a master by adding the dead one to
one’s perception of the master that represents them all – i.e. Guru Rinpoche
for the Nyingmas – and by taking on a new master. Just replace the old with the
new and carry on. That kind of continuity is reassuring at a time when it might
feel, to the devoted, that their world is falling apart.
Those who still want a ‘master’
will be looking (if they haven’t already) for a new one. The questions for
those students are: Will you just swap one king for another? Will you continue
to play the master/servant game? And, is that a healthy relationship to be in?
And what of Rigpa? Who will take over Rigpa? Will the vision
board find a new king? Or will some narcissist rush in and save them from
making a decision by offering to take it on?
An opportunity for change.
Rigpa actually has a great opportunity here to make healthy changes.
They could be quite clear and say that they will no longer have any spiritual
advisors, that they will run Rigpa as a Western organisation without a king or
a council of kings. They could institute democracy where the members vote for
the vision board and have a real say in policies, and they could simply employ
teachers on a simple fee basis.
Even with a democratic structure, unless they voted out the ‘old
guard’, reject their fundamentalist views, and any new board denounces Sogyal’s
behaviour, it will make little difference.
For sure the time of kings and feudal structures is long gone in the West. We gave them up around 250 years ago around the time of the French revolution. Surely we can take the Buddha’s teachings to heart without having to step back a few centuries and take on the feudal baggage we outgrew here with the birth of the idea of human rights for all.
Rigpa would have asked all those lamas who left accolades to Sogyal to say something, and tradition dictates to them that it be nice. They are culturally bound not to criticise another lama, to only talk about the good. That’s why in Mingyur Rinpoche’s Lion’s Roar article on the abuse, he never actually mentioned Sogyal’s name.
Tsoknyi Rinpoche has shown the lamas a way to say something to satisfy any request from Rigpa (which it would be difficult for them to refuse, especially given that Tsoknyi still teaches there) without glorifying Sogyal.
He made a comment on Sogyal’s death that is not an accolade; it has no bullshit about what a wonderful guy he was. Just excellent instructions for his students, and these instructions also work for his ex students as well because it bypasses the nirmanakaya or embodied level of one’s relationship with a guru. His instructions suggest a way in which we can honour our deepest relationship with our root guru (as Sogyal actually is for many of us) without having to relate to the person we have come to see is a seriously flawed human being.
‘The essential link between student and teacher is the teaching. Now, the connection is no longer with the embodied Lama, but rather with the pure dharmakaya Lama.’
With these words he suggests a way even for ex-students to approach their relationship with Sogyal, to see him not as a man, but as a way to ‘the pure dharmakaya Lama’ and to see their essential link to him as through the teachings (suggesting that it isn’t via his personality). This is really helpful for those who no longer can take Sogyal as their teacher, but still acknowledge some deeper relationship with him – a link that can never be broken and is difficult to understand or explain for those who have rejected him as a person but still feel this link.
As I say in my book Fallout, my connection was always with the pure dharmakaya lama, never with the man. And that connection has never been broken, hence no samaya break with the ultimate lama – how could there be once you have that connection. The ‘pure dharmakaya Lama’ is just a metaphor for the nature of mind and reality.
He also acknowledges those who have left by saying ‘everyone has a right to choose their faith’ and that this advice is on a traditional practice of Tibetan Buddhism.
Everyone has the right to choose their faith, and based on that faith, there are many traditional practices we can do at this time—practices for ourselves and practices for the teacher.
Those of us who have left after years, sometimes decades, of training on what to do at the time of death of one’s root guru still have that knowledge with us. We know that merging our mind with the lama’s wisdom mind is the whole basis of dzogchen, so what do we do now? How do we do the dzogchen practice of merging our mind with a lama we no longer respect? I don’t know of anyone who can do guru yoga now, certainly not with Sogyal as the focus, and for most, the practice itself reminds them of Sogyal and so they cannot do it. Tsoknyi Rinpoche, though he is primarily speaking to those who are still Sogyal’s students, shows a way for even his ex-students to do this dzogchen practice. His advice speaks of the absolute meaning not the relative and so it bypasses personality.
It is a potent time to allow your own unborn nature and the Lama’s dharmakaya essence to mingle together and merge.
Merging our minds with Sogyal’s mind might be impossible for us – probably for many of us the very thought of it raises a host of feelings about his betrayal – but allowing our own unborn nature and the ‘lama’s dharmakaya essence to mingle together and merge’ might be something we could actually do. He’s chosen his words well because this sentence makes our unborn nature and the lama’s dhamakaya essence equal. We can do this, not to gain something for our self, but to help him.
For some of us, even those who have left Rigpa or even left the religion, this kind of merging of ‘minds’ would have been an automatic response to his death. It’s a merging of minds that has nothing to do with religion or with personalities. It’s merely using the idea of merging wisdom minds to help us enter a state of awakening where we actually see the true nature of reality. For some of us, this kind of ‘merging’ wisdom minds has never ceased, regardless of what we feel and what we say about the man. But since this state is beyond personalities, beyond any idea of a self to merge with, it transcends the whole debacle. Tsoknyi’s words remind me of this.
I appreciate the way he has handled this with sensitivity and given guidance that hits the essential points without the devotional garbage that is now such a turn off for those who have left Rigpa. Thank you Tsoknyi. You lighten my heart, shown me that some lamas can step outside their cultural conditioning and actually genuinely care about everyone, not just the party faithful.
We should also note the lamas who have said nothing about Sogyal at this time – Mingyur Rinpoche, His Holiness the Dalai Lama and Dzongsar Khyentse. They haven’t joined in with the accolades. I expect Dzongsar will say something – he is one of Rigpa’s spiritual advisors after all. It looks like he’s taking time to think before he speaks.
People hold different viewpoints on the question of whether or not Sogyal was qualified to teach as he did, and since people don’t all accept the same ‘evidence’ as relevant, no agreement will ever come to pass. So we will have to agree to disagree or accept that we will likely never know for sure. But a question relevant for all those students who stuck with Sogyal and Rigpa for years is how his lack of qualifications affected our learning. Was it all just a waste of time?
Clearly we did learn Buddhism. Reading any book on Buddhism confirms
that, and the Rigpa Shedra scholars would know if we weren’t getting the real
‘information’. To suggest that Rigpa students learned nothing of worth, is
basically saying that Buddhism, vajrayana and dzogchen have no worth. It also
does a huge disservice to thousands of students.
The big issue, however, is the dzogchen teachings
because doesn’t a dzogchen teacher have to have some realisation before he can
introduce a student to the nature of their mind?
Let’s, for the sake of this investigation, take the
position that Sogyal didn’t actually have any realisation. If that’s true,
where does that leave us? Deluded?
Erik Pema Kunsang seems to think so. In an article called CLUB NONDUALITÈ, he says:
‘Patrul Rinpoche wrote 150 years ago, that there are many Dharma teachers who point out the thoughtfree state of the all-ground as being the nondual nature of mind, and that is why people who believe it may train ten, twenty, thirty years without becoming stable in nonduality. Why? They have instead trained in the very basis for dualistic mind…. When someone is being told, without being checked, “you have now received the pointing-out introduction,” it’s at best wishful thinking and, at worst, a direct lie. … Often a meditator is told by the teacher that nonduality is a quiet thoughtfree state of mind that holds no focus. This may or may not be true, because there is another state of mind that looks like it, just like a rhinestone may look like a diamond’
Erik Pema Kunsang
Or is it possible that he could still have given a genuine dzogchen
Was it really the nature of mind?
How do we check whether or not we got the ‘real thing’? Taking teachings and introductions from another teacher is a good way. Examination in light of the detailed instructions in books such as Clarifying the Natural State by Dakpo Tashi Namgyal is another, and then there is the certainty in oneself that can’t be denied – a knowledge beyond knowledge. If we don’t give a damn whether or not we’ve recognised the nature of our mind, then we’re less likely to fool ourselves. If the answer is important to us, especially if the answer reflects on how we feel about our self, then we are in danger of deluding our self. And if we’re not sure if we have or haven’t glimpsed the nature of our mind, then we probably haven’t.
assume that some of us did have a genuine glimpse of the nature of our mind
under Sogyal’s tutelage. (And if you say that’s not possible because Sogyal
doesn’t have any realisation, then out of respect for those who know beyond a
shadow of doubt that it is possible,
please suspend that idea just long enough to follow this examination.)
accepting that some of his students experienced a genuine introduction to the
nature of their mind mean that Sogyal did, despite appearances, have some
realisation? Or did Sogyal transmit dzogchen despite his lack of realisation?
Isn’t there some transformative power in the words of the teachings
Rely on the message rather than the messenger. In the message, rely on the meaning rather than just the words. In the meaning, rely on that which is really true rather than seemingly true. Rely on the really true, not with dualistic mind, but realize within nondual wakefulness.
Every long-term Rigpa student knew this teaching, and given that a lot of us didn’t particularly ‘like’ our lama, a lot of us followed this. We looked to the words, to the meaning, to the truth we recognised in our bones.
Take any of the dzogchen teachings on mind. Is there not some degree of transmission in those very words? Not if you just read them in an ordinary mind, of course, no. But if you are in a meditative state, having done all the prerequisites and having truly worked with them, relying on the ‘really true’ meaning, surely, there is some power to transform in them alone. Or am I just the sole weirdo who senses the immense transformative power in such words?
Yes, the religion says we’re supposed to get a ‘lung’ or oral transmission in order to unlock the power of such texts, but is that really so important? Or is it just another way to keep the gurus employed? Isn’t reading it slowly aloud in your own language better than hearing it raced through at a frantic speed in a language you don’t understand?
The three authentics
According to The Words of Tenpai Nyima: Notes on
the Ground of Trekchö: The Concentrated Essence Distilled from the River of the
Whispered Transmission by Khenpo Ngakchung, in order for the introduction
to the nature of mind to take place, the three authentics must come together.
These three are: the authentic blessing of the master, the authentic devotion
of the student, and the authentic instructions of the lineage.
Note, however, that this teaching doesn’t say ‘authentic
realisation’ but rather ‘authentic blessing.’ The word ‘blessing’ means
transformative power, not realisation as such. Could Sogyal, through his
devotion for his masters, have had the blessing even without the realisation? Isn’t devotion a prime
key to transmission in dzogchen?
Devotion and blessings
gave dzogchen teachings, Sogyal stared at the images of his masters, his eyes
moist with devotion, hands in prayer position. He aroused his devotion and
taught from that state. Aren’t blessings passed through devotion? It’s said
that it’s through the student’s devotion that they receive the blessing to
enable them to recognise the nature of their mind, if that’s the case, then
Sogyal received the blessing of his masters through his devotion to them, and
we received the blessing of his masters through our devotion to him.
this fulfil the requirement of the ‘authentic blessing of the master’? Sogyal
may not have had any realisation, but he did have the blessing of his masters—many
saw evidence of that—and he did have devotion to them, and according to this
teaching on the three authentics, that is enough.
In the Tibetan story of the dog’s tooth, a woman is
given what she thinks is a relic of the buddha, but it’s only a dog’s tooth;
nevertheless due to her devotion to the dog’s tooth, she receives blessings
from it in the form of ringsels (spontaneously produced pearl-like phenomena
found in the ashes of great masters.) The teaching in this story is that if a
student has true devotion, they will get blessings, even from a dog’s tooth!
Last year, I emailed Tenzin Palmo and asked the
‘Can one gain some measure of genuine realisation through relying on an
unqualified teacher? This is referring to a situation where the student
has given complete, unquestioning devotion and fulfilled their obligations as a
student and then only later they discover that the lama was not worthy of that
Her reply was:
‘Yes, it is possible to gain genuine realisation even when the teacher later proves to be unqualified. If the student has a direct realisation of the nature of the mind, then that is so, whatever the status of the lama who gave the pointing out instruction or facilitated this insight. Some teachers have the ability to open the minds of the students even when in other ways the conduct and wisdom of the teacher may be questionable. This is one reason for the confusion nowadays with lamas who have helped so many students yet have been shown to be unworthy of their role. Still these students were helped….’
Jetsumna Tenzin Palmo
Empowerment and disempowerment
And let’s not forget that the teacher, no matter
how realised, is not giving us something we don’t already have. He or she is
merely a catalyst that helps us recognise the nature of our mind, something
that is not owned, given or even truly shown by anyone—it can only be pointed
towards. If we have studied and practiced the dharma, then once our mind and
heart are truly open, anything can be a catalyst for recognition—even a barking dog.
And let’s not fall completely under the spell of a
guru-centric religion. The key factor in recognising the nature of our mind is
actually our awareness, our openness, our qualities as a
student, not those of our teacher or the religion’s sanctioned method.
To believe otherwise goes against the very foundations of Buddhism, the
essential point that seeing through the veil of ignorance is entirely up to us.
No one else can do it for us, a point made clear in the Buddha’s life story
where he had to leave his teachers in order to discover the truth for himself.
So even if we believe the teacher a fake, let’s not
presume that his or her students’ realisation is also fake. That idea
diminishes the importance of the quality of the student, and further
disempowers students of a cult that has already disempowered them enough by
teaching them to mistrust their own instincts. Instead, let’s empower students
to trust themselves to know their own mind.
The only true empowerment is self-empowerment.
‘If you discover what you thought was the state of nonduality is actually just a dualistic state of open, calm and clear panoramic awareness, there is no need to blame anyone, neither the teacher, the friends or yourself. Understand that the person who taught you that was not a primary master, but a meditation instructor, and you’re allowed to pursue authentic wisdom wherever you can find it. Within the Buddhist Vajrayana context, how can there be a samayabond to a root guru, if you haven’t yet found the true nature of mind? To keep the dharma pure and make sure it will last for a long while, the most important is honesty. Be honest to yourself. Don’t believe in myths. Test everything.’
Erik Pema Kunsang
So what do you think? If you think Sogyal couldn’t have transmitted dzogchen due to his lack of realisation, then are you saying that those who feel they received genuine dzogchen transmission are fooling themselves? Or is it possible that, as the teaching on the three authentics suggests, blessings are more important than realisation? Or, as I feel right now, is it all a load of hogwash, anyway, and it’s time to make a cocktail.
When Rigpa students study Ngondro, they are indoctrinated with teachings that make it very difficult for them to challenge their teacher’s abusive behaviour. Below are some of the key ‘teachings’ that supported the idea that we had to do whatever Sogyal asked of us and that everything he did, even if it didn’t ‘appear’ to be in accord with the dharma was for our benefit. These ideas were drummed into our heads through daily repetition. Those of us who did our 100,000 recitations of the Longchen Nyingtik Ngondro Guru Yoga were well and truly brainwashed into believing that following these ideas would bring us to enlightenment.
The quotes and page references below are from: A Guide To The Practice Of Ngöndro – The Brief Dudjom Tersar Ngöndro and the Longchen Nyingtik Ngöndro with commentaries and guidance on how to practise them. 2nd edition – January 2007, published by Rigpa.
“You should rely upon your vajra lama, the ultimate master whose mind is emptiness and compassion and who accomplishes the benefit of self and others, cherishing him as though he were your very eyes. Follow his instructions to the letter, and take to heart the profound practices he gives, not just now and then, but with diligent and constant application. Practise with unflagging diligence for as long as you live. Pray that you may become worthy of the transmission of his profound wisdom mind, so that your realization becomes indivisible from his.” Commentary Page 210
“Towards the lifestyle and activity of the lama, may wrong view not arise for even an instant, and may I see whatever he does, whether it seems to be in accordance with the Dharma or not, as a teaching for me.” In this respect, you should remember the story of Captain Compassionate Heart killing Black Spearman, and Brahmin Lover of the Stars forsaking his vow of chastity for the brahmin girl.” Commentary Page 221. (Note 101: See The Words of My Perfect Teacher (revised ed.), p. 125 – Read it here. It explains why negative actions performed by a Bodhisattva are in fact positive, in some circumstances)
“May I rely upon my vajra lama meaningfully,
as though he were my very eyes, Following his instructions to the letter,
and taking to heart the profound practices he gives,
Not just now and then, but with diligent and
May I become worthy of the transmission
of his profound wisdom mind!”
(Root text. Page 273)
“Towards the lifestyle and activity of the lama, May wrong view not arise for even an instant, and
May I see whatever he does as a teaching for me.
Through such devotion, may his blessing inspire
and fill my mind!”
(Root text. Page 278)
Wrong view here refers to seeing the teacher as an ordinary being. You can see how steeped in blind devotion this tradition is.
If the teacher was actually enlightened, or even just a decent human being who actually cared about his students, these ideas wouldn’t be so harmful, and in terms of the pure perception teachings of Vajrayana might even be helpful for students who truly understand what is meant by pure perception – very few do, though! HH Dalai Lama said in Dharamsala in 1993 about the practice of seeing one’s lama as a Buddha, “If it is misunderstood, and thus gives the guru free license, it is like poison, destroying the teachings, the guru, and the disciple.”
The assumption that a lama is worthy of the responsibility of being a guru is unrealistic these days and giving him or her this kind of trust is just not healthy. And in a situation where the lama is only concerned with his own worldly success and gratification, these ideas make a community a destructive cult.
If you think the ‘destructive cult’ label is a bit extreme, take a look at this quote from the Zindri, which you can find on page 261 f. (printed version) under chapter (1) Common Activities (of the teacher). The whole chapter is very revealing. It culminates in the statement:
“His (the teacher´s) charisma may attract men and women alike, but even if he were to seduce a hundred girls daily, see it as the activity of bringing under control. And when he causes trouble, stirring up disputes and so on, even if he slaughters hundreds of animals every day, regard this as the activity of fierce subduing.”
In other words, your teacher can do what he likes and you have to see it all as good! This is the kind of belief that fosters abusive cults – beliefs that put the leader above norms of ethical behaviour. Maybe all Tibetan Buddhist sanghas were actually cults according to our present understanding of the term. I have it on good authority that there is no word for destructive cult in Tibetan, not in terms of a lama and community that is controlling and manipulative. Why is that? I bet it’s not because all their lamas were perfect! More likely it’s because Tibetans were well and truly indoctrinated in this way of thinking. Not so in the West. Here we call a spade a spade, and an abuser an abuser – that is, if we’re not brainwashed into thinking the abuse is enlightened activity.
Is TheWords of My Perfect Teacher a relevant text for modern times?
The Words of My Perfect Teacher and The Zindri, a commentary on it, are the two core texts of Rigpa along with The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying, and both books make it very clear that once you’ve taken a teacher as your Vajra master you have to do what he or she says, see them as a Buddha, see everything they do as enlightened activity, and never criticise. These teachings were often emphasised in Rigpa. Pure perception was the whole purpose of vajrayana, we were told, and to many people that meant actually thinking that Sogyal was really enlightened. They forgot that pure perception means seeing everyone as enlightened, yourself included, not just the teacher!
The trouble with following these books comes if these aspects are stressed over other sections that moderate them, and in Rigpa, the section on the qualifications of the teacher ( p 138 – 143) was rarely mentioned. Why? Because our teacher clearly did not meet the qualifications!
“He should be pure, never having contravened any of the commitments or prohibitions related to the three types of vow … He should be learned and not lacking in knowledge of the tantras, sutras and shastras. Towards the vast multitude of beings, his heart should be so suffused with compassion that he loves each one like his only child. He should be well-versed in the practices … He should have actualised all the extraordinary qualities of liberation and realization in himself by experiencing the meaning of the teachings. He should be generous, his language should be pleasant. He should teach each individual according to that person’s needs and he should act in accordance with what he teaches …”
Later Patrul Rinpoche says, “Not having many disturbing negative emotions and thoughts, he should be calm and disciplined.”
Sogyal’s negative emotions weren’t hidden; most people who went to a Rigpa retreat saw him yelling at his students, sometimes sending them into tears.
I remember being disturbed at just how much Sogyal didn’t fit the list of qualifications, but I ignored my concerns because I’d already accepted him as my teacher and been told that since he’d given me an introduction to the nature of mind I was now ‘stuck with him as my teacher’. What I failed to realise is that since he didn’t meet the requirements of a qualified teacher, the instructions for following a teacher simply didn’t apply.
No emphasis was given in Rigpa to the section on choosing a teacher – we read the section through as part of our Ngondro study, but that was the extent of it. Whereas we said the above passages daily. But those instructions ONLY apply to a student of someone who meets the requirements for a qualified teacher as laid out in the WMPT, and since Sogyal does not meet those qualifications, the rest of the book isn’t applicable to him or his students.
The whole book is based on being a student of a perfect teacher, not an imperfect one!
I don’t think this text is appropriate in an age where, in the words of the book in question, “All the qualities complete according to purest dharma are hard to find in these decadent times.” As we’ve seen in Rigpa, the result of applying these teachings to an imperfect teacher can be an abusive cult, and the numbers of lamas accused of similar behaviour makes it quite clear that we cannot blindly trust that any of them have our best interests at heart. Some do, yes, but we need to be very sure before we take them as our Vajra guru, and I suggest that, even then, we never ever give up our right to say, “No,” our right to criticise, and our discernment in ascertaining what is harmful and what is helpful. Any teacher who asks you to give up those rights is one to avoid, but be careful, some teachers will say one thing in public and expect something else in private.
Is knowledge a sufficient qualification?
Since Sogyal never did Buddhist high school, his lack of classic Buddhist studies is an obvious place where he lacks the necessary qualifications for the instructions in the book to have any relevance to him or his students, but just because a lama has done his Buddhist training doesn’t mean he or she is qualified to be a vajra master. Why? Because the requirement is that the teacher’s “heart should be so suffused with compassion that he loves each one like his only child”, and “He should have actualised all the extraordinary qualities of liberation and realization in himself.” In other words, knowledge is not enough. Compassion and realisation are necessary attributes of a true Vajra master. Without those two qualities knowledge can be easily manipulated to meet the teacher’s agenda.
In light of this, it’s clear that any teacher who shows no compassion for those traumatised by their guru’s behaviour is not worthy of your devotion because they lack the necessary compassion. Any guru that protects their religion over and above protecting and caring for those damaged by their religion is not a qualified teacher. Let’s be clear on this: having a Buddhist degree, tulku status, a sharp mind, a quick wit, an entertaining manner and enthusiastic followers is not the compassion and wisdom required to meet the definition of a qualified Vajrayana teacher.
And it goes without saying that anyone who abuses anyone doesn’t meet the requirement for wisdom and compassion either – Chogyam Trungpa and the Sakyong included.
“On the level of our personal spiritual practice, it is important to have faith in and reverence for our guru and to see that person in a positive light in order to make spiritual progress. But on the level of general Buddhism in society, seeing all actions of our teacher as perfect is like poison and can be misused. This attitude spoils our entire teachings by giving teachers a free hand to take undue advantage. If faith were sufficient to gain realizations, there would be no need for qualified teachers.” HH Dalai Lama. Dharamsala 1993
What do you think?
Private discussion on this and other related topics can be had on our Secret What Now Facebook Group. It is only for current and previous students of Rigpa, however, and we do moderate it closely. If you’re interested in joining, please contact us via the contact page and ask for an invite. People from other sanghas can join the Beyond the Temple Facebook Group . It’s a support group for anyone who has left their Buddhist sangha after hearing revelations of abuse by their teacher or after experiencing such abuse. It’s for people who see ethical behaviour, love, compassion and introspection as the core of their spiritual path. The focus is not on the abuses, but on ourselves and our spiritual life as we recover from our experience of spiritual abuse and look to the future. Click here and request to join. The What Now?Reference Material pagehas links to a wealth of articles in the topics related to abuse in Buddhist communities. For links to places to assist in healing from abuse see the sangha care resources page. Those of you who are interested in ‘keeping Buddhism clean’ could ‘Like’ the Dharma Protectors Facebook page.
‘Cult’ is a word that has different definitions, but the definition that concerns us here is the negative one. According to the Google Dictionary a cult is “a system of religious veneration and devotion directed towards a particular figure or object, in particular a relatively small group of people having religious beliefs or practices regarded by others as strange or as imposing excessive control over members.” Also a “misplaced or excessive admiration for a particular thing.”
‘A system of religious veneration and devotion directed towards a particular figure or object’ does apply to vajrayana as a whole but also equally to Christianity, so that aspect of the definition is not the key point here, neither is the fact that TB is strange to many in West. The aspect that makes the difference between religion and cult is ‘imposing excessive control over members,’ and ‘misplaced or excessive admiration.’
So what is ‘excessive’ and what is ‘misplaced’? To answer this we have to look further. The Family Survival Trust has a succinct checklist for cults that is useful for separating a religion from a cult:
Cults are dissociative, separating members from families, friends and colleagues—this is not a requirement for vajrayana practice since it can be done alone (caves are the traditional place) or within one’s own society and family, but when a lama keeps a group of attendants or people he relies on around him and doesn’t permit them to engage in normal social and family relationships or leave at will, or tells them what they can and can’t do particularly in terms of their personal relationships, then they have slipped into cult territory.
Cults tend to be psychologically manipulative or abusive in order to exploit and control members commercially or sexually—this is pretty clear. There are plenty of vajrayana communities around where the lamas do not abuse their students, therefore abuse and psychological manipulation are not part of the religion. If anyone is being abused by a lama and members don’t see it as abuse (when it is quite clear to anyone outside the group that the behaviour constitutes abuse), then the members are being psychologically manipulated and the group has become a cult. (Abuse is NOT crazy wisdom—as Mingyur Rinpoche said in his article on the Lion’s Roar, “The results of genuine “crazy wisdom” are always positive and visible.”) If members’ money is not being used for the purpose for which is was given, those members are being commercially exploited and the group has slipped across the line into cult territory.
Some cults can also be physically abusive—also clear. If the lama is regularly hitting or punching people, it’s a cult. Vajrayana does not require students to be hit or punched. It can be practiced without the lama abusing his students in any way. Even if you believe the abuse is ‘crazy wisdom’, even if you believe it is transformative, that is irrelevant when determining cult status. A cult is determined by how it acts, not what it believes. If your lama regularly hits and punches people and the beliefs to which you subscribe make his or her hitting and punching (or any other abusive behaviour) acceptable, your vajrayana community can be called a cult.
The guru and/or upper ranks of the cult are supported in a relatively comfortable lifestyle by the exploitation of lower ranking members—a comfortable lifestyle is not necessary for vajrayana practice, in fact a humble lifestyle and generosity to others are more in line with the marks of a great practitioner. A lama who has his feet massaged by two women while another massages his back and two others work on his hands has slipped into cult territory since one masseur is quite sufficient. Other signs are such things as demanding better food than others in the household, expensive accommodations and so on.
Cults are totalitarian in structure and thrive on master-slave dependency—certainly Tibetan Buddhism is totalitarian and the master-slave roles are embedded in the feudal system in its history. The feudal system is cultural, however, not religious. Vajrayana can be practiced without either of these. Not all lamas treat their students as slaves. Institute a democratic model where the lama is ‘employed’ by the board and remove the ‘obey or else’ emphasis that some lamas subscribe to, and the issue is solved. The lama will still have spiritual authority, but not temporal authority. There is a good reason why the church is separated from the state in Western democracies. This point pinpoints the area in which Tibetan Buddhism as a whole must make changes.
Cults are “socially addictive” and the harm they cause is similar in some ways to other forms of addiction such as gambling, and even drug or alcohol abuse—I guess people could become addicted to Vajrayana—all those beautiful images and sounds are very alluring—but few practice diligently enough to get ‘hooked’ on the actual practice, and, if they did, such an addiction is not harmful in the worldly sense, though it wouldn’t help one spiritually to be stuck in practice that is contrived. Dependency on a lama to the extent that members cannot make decisions for themselves, however, is harmful. Though the magic of it is alluring to some, vajrayana itself is not inherently addictive, and it is only harmful if people feel that their lama can do anything they want irrespective of the laws of the land.
My conclusion in terms of this checklist is that vajrayana as a religion is not a cult, but that a vajrayana community can become a cult in the same way that a Christian community can. But this list doesn’t give much weight to the ‘religious veneration and devotion directed towards a particular figure’ aspect of our original cult definition, and this aspect is particularly relevant in terms of vajrayana, particularly in ascertaining what turns a vajrayana community into a cult.
Devotion to an abstract principle or an individual?
As I quoted in the article titles Is Rigpa Cult? Margaret Thaler Singer, Ph.D, a cult expert, says “the difference between cults and religions is that in religions the devotion goes to an abstract principle whereas in a cult the devotion is to an individual. … The follower turns over their decision-making and give complete obedience in return for having secrets revealed to them.”
Though vajrayana may look as if the student’s devotion must be to an individual rather than an abstract principle, my understanding is that this is not the most transformative way of understanding the object of one’s devotion in vajrayana, at least not in these times. The idea that our devotion is to the personality of the teacher, the person, rather than to the teacher principle that he embodies can, especially if he or she is not a qualified teacher and demands that the students have only one lama, bring the vajrayana community into cult territory.
When teachers were more reliable, and in a society where the word ‘cult’ in its meaning as an abusive community employing manipulation tactics and excessive control over its members did not (and still doesn’t) exist, there would be no need to make a distinction between the teacher as he represents the teacher principle and the teacher as a person, but now, in the West, I believe there is. The Words of My Perfect Teacher is about how to relate to a perfect teacher, but should we take those teachings literally when our teacher is more likely to be imperfect?
Even Patrul Rinpoche said on page 138, “As times have degenerated, nowadays, it is difficult to find a teacher who has every one of the qualities described in the precious tantras.”
I had an imperfect teacher. I always knew he was not perfect, so for myself, for my own practice I had to work this point out. Maybe I got it wrong, but I completed my Ngondro and two of my three roots with my devotion to my teacher in his role as teacher, not to the person, and for me it was the only way I could feel the transformative power of the practices. Specifically my devotion was to my teacher when, in the state of devotion to his masters and resting in the true nature of his mind, he was a Buddha, and in that state he introduced me to the nature of my mind. I distinguished this Sogyal from the one that came late to teachings, made us wait hours for lunch, yelled at people, and, as I discovered last year, much worse.
Some may question this separation of man from teacher, but the Dalai Lama appears to have taken the same approach in his practice.
“On the level of our personal spiritual practice, it is important to have faith in and reverence for our guru and to see that person in a positive light in order to make spiritual progress. But on the level of general Buddhism in society, seeing all actions of our teacher as perfect is like poison and can be misused. This attitude spoils our entire teachings by giving teachers a free hand to take undue advantage. If faith were sufficient to gain realizations, there would be no need for qualified teachers. … have had many teachers, and I cannot accept seeing all their actions as pure. My two regents, who were among my sixteen teachers, fought one another in a power struggle that even involved the Tibetan army. When I sit on my meditation seat, I feel both were kind to me, and I have profound respect for both of them. Their fights do not matter. But when I had to deal with what was going on in the society, I said to them, “What you’re doing is wrong!” We should not feel a conflict in loyalties by acting in this way. In our practice, we can view the guru’s behavior as that of a mahasiddha, and in dealings with society, follow the general Buddhist approach and say that that behavior is wrong.” HHDL Dharamasalla 1993
Rigpa Wiki explains the four kinds of teachers as taught to us in Rigpa:
the individual teacher who is the holder of the lineage
the absolute teacher, which is rigpa, the true nature of mind
On page 148 of the TBLD Sogyal says: “Remember that the master—the guru—embodies the crystallisation of the blessings of all buddhas, masters, and enlightened beings.”
So who should our devotion really be to? The individual teacher or the teacher principle which is a much broader concept? It would be nice if it could be both, but isn’t it ultimately not to the person who gives the teachings but to something more profound?
“The guru is the nature of our mind.” Dilgo Khyentse. Primordial Purity
Guru Rinpoche (not our physical teacher) is who we invoke in Guru Yoga, and he ‘is the universal master’ who ‘embodies a cosmic timeless principle.’ (TBLD p 149). When understood this way, our devotion in practice is to an ‘abstract principle’ not an individual and therefore does not fit the cult label, but in Rigpa, devotion to the person of Sogyal was emphasised. This is the point at which vajrayana can become a cult. Beware if your teacher suggests you visualise them in your practice rather than the embodiment of the wisdom and compassion of all the enlightened beings in the form of the representative of the teachers of your lineage, such as Guru Rinpoche or Vajradhara.
“Once we have realized the nature of our mind, it is no longer necessary to search for the guru outside. If the view of the mind is maintained beyond meditation and post meditation, the guru is present beyond meeting and parting.” Dilgo Khyentse. Primordial Purity
It seems important to me that to avoid slipping into cult territory we need to separate the teacher as a representative of an abstract principle from the human being with their human deficiencies.
In an article about Buddhism Dagyab Rinpoche said, “We Tibetans are aware of some Western followers who believe that Tibetan lamas are enlightened buddhas and infallible gurus, despite their all-too-human deficiencies. It is disillusioned Westerners, who in the course of their lives have experienced the total collapse of their ideals, and who cling to the wishful image of a holy and healing Tibetan tradition. Wherever angst, insecurity, and despair are strong, there is a corresponding desire for something superior, and Westerners project fatherly power upon the lamas. A false understanding of Buddhist teachings, especially that of the Vajrayana, has impelled these projections.”
Hopefully our lamas can give us the true understanding of the vajrayana teachings, not teach a ‘false understanding’ that does nothing for the student, only makes the lamas kings of their own kingdom with slaves that do their bidding without question. If we misunderstand, it is because we were not taught correctly or our lama did not clear up our confusion. Perhaps some of our lamas are confused themselves. In giving talks to the modern world that adhere slavishly to possibly provisional teachings given for people in ancient feudal cultures, rather than teaching from a definitive understanding of the teachings, they may be harming the dharma they think they are protecting.
Chatral Rinpoche said “Support and take refuge in those spiritual masters who focus their practice in solitary retreat. Before one attains enlightenment, one should also enter into solitary retreat to focus on one’s practice under his or her close guidance and mentorship. If not, it will be just like now, where everywhere is flooded with Khenpos who give empty talks. Those ignorant ones, who run after fame and fortune, and establish their own factions, will cause people to have aversion for Buddhism and lead to the extinction of Buddhism sooner or later. Hence, it is said that the authentic Dharma is not in the monasteries, it is not in the books and not in the material world, but within the mind. There is a need to awaken it through practice and to realise (actualise) it, in order to be called the continuation or preservation of the Dharma.”
Narcissistic personality: Dangerous cult leaders usually hold grandiose notions of their place in the world.
Ability to read others: “A guy like Charles Manson had the ability to spot who, at a party, that he thought he could control. It just seems to be in his personality,” Morantz said. Cult leaders “have the ability to size you up, and realise your weaknesses and get to your buttons”.
Claims of special powers: If a leader claims he’s smarter, holier and more pure than everyone else, think twice about signing up.
Charisma meets anger: Dangerous cult leaders can be extremely loving, charming and affectionate, but often turn angry and abusive with no warning. This mercurial presentation keeps members off balance.”
In the hands of someone with this kind of personality, vajrayana is dangerous indeed. Certainly such people are not a healthy focus for one’s devotion. Especially if one forgets that devotion should not be mindless adoration. On p 140 in the TBLD Sogyal says, “It [devotion] is not an abdication of your responsibility to yourself, nor undiscriminating following of another’s personality or whim. Real devotion is rooted in an awed and reverent gratitude, one that is lucid, grounded, and intelligent.”
Wise words, but in practice this is not the kind of devotion I saw in Rigpa.
The take away here is that the temptation for someone with this personality profile to use vajrayana for his or her own personal gratification would likely be too hard for them to resist. If they also allow their students to think and act as if pure perception means that the teacher is pure and the student is not, and if they also have a nihilistic view of emptiness, we have even more likelihood that such a teacher will abuse their power.
Minguyr Rinpoche in his Lions Roar article on Sept 24th 2017 reminds us of the essential points of samaya and pure perception. “Many people misunderstand samaya and think it refers only to seeing the teacher as a buddha, a fully awakened being. That is part of samaya, but it misses the key point. Samaya is about seeing everyone and everything through the lens of pure perception. …The sole purpose of viewing the teacher as a buddha is so we can see these same awakened qualities in ourselves, in others, and in the world around us. It is a tool that helps us to gain confidence in the purity of our true nature.”
And on the nihilistic view, Traleg Kyabgon in Moonbeams of Mahamudra. (Pages 272,273) says. “Meditators who take emptiness as an object of conceptual understanding abstract the concept of emptiness from their immediate experience of the phenomenal word. They deny the validity of karma because of this misunderstanding. They think ultimate reality must go beyond our normal concepts of good and bad, since it is empty and therefore, anything goes. This delegitimises the whole notion of morality. This fixation on the concept of emptiness leads to a denial of relative reality in the empirical world.”
And from HHDL from 1993 in Dharamsala, “Emptiness is not nothingness. On one side, a thing is empty; on the other it arises dependently. Emptiness is not empty of existence; it is empty of independent existence. So it must depend on other things. It is important to make sure one has the correct understanding of emptiness. Those who understand emptiness correctly as meaning dependent arising see that if they misbehave, they will have to face the consequences. Thus they will refrain from acting in an unethical manner.”
In part 2 of this topic, I look at unquestioning obedience, removal of the right to criticise and respect for worldly law in relation to vajrayana and cults, then I provide a conclusion to the two posts. Post by Tahlia Newland, editor and author.
Current and previous students of Rigpa wanting private support are welcome to join the What Now? Facebook group. Please contact us via the contact page and ask for an invite. Ex-Rigpa students and their dharma friends who want to move on from the discussion of abuse in Rigpa can stay in touch through the Dharma Companions Facebook Group. The What Now?Reference Material pagehas links to a wealth of articles in the topics related to abuse in Buddhist communities. For links to places to assist in healing from abuse see the sangha care resources page. Those of you who are interested in ‘keeping Buddhism clean’ could ‘Like’ the Dharma Protectors Facebook page.
One of the core teachings of vajrayana is that we should see our teacher as a Buddha, because, in simple terms, if we do so we will get the blessings (transformative power) of the Buddha rather than the lesser transformative power of an ordinary being. But how are we to understand such an instruction when our teacher behaves badly or otherwise does not show the nine qualities of a Buddha?
How likely is it that our teacher actually is a Buddha?
True Buddhahood is not a single-bang event; it is a process of removing layers after layer of ever more subtle obscurations. The Buddhists with their love of enumertation have identified ten bhumis, or levels of enlightenment, and it’s unlikely that any teacher in this day and age has reached the tenth Bhumi of full enlightenment.
“As times have degenerated, nowadays it is difficult to find a teacher who has everyone of the qualities described in the precious tantras.” Patrul Rinpoche. The Words of My Perfect Teacher. P138.
And Patrul Rinpoche is not talking about enlightenment here, just the basic qualities of a reliable teacher.
“The sole purpose of viewing the teacher as a buddha is so we can see these same awakened qualities in ourselves, in others, and in the world around us. It is a tool that helps us to gain confidence in the purity of our true nature.” Minguyr Rinpoche. Lions Roar, Sept 24th 2017
So if we see the teacher as a Buddha but not ourselves and everyone else, then we are not truly seeing purely. (Watch out for teachers who don’t make that clear!) The vajrayana path trains us to see purely, but if we don’t have some experience of emptiness/shunyata we may use the idea of pure perception as a kind of a white-wash; we might project our idea of purity onto conventional reality, rather than seeing the actual purity of the essential nature of phenomena directly.
Mistaking projection about a teacher for pure perception leads one to believe that the teacher actually has achieved full enlightenment whether or not his or her behaviour is in accord with teachings on the qualitites of an enlightened being. Clinging to any kind of belief can lead us to deny evidence that counteracts the belief, and if we choose belief about reality over actual reality, we are increasing our delusion rather than reducing it.
On the other hand, if we focus only on the poor behaviour of a teacher, we will not see his enlightened qualities, and so will not get the best out of our relationship with him or her. (See a previous post on recognising the good and not so good qualities of a teacher.)
How do we avoid this confusion?
To help work this out, I’m returning again to Alexandar Berzin’s book Wise Teacher, Wise Student: Tibetan Approaches to a Healthy Relationship (Ithaca: Snow Lion, 2010), to the chapter on “Seeing a Mentor as a Buddha” ch. 11
Reading the whole chapter (and the chapter that follows) is vital to truly understanding this directive to see your teacher as a Buddha, so I recommend you do read it. But I’ll give some quotes here. The first one gives a perspective we were never taught in Rigpa – the Madhyamaka distinction between contingent and ultimate existence – and it’s one that will make the instruction to see your teacher as a Buddha a great deal easier to relate to:
In A Commentary on [Dignaga’s “Compendium of] Validly Cognizing Minds,”Dharmakirti stated that the defining characteristic of a phenomenon that arises from causes and conditions is its ability to perform a function for a specific audience. Because of this ability, the phenomenon is what it is. Thus, for instance, a watch that performs the function of a toy for a baby is not simply a watch functioning as a toy: it is a toy, for the baby.
The Madhyamaka explanation clarifies this point: the object is only contingently a toy, not ultimately a toy. It is not the case that the watch contains a concrete, findable defining characteristic, like a genetic code, that by its own power makes it ultimately a watch. Nor is it the case that the item here is an object that has two such characteristics in it, which by their own powers make it ultimately both a watch and a toy, either simultaneously or alternatively. Nor is it the case that the object itself is ultimately something undefined, which is neither of the two. It is a watch or a toy contingent on its ability to function validly as a watch for an adult or a toy for a baby, without ultimately being a watch, a toy, both, or neither.
The confusion here is that the four logical inferences cited in the graded-path texts demonstrate that spiritual mentors function as Buddhas for their disciples, while the scriptural quotations state that they are Buddhas. By the above explanation, the two statements are equivalent, but only in the sense that mentors are contingently Buddhas, not ultimately Buddhas. Westerners who are unaware of the Madhyamaka distinction between contingent and ultimate existence find the entire presentation totally baffling. Their confusion becomes even more perplexing because a magnifying glass does not need to be the sun in order to act as a medium for the sun. Therefore, when the texts recommend seeing that a mentor is a Buddha, we need to understand this to mean seeing the person only contingently as a Buddha, inasmuch as he or she validly functions as a Buddha for disciples.
Sakya Pandita explicitly made this point in The Divisions of the Three Sets of Vows. There he wrote, “The Prajnaparamita texts state that disciples need to regard their mentors as if the teachers were Buddhas. They do not claim that the mentors actually are Buddhas.”
Berzin goes on to say that there are many levels of understanding, and he looks at the “additional deeper meanings specific to highest tantra practice.”
“The Sakya master Ngorchen clearly stated in A Filigree for Beautifying the Three Continuums that in the context of highest tantra, the tantric master is not merely like a Buddha; he or she is a Buddha.”
He also tells us that a skeptical attitude to this deprives us of realizing the deepest insights to be gained from the teaching.
And yet, he also says:
“Some spiritual seekers take the highest tantra statement to have a literal meaning. Consequently, they view all their tantric masters’ actions, words, and emotional states as perfect. This frequently happens regarding dzogchen masters, since dzogchen supposedly means that everything is perfect. In Ascertaining the Three Vows, however, the Nyingma master Ngari Panchen made the situation clear. He explained that, in private, dzogchen masters may occasionally need to act in contradiction to the norms of generally accepted behavior. However, when in the public eye or in the company of beginners who may lose faith, dzogchen masters need to uphold strictly the liberation and bodhisattva vows. Thus, if popular spiritual teachers act improperly with students at Dharma centers, they are violating the basic Buddhist principles. Naivety over this point may open spiritual seekers to possible abuse.”
Confused? Not surprising. The answer to not taking it literally and at the same time not depriving ourselves of the deepest insights to be gained from the teaching is a correct understanding of the idea of seeing purely.
“The usual human appearance of the body of a tantric master and its simultaneous appearance as the enlightening body of a Buddha, particularly during an empowerment, are two facts about the same attribute of one phenomenon (ngowochig, ngo-bo gcig; “they are one by nature”). The phenomenon here is a tantric master; the attribute is the appearance of his or her physical body; the two facts about that attribute are that the appearance can validly be as a usual human and as the enlightening body of a Buddha.
The two appearances are two facts about the physical body of a tantric master and, in this sense, our tantric masters are Buddhas – although, of course, not inherently and ultimately Buddhas.”
He goes on to say that “our tantric masters are inseparably ordinary humans and Buddhas.” Then he deepens our understanding of this point by going into the three levels of significance of inseparable impure and pure appearances.
Remember the Heart Sutra? Form is emptiness; emptiness is form; form is no other than emptiness; emptiness is no other than form. When we see like this, there is no contradiction between seeing a Lama who exibits abusive behaviour as a Buddha because on the absolute/pure appearance level of existence he is, as we all are, indeed a Buddha. This isn’t an easy perspective for our dualistic minds to hold, however, and as Berzin and many other Buddhist teachers say, the idea that our teacher is a Buddha must not be taken literally on a conventional level to mean that he or she is actually enlightened and that everything he or she does is enlightened action and therefore acceptable. (“Naivety over this point may open spiritual seekers to possible abuse.” Berzin.)
I think it is always helpful, no matter what level of understanding we are considering, to remember the initial angle Berzin presents that the Lama is a Buddha only in so far as he or she functions as a Buddha for us in terms of teaching and practice.
His Holiness puts this in perspective in a statement during the Conference with Western Dharma Teachers in 1993:
“I have had many teachers, and I cannot accept seeing all their actions as pure. My two regents, who were among my sixteen teachers, fought one another in a power struggle that even involved the Tibetan army. When I sit on my meditation seat, I feel both were kind to me, and I have profound respect for both of them. Their fights do not matter. But when I had to deal with what was going on in the society, I said to them, “What you’re doing is wrong!” We should not feel a conflict in loyalties by acting in this way. In our practice, we can view the guru’s behavior as that of a mahasiddha,⁴ and in dealings with society, follow the general Buddhist approach and say that that behavior is wrong.”
Berzin concludes by pointing out the reason why we practice seeing our Lama as a Buddha and why seeing the flaws that obscure his or her clear light mind (Buddha nature is also important:
“In short, the deepest basis for mentally labeling a tantric master as a Buddha is the master’s clear light mind. The basis for labeling is not the fleeting stains that may or may not be obscuring that mind. Nor is the basis the strength of the manifest qualities of that mind. Thus, the mental labeling of a tantric master as a Buddha based on clear light mind is always valid. … Seeing that the flaws that appear in our external gurus are dependently arising fleeting stains enables us to see that the flaws that appear in our internal gurus – our clear light minds – are also dependently arising and fleeting. This insight is essential for actualizing the Buddha-qualities of our own clear light minds.
Click here to read the whole chapter.This is only part one of his teaching on this topic; at the end of the page, in the right hand corner, you’ll find a link to part two where Berzin goes even more deeply into seeing the Lama as a Buddha in Tantra. I highly recommend both chapters.
This is the second installment of our blog posts referencing Dr Alexander Berzin’s Wise Teacher, Wise Student: Tibetan Approaches to a Healthy Relationship. Ithaca: Snow Lion, 2010. Part one on historical and cultural factors affecting the student teacher relationship in Tibetan Buddhism can be found HERE. The chapter on Dealing with Problematic Teachers includes a contemplation that could be used in centres to help students balance the ‘good’ and the ‘bad’ and focus on the good for the purposes of their spiritual practice, while also acknowledging the ‘bad’. I think this could help a lot of students to heal.
Though he calls it ‘sutra-level’ guru meditation and it’s from the Gelupka school of Tibetan Buddhism, do not make the assumption that that means it’s not relevant for Rigpa students. It’s extremely relevant.
The contemplation is for all students of problematic teachers, not just those who felt emotionally, physically or sexually abused. This debacle has hurt us all in one way or another.
“For thorough healing, spiritually wounded disciples need eventually to be able to view their mentors’ faults and mistakes clearheadedly, free of naivety, anger, or recrimination. … Guru-meditation does not ask us to deny the accurate conventional appearances of what our mentors’ faults or mistakes may be. … Such an understanding allows us to see how our mentors’ faults and mistakes have arisen dependently on an enormous number of complex factors.”
The topic headings are:
The sections in bold can be used as a contemplation for general students. The last two sections are most relevant to those who have felt the full force of a teachers abusive behaviour and are having trouble seeing the positive aspects of the teacher.
Applying Sutra-Level Guru-Meditation to a Faulty or Abusive Teacher
Reviewing a Teacher’s Faults and mistakes
Creating a Protected Mental Space for Addressing Spiritual Wounds
Examining the Appearances That the Mind Creates
The Analogy with Contextual Therapy for Victims of Abuse
Teachers Involved in Controversy
Overcoming Emotional Blocks in Appreciating Kindness
Overcoming Emotional Blocks in Showing Respect
A surgical procedure
Berzin likens this proces of reviewing a teacher’s faults to a surgical procedure, and points out that this can’t be done until the student has recovered from the initial trauma – be it the trauma of being abused or the shock of discovering your teacher has behaved badly:
Before discerning and focusing on the good qualities and kindness of their mentors, disciples need to bring to conscious awareness the teachers’ shortcomings and work on their view of them. The process resembles a surgical procedure. Cleaning an infected wound requires cutting it open, even though lancing the abscess and exposing the infection temporarily increases the pain. In the case of a festering spiritual wound, the hidden infection may be denial or suppressed rage. To purge the infection requires reopening the wound and bringing to the surface what festers beneath, even though the procedure temporarily may bring more emotional pain. The operation must wait, of course, until the injured person has sufficiently recovered from the initial trauma and has regained the emotional strength to attack the problem.
Be sure to check out the What Now? Reference Material pagefor links to a wealth of articles in the topics related to abuse in Buddhist communities. For links to places to assist in healing from abuse see the sangha care resources page.
More personal and private support for current and previous students of Rigpa can be found in the What Now? Facebook group. Please contact us via the contact page and ask for an invite. Please use the email address you use on Facebook.
Many factors come together to create a situation where abusive behaviour can occur and can continue to occur and be covered up for forty years. In a Tibetan Buddhist community, cultural differences in student expectations and understanding of the student teacher relationship is a big factor, as is how the community understands some core Vajrayana concepts. In the next few posts I want to share information from Dr Alexander Berzin that might deepen our readers’ understanding of these factors.
I believe that only by understanding the situation fully can we find the way out of this mess of distortion that will likely do more to destroy Buddhism in the West than anything else. After all, abuse is illegal in the West, so how can any organistion who believes that behaviour recognised as abuse by the majority of the Western population is acceptable possibly survive long term? Even if they have removed the abuser from their role in the organisation, for so long as the misunderstandings that led to the situation are propagated, the same thing can happen again elsewhere.
Introducing Dr Berzin
In order to gain this understanding, I turn to Dr. Alexander Berzin (1944 – present), a Buddhist translator, teacher, scholar and practitioner with more than 50 years of Buddhist experience. After receiving his Ph.D. at Harvard, Dr. Berzin spent 29 years in India training under the guidance of some of the greatest Tibetan masters of our times. There he served as occasional interpreter for H.H. the 14th Dalai Lama and His tutors.
This book provides an in depth look at the student teacher relationship from the perspective of all the different schools of Tibetan Buddhism. It is the best source I have found so far in that the author understands both the Western perspective and has a deep understanding of Tibetan Buddhism. He is aware of the pitfalls Western students fall into and gives clarifications so that we can avoid these pitfalls and common misunderstandings.
The whole book is free on his website. It starts on this page https://studybuddhism.com/en/advanced-studies/lam-rim/student-teacher-relationship/factors-affecting-a-relation-with-a-spiritual-teacher and if you go to the bottom of the page it shows links to the next parts of the book. Or you can purchase a Kindle copy HERE It’s also available in paperback.
In these posts I will share some main points on the different chapters and direct you to the relevant chapter, but if you want to read the whole thing, I think it would be most beneficial.
Is there something wrong with the religion or is it how we understand it that is wron?
If you are feeling that there is something seriously wrong with the whole Tibetan Buddhist system, this series of posts may reassure you that the religion is not the problem here, rather it is cultural and psychological differences, a misunderstanding of the religion, and a hijacking of it in the service of one individual.
If you are one of those who are determined to prevent this happening again in any Buddhist organisation, you will find Berzin’s words provide a vital understanding of the dynamics at play
The Factors Affecting a Relation with a Spiritual Teacher
The modern Western situation for studying with a spiritual teacher is completely different from the traditional Asian one;
Dangers are exacerbated, in the case of the Tibetan tradition, by texts on “guru-devotion.” The audience for such texts was committed monks and nuns with vows, needing review in preparation for tantric empowerment. The instructions were never intended for beginners at a Dharma center.
He introduces a nontraditional scheme (that is not included in the book) for analyzing and problem-solving the issue, suggested by and expanded from the work of the Hungarian psychiatrist Dr. Ivan Boszermenyi-Nagy, one of the founders of family therapy and contextual therapy. Here he looks at the aims and expectations of the relationship for each party, the roles and level of committment they take, and the psychological factors affecting the relationship.
This would be an excellent model for Rigpa to use when looking into any issue a student has with a teacher.
Then he asks: “Do they student and teacher together form:
A good or bad team
A team in which both bring out the best abilities in each other or which hinders each other’s abilities
A team which wastes each other’s time because of different expectations
A team in which a hierarchic structure is maintained and in which the student feels exploited, controlled and thus inferior (reinforcing low self-esteem), and the teacher feels him or herself to be the authority and superior – note that what one side feels may not correspond to what the other feels
A team in which one or both feel inspired or drained.”
Cultural and historical perspectives and the Rise of Confusion
This brilliant run down of cultural and historical factors helped me to understand why abuse could happen in a Tibetan Buddhist context. It also shows that the issues go far beyond what can be fixed with a code of conduct. We will have to be much bolder than that if we are to turn this debacle into something that will benefit rather than destroy the dharma.
“The recurring misconduct has led some Dharma practitioners to become indifferent. No longer believing in anyone, many find their spiritual practice has weakened and become ineffective. Resolution of the problems and a healing of wounds are desperately needed so that sincere seekers may get on with the work of spiritual development. The student-teacher relationship as understood and developed in the West needs re-examination and perhaps revision.”
Be sure to check out the What Now? References pagefor links to a wealth of articles in the topics related to abuse in Buddhist communities. For links to places to assist in healing from abuse see the sangha care resources page.
More personal and private support for current and previous students of Rigpa can be found in the What Now? Facebook group. Please contact us via the contact page and ask for an invite. Please use the email address you use on Facebook.