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?
Can an unrealised teacher induce a genuine spiritual experience in his or her students? This is something we’ve talked about before here, but for me, up until now, my examination has been very much informed by beliefs instilled in me by Tibetan Buddhism. In fact the whole quandary is due to the dzogchen teachings insistence that one needs a realised teacher for any genuine transmission of the nature of mind to occur.
‘So in Dzogchen, the direct introduction to rigpa requires that we rely upon an authentic guru, who already has this experience. It is when the blessings of the guru infuse our mindstream that this direct introduction is effected. ‘
Dzogchen, Heart Essence of the Great Perfection, HH Dalai Lama
Now I’d like to step out of the Tibetan Buddhist framework of beliefs and look at this question from a different perspective.
Given this kind of teaching,
When you discover that your dzogchen teacher is abusing people and so isn’t a reliable/authentic/realised guru, does that mean that what you experienced that you thought was the nature of mind, couldn’t have actually been the nature of mind after all?
If you did experience the nature of mind, does that mean that the teacher must be authentic/realised/reliable despite evidence to the contrary?
These two questions – posed due to the dzogchen teachings emphasis on the importance of the teacher having some realisation – leave students in a bind. It means that any student who had a taste of the nature of their mind in the presence of their guru, when faced with revelations of that guru’s abusive behaviour, either has to believe that their teacher did have some realisation, or they have to deny their own experience, thinking that a fake guru means a fake experience.
The first option is the one taken by those who deny or minimise their teacher’s abuse. The second option is the one taken by those who declare that all Rigpa students wasted their time and couldn’t possibly have had any genuine taste of the nature of their mind.
But there is a third option. It’s just not the option the religion wants to emphasise because it diminishes the importance of the teacher’s qualifications.
The other ‘uncomfortable’ option
The other option is that one can have a genuine spiritual experience with a fake teacher.
Those invested in holding to either of the first two options might find this option uncomfortable because if you accept this possibility, you’re questioning the truth of the religion’s insistence on the necessity of having a realised teacher. And examining how such a thing might be possible leads one to see the whole religion in the stark and unromantic light of open enquiry.
To really be open to this option, to see what the video below is showing us, you need to step completely outside of the belief structure of Tibetan Buddhism. You’ll need to ignore, or put aside with a question mark, the opening quote in this article .
Watch this video with an open mind and suddenly you can see all those rituals, the words the lama says, how he says it, the gestures he uses, and the environment in which is occurs for what they are: the manipulations of a skilled mentalist. Realisation is not a requirement so long as you follow the procedures set down by the previous skilled mentalists in your lineage.
In this video, Derren Brown demonstrates how he can induce a ‘religious experience’ in an atheist. He reproduces a number of well known psychology experiments which show how even non-believers are ‘hard-wired’ to be susceptible to suggestions of super-natural (and religious) presences.
Note that when he tells the woman how he induced her experience, he states that her experience was genuine. It was ‘her’ experience, something real, not something he gave her. All he did was set up the conditions where it was likely that she would experience some kind of spiritual opening. Just like a lama induces experiences in us and calls it ‘introducing us to the nature of mind’.
But is it the ‘real’ thing?
When I first watched this, the Tibetan Buddhist indoctrinated part of me wanted to say that such an experience wouldn’t be the nature of mind, that it would be some other ‘lesser’ state. Then I realised that I’d fallen prey to the elitist cult tactic, the ‘we have the answer that no one else has’ belief. The point here is not what kind of spiritual experience can be induced in this way, the point is that a spiritual experience can be induced by someone who willingly admits that he is not a guru and has no special powers, just the knowledge of a mentalist.
What this video is showing is that what kind of spiritual experience we might have when the right environment is created through chanting, meditation, tone of voice, gestures, belief in the power of the guru, suggestion, and so on depends entirely on us, not on the guru. That’s the point. All the guru does is set up a situation where we are most likely to have some kind of spiritual experience. What we actually experience is individual, and could be any of a variety of mental states.
Given that as part of a pointing-out-mind instruction we would’ve had teachings on the nature of mind, the likelihood that those who are ready would experience the nature of mind would be quite high. And if we were following the instructions on what to do – or not do – with our mind, there is no reason to believe that such a thing would be a ‘manufactured version of the real thing’. If you believe that the teachings and instructions are a true guide, then why would we not experience it if following those instructions?
The point is that during pointing out instructions, the guru is nothing more than a catalyst to help us experience our own nature, and he doesn’t need any qualities other than knowing the procedure to follow to induce a spiritual experience in his followers. The religion has a reliable system in place that has worked for centuries. They’re not faking it; their religion simply works based on lineages of skilled mentalists. The delusion is the idea that these lamas are anything other than skilled mentalists.
Views on this issue from within Tibetan Buddhism
“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….”
Tenzin Palmo. 30th December 2018 (Email response to a question)
Sogyal often told us the story about the woman who achieved realisation through praying to a dog’s tooth because she thought it was a relic of the Buddha. He told the story to us to show us that what was important wasn’t the quality of the teacher, but the quality of our devotion. I even heard him say on a couple of occasions that he might be ‘just a dog’s tooth.’
But don’t forget the most important part of the dzogchen teachings. The part that tells us that the lama doesn’t actually give us anything, and that realisation of the nature of mind is up to us:
‘What we have been looking for—the true nature of our mind—has been with us all the time. It is with us now, in this very moment. The teachings say that if we can penetrate the essence of our present thought—whatever it may be—if we can look at it directly and rest within its nature, we can realize the wisdom of buddha: ordinary mind, naked awareness, luminous emptiness, the ultimate truth.’
In Tibetan Buddhism we practice ‘seeing the lama as a buddha’; what’s that if not using the power of suggestion? In the following video, the people gathered – all declared atheists – have been told that Derren has the power to convert people instantly. See what happens …
What you see in this video shows what is actually going on in Tibetan Buddhism when the lama introduces us to the nature of mind. There’s nothing magical or mystical about it. Our expectations simply make us highly suggestible. We want to experience something, so we do. But that doesn’t mean that what we experience is somehow ‘fake’. It’s a real experience of a real mind state.
Do we create something or do we drop our defences and allow something to arise? I expect that would depend entirely on our training. If you’re trained to drop everything and see what’s left, that’s what you’ll do. Hence, a genuine experience of the nature of mind can come from a guru who does not have the qualities of a realised being.
If this is hard for you to accept, why? What beliefs are holding you back? How do these videos make you feel about your experience with Tibetan Buddhism?
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 has sent an email to their devotees sharing their plans ‘for the ceremonies that will be performed for Sogyal Rinpoche over the next few months’. These plans show a stark difference in cultural attitudes between Tibet and the West as to the respectful way to treat a corpse, and we can respect that. But Rigpa could have been culturally appropriate without the elaborate charade they have planned, and in their communications, they could have been respectful to those Sogyal abused rather than painting them as enemies.
Parading his corpse around as if he were an enlightened master just continues the lie that damaged so many and disillusioned many more. It’s nothing more than their usual manipulation of the faithful. The actions of a cult. They’re essentially repeating the ‘Rigpa party line’ in a big display, saying, ‘Sogyal is a great master; it was crazy wisdom, not abuse; the 8 and their supporters got it wrong. We can be safe in the knowledge that we are right; we can go on with our worship as if nothing happened. ‘
The anger arising now is not that of people clinging to anger about the abuse; it’s fresh anger arising from what Rigpa is saying by this display. Sel Verhoeven talks about this in this guest post.
First of all, I would like to say my heart is with anyone who is truly mourning the passing of Sogyal Rinpoche. It is a shattering experience to lose someone you love. If you are feeling very raw about this, you might not want to read this blog – even though it is not about Rinpoche’s passing away, but about what Rigpa is making out of it.
A man has died who has done a lot of bad and a lot of good. He still has thousands of devotees, but he has seriously harmed dozens of people and around a thousand students have left Rigpa, feeling completely disillusioned because their trust has been so badly broken.
What kind of a goodbye should be chosen? That is a difficult decision. Of course family and close ones should have the opportunity to say their goodbyes. And an opportunity for the devotees to pay their respects should be created. But, one would think that, given the circumstances, it would be wise (and compassionate to his victims) to try to keep it as small and discrete as possible.
Not Rigpa. No; let’s fly his body from Thailand to France, then to Bodhgaya in India, then to Sikkim and then to West-Sikkim on a 3 month tour:
Sogyal Rinpoche’s kudung will be taken firstly to the Buddhist temple of Wat Thong Nopakhun in Bangkok, Thailand. From 17th-22nd September [the temple] will be open to visitors daily between 5am-10pm. The kudung will then be taken to Lerab Ling in France where a private ceremony will be held for Sogyal Rinpoche’s family and community of close students. The kudung will remain at Lerab Ling from 24th-29th September, before being taken to India.
In India, Sogyal Rinpoche’s kudung will be taken to Bodhgaya, the seat of Buddha Shakyamuni’s enlightenment. The kudung will remain there for approximately one month, from 1st-31st October, at the Shechen Gompa. Lamas and monks from the Shechen Monastery and other Dharma communities will be invited to perform various practices and rituals in its presence.
From Bodhgaya, the kudung will be taken to Chorten Gompa, Kyabjé Dodrupchen Rinpoche’s monastery in Gangtok, Sikkim, where further practices will be performed by the Lamas and monks there throughout the month of November. Finally, the dungshyu (cremation ceremony) will take place on 2nd December at Tashiding in west Sikkim, a most sacred site and one of the Eight Great Charnel Grounds, blessed by Guru Rinpoche.’
In other words: let’s do as many ceremonies as we can over a 3 month period of time and let’s involve as many lama’s and monks as possible. Let’s just bombard everyone into believing he is a saint by making a flying circus out of it.
Turning the victim into the offender
Let’s look at this in terms of the DARVO technique commonly used by individuals and organisations when their unethical behaviour is exposed. (Deny it, Attack the whistle blower, and Reverse the Victim and Offender – make the abuser/offender appear to be the victim, and the victim appear to be the abuser/offender ). Again in the email they sent out:
‘But now that Rinpoche is deceased, we pray that, for the sake of his family, loved ones and close Dharma brothers and sisters, our plans to offer the traditional ceremonies and rituals will unfold peacefully and harmoniously. We simply ask, in all humility, for your respect and understanding at such a time.’
This would make you think that we (the community of victims of spiritual abuse, their supporters, and advocates for ethical behaviour) are a bunch of barbarians that would try to bomb the temples where the ceremonies are being held. When all we have ever asked for is to stop the denial, to acknowledge the abuse, for Rigpa to take responsibility for its part in it, and if possible, for them to really apologize. (On a side note, humility is a trait I have never seen in Rigpa …)
Dismissing the abuse
They also write:
‘Sadly, unresolved controversies in Sogyal Rinpoche’s life have elicited strong feelings in many people.’
So abuse that has been confirmed by an independent investigation is now just an ‘unresolved controversy’. It sounds a whole lot better than abuse, doesn’t it?
I don’t think there will be any protest at any of the ceremonies that are to be held in the next three months. There is no need to protest against this charade, because any sensible person will see it as a cult-warning sign when someone accused of abuse is sent off in such a grandiose way. So let them have their flying circus.
As someone in the What Now group worded it:
‘Strange maybe, but I feel compassion for Sogyal’s dead body being dragged around for so many days, through so many countries. To me, that doesn’t sound respectful at all. And this ‘traveling circus’ is even worse than all the eulogies we’ve read on the Rigpa home page … it’s about officially, and with lots of pomp, promoting a lie to a ‘truth’ that will be spread for decades to come…’
What Now group member
The repercussions for Tibetan Buddhism
What saddens me most of all is that what started out as the harmful behaviour of one person and the denial and whitewashing of one cult-like group has now, through the endorsement of so many lamas (by way of writing homages and participating in ceremonies) and the remaining silence of so many other lamas, become a reason to seriously doubt all of Tibetan Buddhism.
It has a treasure to offer. But so much seems to be rotten that I’m not sure whether the treasure can be saved. A lot of Sogyal Rinpoche’s ex-students have left Tibetan Buddhism, and I can’t blame them. I’m ever so grateful for HHDL, Mingyur Rinpoche, Tsultrim Allione, Ato Rinpoche, Dagpo Rinpoche, Thubten Chodron, Tsoknyi Rinpoche, Matthieu Ricard, Namgay Dawa Rinpoche and Jetsunma Tenzin Palmo who have spoken up against the abuse*. That’s ten teachers that can be trusted. Unfortunately around twenty teachers have endorsed Sogyal Rinpoche’s behaviour and contributed to his aggrandisement by writing a homage for him. One of them, Ringu Tulku, even turns out to be the champ of reversing abuser/victim roles by writing that ‘some of his trusted students attacked him with most serious accusations’.
Conversations with people who have spent time in Tibetan
society and been close to lamas have made me realise that, in general, Tibetan people
accept unethical and even abusive conduct in their reincarnated masters (tulkus)
without question or censure. But ‘tulku privilege‘, which essentially places tulkus
above the law, conflicts with modern Western values where equality is the very
basis of our democratic and legal system. Also the Tibetan injunctions against
criticism and requirements for subjugation to one’s teacher are in direct
opposition to Western values of freedom of speech and choice.
‘Human rights recognise the
inherent value of each person, regardless of background, where we live, what we
look like, what we think or what we believe. They are based on principles of
dignity, equality and mutual respect, which are shared across cultures,
religions and philosophies. They are about being treated fairly, treating
others fairly and having the ability to make genuine choices in our daily
Tulku privilege in action
In the West, sex between a student and teacher is considered
unethical due to the power imbalance, and coercion into sex is considered
sexual harassment at the least and sexual abuse at the worst. But Tulkus see
nothing wrong with coercing women into sex through such things as threats of
hell and promises of a fast path to enlightenment for the woman and/or her
‘Sexual misconduct is very common amongst high level lamas,’ Dr
Nida Chenagtsang Karmamudra:The Yoga of Bliss, Sexuality in Tibetan
Medicine and Buddhism.
Tulkus are brought up believing that they are ‘holy’ and by
right of that designation are not subject to the same ethical restrictions as
normal beings. They grow up in a religious culture where coercing women into
sex is the acceptable norm and under the tutelage of role models who take full
advantage of tulku privilege. I expect this is why so few of them have made
statements denouncing abuse perpetrated by other lamas.
‘Once you have completely and soberly surrendered, you may
not interpret certain manifestations and activities of the guru as the abuse of
power. If you want to be fully enlightened, you can’t worry about abuse.’ Dzongsar
Khyents, page 19, The Guru Drinks
In other words, after you’ve taken a vajrayana initiation
with a teacher, that teacher can do what he wants to you and you can’t
complain. In Tibetan Buddhist thinking, Tulkus have a free pass to treat people
any way they wish because it’s all seen as ‘enlightened action.’
This attitude can be clearly seen in Lama
Zopa’s response to Dagri Rinpoche’s inappropriate behaviour. He uses a lot
of words to basically say that since Dagri Rinpoche is a ‘holy being’ anything
he does is a ‘holy action’ and therefore not ordinary action which shouldn’t be
held to the same standards as the actions of those who aren’t ‘holy.’
Lama Zopa is so completely ignorant of how ridiculous his kind
of thinking appears to the majority of Westerners—excluding those who swallow such
beliefs without examination—that he doesn’t hide his views. This is a good
thing, because it’s certainly time for some transparency on this.
Clearly Dagri Rinpoche didn’t take the FPMT
code of conduct as having any relevance to him, and due to tulku privilege,
I expect all tulkus will think the same way—Rigpa’s special category for
Vajrayana and Dzogchen in their code of conduct certainly upholds that idea.
In the West, all are equal before the law. A crime is a
crime, no matter who commits it. Cardinal George Pell, the Catholic equivalent of
a very high lama was convicted
for sexual abuse in Australia. Western law sees abuse by spiritual figures as
crimes, not ‘holy actions.’ In fact, the very fact that the abuse was
perpetrated by a spiritual figure makes it all the more abhorrent.
Not only is the idea of spiritual leaders being above the
law not accepted in the West, as James R. Lewis explains in his book Cults
in America, probably the most important characteristic of a dangerous cult is
that ‘The organization is willing to place itself above the law.’ (See http://abuse.wikia.com/wiki/Cult_checklist
If Tibetan Buddhism wants to be seen
as a reputable religion in the West, instead of a religion comprised of dangerous
cults, the lamas have to give up their tulku privileges. I’m not holding my
breath waiting for that, though, but we could at least get some transparency
around the issue. Westerners should be under no illusions about their Tibetan
Even the monks do it.
One of the things that really shocked me on my journey of
discovery of tulku privilege is that even the tulkus who are monks have sex,
and they have it with multiple partners. One Western woman teacher of Tibetan
Buddhism with decades of experience around lamas and their communities told me
that sometimes tulku monks have sex with many women while looking for a wife,
and once they’ve found their wife, they give up their robes. Why, I wonder, don’t
they give up their robes before looking for a wife?
She also told me that having a wife does not necessarily
stop them from continuing their multiple partners, and some do not give up
their robes, even if they do have a wife. So they appear to be a monk, but they
Another woman told me that she heard HHDL on two separate occasions
saying that a monk could penetrate a woman without breaking his vow of celibacy
so long as he didn’t ejaculate! I couldn’t find any scriptural authority on
this, but the woman assures me that he shared this fact in Kalachakra teachings
The fact that ample numbers of Western women have appeared all
too keen to have sex with a tulku, robed or not, hasn’t helped the lamas to
recognise the reality of the situation—that in the West, as a spiritual
teacher, they are expected to behave ethically in all areas. And having sex with a student is considered highly unethical
for any teacher no matter whether the student wants it or not.
The biography of Lingza Chökyi, Travels in the Nether-worlds, includes the story in of a 16th
Century women who refused to be the ‘secret consort’ of ‘a master of esoteric
teachings’ and complained about his inappropriate conduct. In the story, ‘Yama
declares, “It is a greater sin to denigrate and slander lamas and teachers than
it is to murder a thousand living beings,” and condemns her to suffer the
torments of the hell realms.’ Lama Zopa’s response mentioned above is really just
a more subtle way of saying the same thing.
Teachings that do nothing more than maintain the power of
the lamas should be thoroughly questioned, not simply accepted as an integral part
of the Buddhist teachings. Some lama some time made up the teachings on how to
follow a teacher, but did they do it for the sake of the students or to provide
themselves with slaves for their own gratification? Given the abuse enabled by these
teachings, the latter purpose seems most likely.
And yet these teachings are now seen as integral to the
religion. But are they? Really? Isn’t some openness and respect towards a lama
enough? Why accept behaviour from our Tibetan Buddhist teachers that we would
not accept in any other area of our life?
A huge cultural clash
Western culture has taken a very long time to develop the
idea of equal rights for all human beings. Are we going to throw all that away
because Tibetan Buddhist teachers expect us to play the serfs in a system that
places them in the role of a feudal lord? Didn’t we get rid of that way of
thinking back in the time of the French Revolution? Wouldn’t accepting Tulku
privilege be a huge step backward for is both individually and collectively? And
how does giving up our right to recognise abuse as abuse contribute to our
spiritual development, anyway?
Tibetan Buddhism has a lot of offer, but tulku privilege is
not something we should import along with the teachings.
A call for transparency
On the issue of unethical conduct, I’ve seen no willingness
in tulkus to move an inch from their exalted position where they feel they can
ignore ethical guidelines with impunity. Since they appear unwilling to even
consider that their beliefs in this area may be needing some revision, then
they should at least do us the decency of being transparent about their
Isn’t it high time that a lama sat down with a panel of
Western students and answered a few core questions such as:
Is there any behaviour that would be considered
unethical for a tulku?
Are tulkus who wear monks’ robes celibate? If
so, what does celibacy actually mean for a tulku? Does it mean no sexual
contact as it does in the West?
The teachings on How to Follow a Teacher in The Words of my Perfect Teacher benefit lamas
by providing them with compliant slaves, how do such teachings benefit the
Do tulkus think that having sex with a woman is beneficial
for the woman regardless of whether the woman wanted it or not?
Do tulkus see anything wrong with threatening a
woman or promising her something in order to get her to have sex with them?
Tibetan Buddhist values and Western ethical
values clash where tulkus are not held to the same standards as the rest of
society, why shouldn’t tulkus behave in accord with Western ethics if they want
to teach in the West?
What questions would you like to ask to bring some
transparency to the issue of tulku privilege?
His Holiness the Dalai Lama’s recent meeting with some survivors of abuse by Tibetan Buddhist lamas led to some articles emphasising that he had known about abuse in Tibetan Buddhism for decades. This led to a rise in anti-Dalai Lama sentiment, particularly the accusation that he should have done more to stop it. On fact value, that’s a reasonable reaction, but when we understand the reality of HH’s position within the Tibetan cultural and religious system, we see that in actual fact, in terms of Tibetan culture, that he has been very outspoken. Tseten Samdup Chhoekyapa, a representative of HHDL in Europe, said during his European tour that the Dalai Lama “has consistently denounced such irresponsible and unethical behaviour”. At the conference with Western Buddhist Teachers in Dharamsala in 1993, HHDL spoke quite clearly about the need to publically expose lamas who acted unethically. It was due to his responses on the matter then that the 8 close students of Sogyal Lakar wrote the letter exposing his abuses. The importance of HH’s words then cannot be overemphasised. Without them, that letter would never have been written. If you accuse the Dalai Lama of not doing more to counter the abuse, you need to understand that he bears the weight of cultural and religious expectations, such as supporting the building of temples, and that he actually has no power over the lamas; even in his own school of Tibetan Buddhism, he can only make suggestions. It is up to the lamas whether or not they pay attention to what he says. And that aside, as this post by Joanne Clark explains, there is more compassion and wisdom in the way he has handled the abuse issue than appears on the surface. Thanks Joanne for sharing your perspective.
The importance of empowering abuse survivors
The cause of abuse of all kinds, and particularly sexual abuse, is misuse of power. This fact is widely accepted amongst therapists. When I worked as a counselor for survivors of sexual abuse on a university campus in Massachusetts, we used the “Empowerment Method.” In this method of counseling, power that has been violently taken away from a survivor is given back. We don’t advise any survivor on their course of action. We give them options and information and support them in whatever choices of action they want to take. This—and providing safety—are the two essential tools we used as we sat beside survivors in the hospital or police station or received their calls in the middle of the night.
In this context, if one views the actions the Dalai Lama has taken over decades, they are all focused on empowering survivors and empowering students to prevent abuses. Yes, one could criticize him for not stepping in sooner and speaking out over what he had heard about Sogyal Lakhar’s abuses. However, this might simply have resulted in another big power figure taking charge of an already top-heavy situation—and further disempowered students. Instead, he waited for survivors themselves to make the move—and then spoke out in support of their actions.
Challenging power stuctures in Tibetan Buddhism
In fact, it has been now almost four decades since His Holiness first began challenging certain power structures within the institution of Tibetan Buddhist culture—specifically, the very power structures that have allowed abuses to occur. In a publication on Lamrim dated 1982, he stated clearly and categorically that the practice of seeing the guru as a perfect Buddha is a dangerous practice, particularly for beginners, and that it should not be emphasized. The reaction against these statements from within his own lineage was strong, with people claiming that His Holiness “did not understand Lamrim”.
Then in 1993, the Dalai Lama met with Western teachers to discuss problems within Western Tibetan Buddhism and dramatically added a caveat to an instruction that insured lamas of absolute power—the instruction to never criticize one’s Vajrayana lama. At this conference, he stated clearly and unequivocally that in order to stop harm, students may speak out, even if they are tantrically bound to a teacher. Further, he advised students to make abuses by lamas public, saying that this is the only way to stop them.
Support for speaking out
In the context of Tibetan culture, speaking publicly about someone’s harmful actions is an extreme measure. In the West, it is more commonplace—and the media is set up for it. By suggesting this as an approach towards stemming lama abuses, the Dalai Lama is skillfully navigating cultures and acting dramatically to empower Western students. He is handing Western students a powerful tool.
When the eight ex-Rigpa students wrote their letter of disclosure, they used the Dalai Lama’s instructions from 1993 as support for their actions. The response from most in the Tibetan Buddhist establishment has been either silence or to condemn the eight for this letter. Some have claimed that they are doomed to hell. One has claimed that they are possessed by demons. However, the Dalai Lama has spoken out in support of their actions. He is the only Tibetan Buddhist leader to speak out in support of the eight. (Mingyur Rinpoche’s Lions Roar article did not mention Sogyal by name.)
He is the only Tibetan Buddhist leader to even acknowledge that there is a serious problem of abuse within Western Tibetan Buddhist organizations—and he has spoken about this frequently and consistently in teachings and conferences over decades. All of his comments target the institutional power structures that have allowed abuse to occur and all have empowered survivors. He even spoke once in dramatic ways about toppling old Tibetan feudal systems and compared this situation to the French revolution.
Steps in reformation
In fact, much of his life has been devoted towards democratizing Tibetan culture and reforming institutional structures. He voluntarily relinquished his position as “god-king” of the Tibetan people in 2011, after years of initiating democratic reforms within the government. He has helped establish the Mind and Life Institute, which is devoted to seeking better understanding between contemplative practices and science. The result of this has been to challenge aspects of blind faith within Tibetan Buddhism, such as a belief in Mt. Meru as the center of a flat world and many other erroneous facts of cosmology in the Abhidharma. He has brought science into the monastic curriculum and consistently encouraged students to be ‘21st Century Buddhists” by being better educated and more discerning. Practices that promote blind faith over critical discernment are another means of dis-empowering students in ways that can lead to abuses. This is what he has worked to undermine.
In a text published this year, co-authored by Thubten Chodron, His Holiness writes candidly and realistically about the problems with abusive lamas in the West and in Taiwan. Throughout fifty pages devoted to the topic of reliance on a spiritual master, he suggests possible reforms, identifies specific problems and reiterates his call for Western and Taiwanese students themselves to take action and take their power. At one point, he suggests that the West could initiate a certification program for all who teach in the West.
Here is a quote from that text:
“Because students are new to Buddhism, they may have blind devotion and obedience to spiritual mentors. Hearing about the great merit gained from making offerings to spiritual mentors, they may give them many donations and gifts– things that someone living in India would not have. The teacher becomes spoiled by the gifts and esteem of the students and if he is not careful, this could lead to his taking advantage of well-meaning students. “I have received many letters from people in other countries asking me to do something about this, but it is not in my control. Tibetan Buddhism is not organized like the Catholic Church with a pope and Vatican administration. I cannot make someone return to India or force him to stop wearing robes. When I teach, I give clear instructions about suitable behavior for teachers, both monastic and lay. If people do not listen to me then, it is doubtful that they will heed instructions from my office or the Department of Religious and Cultural Affairs…” (2018, The Dalai Lama and Thubten Chodron, The foundation of Buddhist Practice, p. 119)
“Tibetan Buddhism is not organized like the Catholic Church with a pope and Vatican administration …” This is certainly now being demonstrated in the context of Rigpa’s current position. Rigpa leaders are not interested in hearing anything he has to say! After declaring years ago that His Holiness was one of his “principal teachers,” Sogyal Lakhar, with the full support of Rigpa management, is now acting as if His Holiness has no advice to give and is no part of his or the Rigpa landscape. Rigpa has now changed its mission from “Rime” to “ancient Nyingma.” It’s hard to imagine that if His Holiness had refused to attend the Lerab Ling inauguration ten years ago, that this would have changed anything either. It would have been a good political move perhaps—but not an effective one.
A precarious balance
At the same time in the text quoted above, His Holiness upholds traditional teachings on the preciousness of the student-guru relationship. For those who want to move forward out of abusive relations with a lama and remain within the Dharma itself, his perspective is hugely beneficial and empowering. Abuse within a spiritual domain has a twofold impact, one from the abuse itself and the other from the harm to one’s spiritual path. For many, being able to retain that spiritual path is important and empowering and very healing.
It is probably this precarious balance he is maintaining that causes people to criticize him for not doing more. He is deeply invested in the survival of the Tibetan Buddhist tradition. That is clear. He sees the extraordinary, precious features of this tradition, established over centuries by brilliant scholars and realized yogis and is working tirelessly to preserve them. However, right now, the silence from leaders of all four lineages is palpable. It is clear that the Dalai Lama does not have the support of many Tibetan lamas in his advice on ending abuse. It appears that only Mingyur Rinpoche and Tsoknyi Rinpoche openly agree with him on whether students can speak out to stop harm. This also must be factored in, when we judge how His Holiness has chosen to act over the years. He is acutely aware that words from him are not going to move the dial very far in terms of changing lama behavior—while knowing that actions from students themselves have greater power in moving the dial in dramatic ways.
So I think we want to be careful and not forget that His Holiness is our ally. He wants the abuses to end certainly as much as we do and probably more. And he wants to help us heal. And I think that he has a lot to offer as advisor but not as power figure as we move forward towards safety in Western Dharma Centers. Truly, the ball is in our court now, we can take our power. Thanks Joane. And now a post script from Tahlia.
A clarification of recent comments
A transcript I received of the exchange between reporter Nicole le Fever (NOS) and the Dalai Lama during the Meet & Greet in the Nieuwe Kerk in Amsterdam today (15 September 2018) says that HH said, “So, these people, they don’t care about Buddha’s teaching. So, now the only thing is: make public, these things. Then people may be concerned about their shame, their embarassment. So, I told, so yesterday also I mentioned, since many years ago I already mentioned that: ‘Now you make things clear, so very good, I don’t care.'” The “I don’t care” means that if a lama abuses students and it is publicized, he doesn’t care that the information gets out and makes them look bad. He didn’t mean that he didn’t care about the situation. A good article on His Holiness’s position from a Tibetan Perspective is this one from the Tibetan Feminist Collective. http://www.tibetanfeministcollective.org/2018/09/18/dalai-lama-statements-refugee-abuse/
The next step
I have since heard that he is definitely placing abuse on the agenda for his meeting in Dharamsala in November with all the important religious leaders of Tibetan traditions. And in that interview with Nicole le Fever he told us what our next steps should be: “So at that time, you see, they should appeal, I suggested. So, I think the religious leaders, I think, should pay more attention, like that.” So he feels that that is the time, during this meeting in November, for students to petition the lamas, that there they (the lamas) should pay more attention. I sure hope that someone is arranging to go there and speak to the lamas directly. Anyone? Anyone sending a letter to them all?
Current and previous students of Rigpa can participate in private discussion on this and other abuse-related topics on our What Now? Facebook Group. If you’re interested in joining, please contact us via the contact page and ask for an invite. People from any Vajrayana sangha can join the Survivors of Vajrayana Abuse and Allies Facebook group for support. Click the link to request to join. Anyone who has left a Buddhist sangha that had an abusive teacher can join the Beyond the Temple Facebook Group. The focus in this group is not on the abuse, but on ourselves and our spiritual life as we recover from our experience 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, which posts links to related articles as they come to hand.
This week we have another guest post by Jo Green. The two key questions are ones that I’ve heard asked many times by people unwilling to accept that Sogyal did actually abuse his students. This post shows just how possible it is for evil to lurk below an apparently benefical exterior. TWO KEY QUESTIONS
“He brought so much benefit to so many people – how could he be a bad person?”
“If the allegations are true, how come nothing been proved in court?”
I have seen these two questions and variations upon them asked almost daily since last year’s revelations exposed the extent of abuse by Sogyal Rinpoche. They are asked by those who seek to protect his reputation at all costs, but they are also asked by a large number of people who are sincerely trying to make sense of the dissonance between their personal experiences and the accounts they’ve heard.
That’s why I thought it would be useful to tell the story of another person who certainly brought benefit to many people and whose reputation was never challenged in court, yet – if justice had been done – should probably have spent most of his life in jail. I think it may shed a lot of light on those two questions.
THE GREAT PHILANTHROPIST
Although he’s not much known outside the UK, there probably isn’t an adult in Britain who doesn’t know who Jimmy Savile was. Whether you thought he was great or he drove you crazy, everybody was familiar with his tracksuits, bling, cigars, Tarzan impressions and catchphrases. He said that he played the clown in public so that he felt accessible to everybody, but he was highly intelligent.
At the time of his death in October 2011 at the age of 84, he had long been SIR Jimmy Savile and the newspaper obituaries spoke with one voice: “Disc jockey, television presenter and tireless fundraiser for charity”, “Flamboyant disc jockey with a flair for good works”, “Exuberant disc jockey and TV personality who harnessed his cigar-chomping public persona to raise millions of pounds for charity” and so on. It was estimated he had raised up to £40m for good causes, as well as giving away a considerable slice of his personal income.
From a humble background, he went on to present the very first edition of the legendary Top of the Pops on the BBC in 1964 and would be there to present the last in 2006, with endless appearances in between, plus regular slots on Radio 1. At Saturday tea times, his show Jim’ll Fix It was the nation’s family viewing. In this programme, viewers wrote in – usually children – and asked him to help their dreams come true: be it meeting their sporting hero or eating lunch on a rollercoaster. This he did, across hundreds of editions over 18 years.
But Savile chose to do something truly remarkable with his fame and fortune: he used it as leverage to generate money and attention for a variety of charitable causes, working ceaselessly to fundraise for them. During the war he was sent down the mines, where he sustained a spinal injury, requiring a long period of recuperation. In recognition of this, he dedicated special effort to supporting the spinal injuries unit at Stoke Mandeville Hospital, bringing many millions to them over the years, helping to turn it into a world-class institution. But he also did epic charity bike rides and ran marathons in aid of many charities.
He volunteered at Leeds General Hospital and at Broadmoor high-security psychiatric hospital. Such was the frequency of his visits to both institutions that he had his own room to stay in. He was eventually made a junior health minister under Margaret Thatcher, appointed to head a task force to oversee the management of Broadmoor hospital after its board was suspended.
He was a friend of Prince Charles. Margaret Thatcher got him knighted by the Queen in 1990 and that same year, as a lifelong Catholic, he was given a Papal Knighthood by Pope John Paul II. These last two events were widely regarded as closing the book on the rumours there had been about him, since people are thoroughly vetted before receiving such honours. But rumours there were.
RUMOURS BECOME FACT
When a well-respected journalist, Lynn Barber, dared to tell Savile that “What people say is that you like little girls,” even after his knighthood, she was widely criticised. Savile answered the claim expertly and it rested there. A decade later, Louis Theroux – an interviewer specialising in difficult subjects, who made My Scientology Movie – spent a long time filming with Savile and brought up the same questions, but found no evidence of wrongdoing. He continued to meet with Savile over the years and later acknowledged to Savile’s victims how completely he had been hoodwinked. Because victims there were. Many.
A year after Savile’s death, ITV broadcast “The Other Side of Jimmy Savile” which, for the first time, aired accounts from women who said they had been abused by him. A police investigation started the very next day. Ten weeks later they revealed the extent of the allegations they had received:
450 victims had contacted them. They had identified 199 crimes in 17 police force areas, including 31 allegations of rape. 82% of those to come forward were female, 80% had been children or young people at the time of the incidents. Staff at Broadmoor claimed he had engaged in necrophiliac acts with corpses in the mortuary.
Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary later concluded that 214 of these complaints would have been criminal offences, had they been reported at the time. Sixteen victims reported being raped by Savile when under the age of consent, another ten when over 16. Four of these victims had been under the age of ten at the time. It’s thought his oldest abuse victim was 75.
There had already been reports to the police over the years and there had been many issues raised by people who worked alongside him in hospitals or in the media. All the signs had been there, with alarm bells having been rung at various significant moments, right back to the 1960s. An independent report for the BBC listed five significant times they had missed opportunities to identify and stop the abuse. But none of these individually had seemed a strong enough basis on which to take any action. Then there was the high esteem Savile was held in publicly – what is referred to as the “halo” effect. And then there was the potential loss of income to charities if accusations came out – the “benefit” Savile brought.
THE VALUE OF “BENEFIT”
People talk a lot about “the benefit Sogyal Rinpoche has brought to sentient beings”. Some might point to the fact that he introduced people to meditation and the nature of mind, whereas Savile was just an entertainer. But imagine for a moment you had lost the use of your legs in an accident and were in Stoke Mandeville Hospital. Would you be happier to hear the doctor tell you:
“We’re able to give you a treatment to help you walk again.”
Or “Sogyal Rinpoche is coming to visit you to introduce you to the nature of mind.”?
The benefit Sogyal Rinpoche has brought to the Dharma is highly debatable. Whatever he may have done to get people interested in Buddhism is now being radically undone because of his behaviour. I have recently spoken to many people who have been completely put off Buddhism by hearing these things and concluding that in the end it seems as abusive as any other religion.
Neither Sogyal nor Rigpa have shown much interest in helping any cause outside of the world of Tibetan Buddhism. True, they make some donations for the lives of animals to be spared. Then Sogyal orders another steak. So, in the practical or financial sense, there’s not much benefit to the world at large.
By contrast, the benefit Jimmy Savile brought is quantifiable: thousands of people helped in many practical ways, down the years – people healed, lives saved. By contrast, Sogyal founded his fame on talking about dealing with illness and death but was far more reluctant to set foot in a hospital. Of course, had Jimmy Savile been arrested and imprisoned for his abusive behaviour back in the 1960s, those institutions might not have received that benefit. So, are we to conclude that it was a good thing he went to his grave without ever being caught?
I don’t believe there is a charity or hospital out there that would consider child abuse or rape an acceptable price to pay for some extra funds. Most of the recipients of Savile’s help could surely have found financial support through other means, just as most Rigpa students could have been introduced to Buddhist ideas by a teacher that did not abuse a significant minority of his students. One could argue that without Savile, Stoke Mandeville would not be what it is today, just as without Sogyal Rinpoche there would be no beautiful Buddhist temple at Lerab Ling. So, are these structures worth a lifetime of suffering for the victims of abuse? Does that somehow make it OK? I hope nobody reading this thinks so.
THE HALO EFFECT
Jimmy Savile was a popular public figure and had dealings with thousands of people. To most, he was a comical, eccentric celebrity. Those he abused were just a very small percentage. Far more people got some kind of benefit by being associated with him. Most people attending teachings from Sogyal in that temple or at Rigpa centres would come to no harm whatsoever and might well come away feeling they had learnt something important. But many of those who found themselves alone with the teacher or the celebrity were having an entirely different experience – experiences that would leave them traumatised.
If the Queen or the Pope or the Dalai Lama or Richard Gere appears to endorse you, then it can be very, very hard for victims to be believed when they speak up and recount experiences that don’t fit with the public image at all. And if nobody joins all the dots between a multitude of acts occurring at different times in different places, then a skilful perpetrator can appear completely untouchable.
THE CHALLENGE OF JUSTICE
Most people who have been abused have little or no motivation to be retraumatised by the process of police interrogation and being publicly exposed in a courtroom. It takes a very brave person to do that, and the minimum they need is a sense they will be believed and that others will rally around them. When each victim feels isolated and disbelieved they also feel powerless to go up against figures who stand as tall as a Sogyal Rinpoche or a Jimmy Savile. So, it is entirely possible for there to exist hundreds of victims and crimes, and yet there not be a single court challenge.
Of course, I am not for one moment suggesting that Sogyal Rinpoche did the same things as Jimmy Savile, but it must be stressed that we currently do not know the full extent of what Sogyal did. In the Savile case we see that rumours swirling for decades and occasional instances of people raising concerns or reporting incidents proved indicative of an almost unimaginably large catalogue of crimes. We do not know if this may prove to be the case with Sogyal Rinpoche as well.
Those people who worked closely with Savile for long periods of time seemed to simply refuse to believe what they heard or, sometimes, the evidence of their own eyes. There seem to be a number in the Rigpa leadership who are still doing the same. In a few days’ time, if the report of the investigation by Lewis Silkin paints an honest picture, then one of the things it is likely to conclude is that what we know so far is only scratching the surface and there is much more yet to be revealed.
Private discussion on this and other related topics can be had on our 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, which posts links to related articles as they come to hand.
In Tibetan Buddhism there is a reason for the instruction not to criticise one’s teacher. The idea is that students avoid the kind of constant petty criticism that prevents them seeing beyond their judgemental mind. It is supposed to be a way to help them see with their wisdom mind (see purely), but when it’s taught and understood as a blanket injunction without a real understanding of the point of the instruction, it becomes restrictive rather than enlightening. Compare “You must never criticise” to a more complete instruction: “Do not view your teacher with your confused judgemental mind, but with your wisdom mind, remembering the five wisdoms of the nature of our mind of which the wisdom of discernment is one.”
The fact that our wisdom mind can discern/distinguish/determine/recognise the difference between what is appropriate and what is not in any situation was completely ignored in instructions on this point in Rigpa, so no criticism was allowed at all, and when someone did make a complaint it was ignored. The result was not just the proliferation of abuse but also that the organisation stagnated, and Tibetan Buddhism is facing the same problem. If an institution doesn’t listen to criticism, it can’t grow, adapt and improve, and it certainly can’t stop bad practices from developing and continuing unabated.
All criticism may seem negative, but actually it is only negative when it is destructive, when it comes from a desire to destroy or denigrate. When it comes from the desire to improve something rather than destroy it, it is constructive criticism, and constructive criticism can be of great benefit. That’s the whole idea of it.
My aim in writing critical posts on this blog is to show Rigpa and Tibetan Buddhism where their faults lie so they know what needs to be dealt with if they are to be a truly healthy organisation and religion. Because the motivation behind my writing is to be of benefit, I see it as constructive criticism. It would be helpful for everyone if it could be taken in that spirit.
The changes I have suggested in recent posts are not of the religion itself but of how it’s taught, understood and applied in the modern world, and surely that’s the central issue facing the religion today. I make my criticisms from a place of deep respect, and my main point on the adaptation of Tibetan Buddhism to modern times is that effective change demands deep reflection on the absolute meaning of the teachings, for only from that vantage point can change be made that does not destroy the transformative power. It is not time for clinging to beliefs, but for examining the true nature of reality and how the vajrayana actually works with that nature to bring about spiritual development.
Feudalism and the fall of monarchies
All that needs to be pared away is the Tibetan cultural baggage that will do more to destroy the religion than it will to protect it, and His Holiness has identified the one concept that covers everything that needs to be examined and discarded—feudalism. The question becomes, what in the religion establishes and maintains the lama’s power (the king) rather than benefiting the student (subjects, attendants and slaves). The Western world saw how easily, given absolute rule with no right to criticise or disobey, a king or queen could abuse his or her power, and now we see the same in Tibetan Buddhism.
Too often people suffered because of unscrupulous monarchs, and out of compassion for the people we made changes. Countries that didn’t moderate the power of their monarchies, lost them completely in bloody revolutions. It’s quite simple really—change or die. Not death by revolution but by relegation in society’s view to the category of superstitious fundamentalism, at best, or, at worst, a cult in the word’s negative sense as a group harmful to its members and even to society. It’s not my place to make the changes, but I can point out that they must be made and why. That’s all I’m doing here. It’s up to the lamas and scholars to work out the details, assuming that they want the religion to be relevant in the modern world.
The man who dared to publically criticise the Queen
John Grigg, also known as Lord Altrincham, was a British writer and politician who will go down in history as the man who called Queen Elizabeth II a “priggish schoolgirl”. In an August 1957 article in his newspaper, he attacked the Queen’s style of speaking as a “pain in the neck” and blamed those around her for the content of her speeches. According to the article, the Queen’s court was too upper-class and British – it no longer reflected 20th century society and it damaged the monarchy.
The article caused a furore and was attacked by the majority of the press. The Duke of Argyll said that he should be hanged, drawn and quartered. Despite being a liberal Tory, he was denounced as a crypto-republican and a subversive revolutionary.
But ordinary people, who had found her speeches dismissive of them and their lives, supported Altrincham’s remarks, especially after he told a TV interviewer that he hadn’t meant to hurt the feelings of the royal family. In fact, he was a strong believer in constitutional monarchy and never saw his criticisms as disloyal; they were designed to help by indicating that changes needed to be made. Many years later in a Channel 4 documentary, he looked back on the incident, and said how by the 1950s the idea had crept in “that you couldn’t say a word against the royal family, let alone the Queen.”
The hopeful thing about this story in terms of the criticisms posted on this blog is that changes did take place following Lord Altrincham’s article. In the biography Monarch: The Life and Reign of Elizabeth II,author Robert Lacey said, “Inside the palace, some people realized there was truth in what Altrincham said. Within two days of the furore, the outspoken peer had been contacted through a mutual friend to arrange a private meeting with Martin Charteris, the queen’s assistant private secretary. Thirty years later, in the course of a political meeting at Eton, Charteris told Altrincham, “You did great service to the monarchy and I’m glad to say so publicly.”
From a basis of respect
Just as Altrincham was a monarchist who aimed for his criticism to help the monarchy be more relevant, so, too, my criticism is only aimed at ‘cleaning up’ Rigpa and helping Tibetan Buddhism become more relevant in the modern age. My articles here have only ever been in response to events that demanded some comment. I have written them not from some personal agenda but simply as a service to those without a voice and in the hope that our views will be heard and examined with an open mind by those able to make the necessary changes for a positive outcome for both Rigpa and Tibetan Buddhism.
When criticism is too much
Of course, even criticism meant to be constructive can become too much for the recipient if it comes all at once, especially if they can do nothing to fix the issues for which they are being criticised. The result of too great an onslaught of criticism can be that the recipient refuses to listen or if they are listening but cannot do anything to solve the problems, they cease doing that for which they are being criticised.
Rigpa management appears to not be listening, and I am ceasing this blog.
I have been criticised for being too critical, for not being critical enough, for moderating too strictly and for not moderating enough. It is impossible for me to satisfy everyone, and I simply do not have time to read all the comments, let alone reply to them. Writing the posts is a huge time commitment, and I actually need to put that time into earning a living. I have had a great deal of support, but I have also been personally attacked and misrepresented. Frankly the viciousness of some people (on both ‘sides’) has become tedious, and since Rigpa is not listening, I am wasting my time.
So I will no longer be writing articles for or running this blog, and though someone may post information on any major developments as they come to hand, I’ve pretty much said what needs to be said, and I’m not interested in sounding like a broken record—so if you’re new to this blog please look back over the archives. The last two articles made it quite clear where the changes in Tibetan Buddhism need to be made. Now it’s up to others to get on and do it—for the benefit of beings and the future of Vajrayana Buddhism in the West.
Thank you to those who have supported and encouraged me these last seven months. May all who have been harmed be healed. Post by Tahlia Newland, editor and author.
PS. I plan to continue to write reflections on the spiritual path on my Patreon blog and also on Medium. But these will not be on the topic of abuse in Rigpa.
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.
In the last post on this topic, I looked at the general markers of a cult and how they relate to vajrayana and examined devotion to the teacher in vajrayana in terms of whether we were devoted to a person or to an abstract principle—the first being the marker of a cult and the second of a religion.
Today I look at the role of unquestioning obedience, removal of the right to criticise and worldly law in vajrayana, then I provide a conclusion to the two posts.
The following points of contention in Tibetan Buddhism are all aspects of a feudal culture and in the modern world are markers of cults where power can easily be abused. Though those who resist change will cite teachings that give reasons why obedience, not criticising and being a law unto themselves have spiritual relevance, one should question whether those teachings are definitive or provisional, whether they are in accord with the Buddha’s teachings, whether they were given with the welfare of the student or of maintaining the lamas’ power in mind, and given the ease with which lamas abuse their power these days, whether the results of reinterpreting them in line with His Holiness the Dalai Lama and Minguyr Rinpoche’s points of view would not be more beneficial than harmful.
Though some teachers insist on it, others don’t, so clearly complete obedience to the teacher is not necessary for Vajrayana practice. It’s a matter of interpretation.
“According to Vajrayana (or Tantrayana), if a guru gives an instruction that is not in accord with the Dharma, the student should not follow it and should go to the teacher to clarify and explain why they cannot. This advice comes directly from the Buddha and is found in the scriptures. The same applies if you think the advice of your teacher is unskillful or unwise, even though it may be ethical. The purity of the teacher’s motivation is not enough: the instruction must be appropriate for the situation and the culture of the place.” HH Dalai Lama, Dharamsala 1993.
“Ancient texts take the authenticity of the guru for granted. Yet in our degenerate times, we cannot find perfect teachers. If the teacher has obscurations, then we risk taking bad advice, so how can we apply devotion and pure perception? My father (Tulku Urgyen Rinpoche) told me never to go against my own intuitive wisdom in order to follow the guru’s advice. Of course, if the advice concerns dharma, we think about it very carefully. If the advice concerns worldly things then, my father told me, we definitely have no obligation to follow it.” Mingyur Rinpoche, Turning Confusion into Clarity, pp 300-301.
To avoid a vajrayana cult, avoid teachers who insist on complete obedience, no matter what the reasoning. There is nothing detrimental to the transformative power of vajrayana if a student retains the right to say, “No.” If they feel they have to obey when they don’t want to for any reason, they are likely to end up feeling abused rather than transformed. S&M devotees have a safe word, why not vajrayana students? Some students will obey without question, some will not, but the power to choose should remain in their hands. The Words of My Perfect Teacher was presumably written about a perfect teacher, so we should be careful not to apply its teachings on obedience rigidly to our modern world. There is a big difference between a teacher demanding obedience and a student giving it willingly and always retaining the right to say “No.” If a vajrayana teacher wants to avoid being labelled a cult leader, he or she needs to understand this point.
A Cultwatch article on how cults work states, “Cult members are usually very fearful of disobeying or disagreeing with leadership. Healthy organisations, however, are not threatened by debating issues.”
The traditional view on not criticising one’s teacher for fear of going to hell is definitely a mark of a cult, and this is another area that Tibetan Buddhism needs to look at closely. It’s also an area where different teachers have different views, which means that vajrayana itself does not demand one doesn’t ever criticise one’s teacher, only some teachers do—apparently those who haven’t adjusted to the fact that some lamas abuse their position and so need to be criticised for the safety of their students. For the more flexible lamas, whether or not one breaks one sacred relationship with one’s teacher has to do with the circumstances and the student’s motivation.
Dzongsar Khyentse puts the hard line view succinctly, “Frankly, for a student of Sogyal Rinpoche who has consciously received abhisheka and therefore entered or stepped onto the Vajrayana path, to think of labelling Sogyal Rinpoche’s actions as ‘abusive’, or to criticize a Vajrayana master even privately, let alone publicly and in print, or simply to reveal that such methods exist, is a breakage of samaya.”
In the vajrayana belief system a breakage of samaya results in rebirth in hells, hence the fear factor.
In terms of what constitutes a cult, the reasoning behind such demands is irrelevant, it’s the result of the belief that is looked at, and the result of such a belief is that people fear to raise issues that should be raised, and if they do raise them, they are shut down as they were in Rigpa. In an era when lamas cannot be trusted not to abuse their power, insisting on no criticism under any circumstance is unhealthy at best and at worst can lead to students being harmed and the issue covered up for decades.
But it doesn’t have to be that way in Vajrayana. HHDL says,” Even though I have deep faith and respect for my teachers and consider them high spiritual beings, I did not hesitate to criticize their behavior because those actions were wrong no matter who did them. I didn’t speak out of hatred or disrespect, but because I love the Buddhadharma and their actions went against it.
“It is essential to distinguish between two things: the person and their action. We criticize the action, not the person. The person is neutral: he or she has the wish to be happy and overcome suffering, and once their negative action stops, they will become a friend. The troublemaker is the disturbing attitudes and actions. Speaking out against the action does not mean that we hate the person. In meditation, I try to develop genuine compassion for these people while still opposing their actions. Thus, we may criticize a teacher’s abusive actions or negative qualities while we respect them as a person at the same time. There are still some beneficial aspects of the guru. A mistaken action doesn’t destroy their good qualities. If you criticize in this way, there is no danger of hellish rebirth as a result. Motivation is the key: speaking out of hatred or desire for revenge is wrong. However, if we know that by not speaking out, their negative behavior will continue and will harm the Buddhadharma, and we still remain silent, that is wrong.”
Were it not for His Holiness and Mingyur Rinpoche, I might have come to a different conclusion to the question of whether or not vajrayana is a cult religion. They and other teachers like them prove that these cultish aspects are not intrinsic to vajrayana itself. They show the way for modern lamas to teach, a way that will ensure their community does not become a cult in the negative sense of the word.
As regards criticising a teacher, Mingyur Rinpoche in his Lion’s Roar article says, “The appropriate response depends on the situation. In some cases, if a teacher has acted inappropriately or harmfully but acknowledges the wrongdoing and commits to avoiding it in the future, then dealing with the matter internally may be adequate. But if there is a long-standing pattern of ethical violations, or if the abuse is extreme, or if the teacher is unwilling to take responsibility, it is appropriate to bring the behavior out into the open.
“In these circumstances, it is not a breach of samaya to bring painful information to light. Naming destructive behaviors is a necessary step to protect those who are being harmed or who are in danger of being harmed in the future, and to safeguard the health of the community.”
This is the view that teachers of Tibetan Buddhism and students of vajrayana need to adopt for the health of their community, to avoid the harmful cult label and for Tibetan Buddhism to find a respected place in Western society.
The ultimate red flag cult indicator for vajrayana
In his book Cults in America, a scholar named James R. Lewis explains a number of properties he would expect a dangerous sect to have. He says that probably the most important characteristic is that “The organization is willing to place itself above the law.” (See http://abuse.wikia.com/wiki/Cult_checklist)
Unfortunately some lamas do place vajrayana above the law, and this belief that vajrayana has its own rules separate to the rule of law is the single most dangerous aspect of vajrayana for both students and society.
Vajrayana as a whole does not do this, however, because lamas like HH Dalai Lama, Mingyur Rinpoche and others make it clear that society’s norms must be obeyed.
Again from his Lion’s Roar article, MR says, “It should go without saying that when schools, businesses, and other public institutions are expected to adhere to a code of conduct and the laws of the land, then spiritual organizations should be role models of ethical behavior. And teachers even more so.”
Those who declare, for any reason, that there is nothing wrong with Sogyal’s behaviour as outlined in the July letter by the 8 close students or that there is nothing wrong with a great lama killing someone (Orgyen Tobgyal Rinpoche, Rigpa Paris 2017) have put vajrayana above the law and as such have stepped into cult territory. Such extreme views are similar in their danger to society as those of fundamentalist Muslims who believe that blowing up a bus full of innocent people is spiritually beneficial. Such ideas are simply not acceptable in a society where cults are considered harmful to members and dangerous to society as a whole.
Based on the above thinking, I believe that vajrayana is not a cult religion in itself. Some vajrayana communities are cults, however, or have the potential to become one very easily. Where a particular community falls in terms of the label ‘cult’ depends on how the lama teaches devotion (do they demand that you give up your discernment) and pure perception (do they demand that you see their questionable actions as beneficial), and whether or not they demand complete obedience and consider that Vajrayana beliefs place lamas above the law of the land in which they teach. All this brings us back to the importance of checking out what a lama actually believes, how he or she behaves, and what they will demand of us if we become his or her student.
In this lama-centred, feudal-structured religion if Tibetan Buddhism as a whole wants the respect of Western society, then the lamas need to come together and examine their interpretations of the above teachings and adapt them to modern circumstances under the guidance of His Holiness the Dalai Lama who is respected and trusted by most people in the West.
The bottom line is that healthy religious organisations (healthy meaning not a cult) allow open criticism and the free flow of information. They do not demand obedience or devotion, or reward them with desirable teachings or attention, or punish their lack with fear tactics. They do not isolate and condemn anyone who does criticise, do not manipulate their members to gain money or servitude, do not think themselves above the law, and make it quite clear what is expected of the member at each stage of their path. Vajrayana teachers and those running their communities need to be aware of just where they may be stepping over the line from a healthy organisation to an unhealthy one.
I hope that those running Rigpa can see where they have stepped over this line so they know what they have to discard for the sake of the people they profess to serve—the student.
On the matter of the blog, I apologise for not being able to comment on people’s comments. My inability to find the time to both write the articles and read and reply to comments, and people’s criticism of that and the moderation that I do manage to do, is one of the reasons why there will be only one more post after this. Yes, apart from updates on any major developments, this blog is coming to an end. The Facebook group for Rigpa students and ex-Rigpa students will still operate and you can request to join it via the contact page here. Tahlia.
‘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.
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