Bob Thurman recently did a podcast on abuse in Buddhism, and though he said some things that some may find helpful in the examination of the issues raised by abuse in Buddhism, I think we need to talk about the part where he fosters one of the ideas that enabled abuse and victim blaming in Rigpa. By talking this way, Bob has shown that he has no idea of the toxic culture that arises around abusive lamas or how some teachings/beliefs/ideas can be misued to enable abuse and so need a very careful balancing of polarities if they are to be taught responsibly.
The problematic idea
Below is a rough transcript of the section in question. It is not word for word, but close enough for you to get the gist of what he was saying.
Someone who was more or less ready for the teaching and it was given by someone who was somewhat abusive but not perfectly enlightened and gave it to a disciple enough that the disciple was able to go beyond that teacher, then that disciple will still be using that lama who had faults as if he were a Buddha in order to transform their own faults. So we can say that it is still okay for that disciple that they don’t have to join in on rejecting that lama. In their mind they could stick with that guru, and they actually might go beyond.
What was harm to one might not be harm to another because they had an advanced level of something from something they obtained from previous lives such that it is possible that they could use something dished out to them from an impure vessel to go beyond. It is possible. It isn’t so black and white.” Robert Thurman https://bobthurman.com/abuse-in-buddhism/
“Ready for the teaching’? What teaching? We’re talking about abuse here. Is Bob suggesting that abuse is a legitimate teaching method? Unfortunately it appears that way.
“Given by someone who was somewhat abusive but not perfectly enlightened.” Not perfectly enlightened? Is Bob suggesting that someone abusive could be even a little enlightened?
Actual harm and feelings of harm
“What was harm to one might not be harm to another …” This is subscribing to the idea that harm cannot be objectively determined, that if you don’t ‘feel’ harmed then you actually haven’t been harmed. But when someone has been knocked unconscious, pulled by the ear until it bleeds, beaten so that you can see the bruising, or punched in the stomach such that they have a hematoma, it’s clear to anyone that the vicitm has been harmed, and certainly a medic could attest to that in court because the evidence of harm is clear to see. Anyone who experienced such things and then said that they didn’t ‘feel’ hurt, indicates that they have not only been physically harmed but are also so under the sway of trauma bonding and gaslighting by their abusive lama that they protect him and fully subscribe to his version of reality. Not feeling harmed in these circumstances most likely does not indicate some advanced spiritual level, but rather that the poor person is trapped in a web of lies and delusion created by their abuser for the purpose of control and exploitation.
Bob either doesn’t understand or simply neglects to point out that not feeling harmed doesn’t mean that you weren’t actually harmed – not where blood, bruises, scars, and ptsd are concerned. Not recognising or admiting to the symptoms of ptsd in yourself, for example, doesn’t mean that you don’t exhibit those symptoms for the objective observer to see.
“… because they had an advanced level of something from something they obtained from previous lives …” Advanced level, really. You’re going with that? This idea did so much harm in Rigpa. One of the reasons students stayed and kept taking the abuse was because they wanted to be at that ‘advanced’ level, and they wanted to prove to themselves, other students and their lama that they were such an ‘advanced’ student. How did they prove it? By not complaining about the abuse, by trying really hard to “use something dished out to them from an impure vessel to go beyond.”
When they finally saw the abuse as abuse, this idea that if you’re at an advanced level you can use abuse by your lama to benefit you spiritually was used by others to blame the victim. That the victim ‘felt’ hurt was seen as their fault, not the fault of the lama who actually hurt them. Sogyal said he felt sorry that people ‘felt hurt’. He never said he was sorry that he hurt them. This idea that a good/advanced student would be able to ‘transform’ the suffering they experienced at the hands of the lama allows abusive lamas to not take responsibility for the harm they have caused – something that is karmically inadvisable – and it also results in some students continuing to see abuse by lamas as an acceptable teaching method.
It’s true that people can use all sorts of difficult situations in a way that contributes to their spiritual growth, but what Bob neglects to make clear, and what needs to be made clear in relationship to abusive lamas is that this does not give anyone the right to abuse people with the expectation that that abuse be used for spiritual growth.
Correctly identifying responsibility
The major issue with this kind of thinking is that it takes the responsibility for harm away from the lama and places it on the student, making the issue a perception of harm, rather than actual harm that can be seen by an objective person. And so it bypasses the issue of the lama’s wrong doing, but actually the lama’s wrong doing is the issue here, not whether the student can ‘handle’ it or not.
They shouldn’t have had to ‘use something dished out to them from an impure vessel’. The kinds of behaviour Sogyal regularly exhibited should never have occured – especially in a spiritual setting – and the fact that he hurt people was his fault, not theirs. Abusing students is not teaching them dharma. It’s teaching them how to be a bully and get away with it by twisting the teachings such that they lay the responsibility for the harm on the student for their perception of harm rather than on the lama for causing actual harm.
We shouldn’t be judging the student here. It’s the lama we should be judging – preferably in a court of law. He’s the one in a position of power with a responsibility to his students to do them no harm.
This is what Bob Thurman neglected to make clear and what other proponents of this idea also forget, so the idea that students can use abusive behaviour to ‘go beyond’ becomes a justification of the lama’s behaviour, but even if there is some truth to the basic concept, justification of the lama’s behaviour is not a logical inference.
Certainly in any shared situation people will respond differently, some will be more bothered than others by being yelled at by their boss for instance, but that doesn’t mean that their boss should yell at them, thinking that he is giving them a great opportunity to not let it upset them. The boss is still a bastard and abuse is never an acceptable or effective management method.
Also the person who yells back might actually be handling it on a more healthy way for that person than the person who walks away thinking to themselves ‘I will not let him get under my skin’ or ‘he’s just a really unhappy person.’ To assume that one person is somehow more spiritually advanced than another because they ‘handled’ it better is simply not true, because the guy who yells back may have seen that the boss needs to be yelled at for his own sake, or for him yelling back might be exactly what he needed for himself for his own psychological health at that moment. And the person acting all meek may be simply enabling behaviour that is very bad for everyone and increasing their own sense of worthlessness. Of course, if the guy who yelled back yells at everyone, then it’s a different matter, but either way, it’s a toxic situation those people should never have been put in in the first place.
Could someone being in a bomb blast and seeing all that carnage use that as a means of liberation? I doubt that very much. There is a point at which a situation is just too toxic for people to be able to avoid some kind of trauma, no matter how well they ‘handle it’ and trying to ‘handle it’ well, thinking that means not showing any signs of trauma can be highly counterproductive for their healing, a repression rather than a facing of the reality of their feelings.
Similarity to abusive families
And when the abuse is coming from someone who professes to love you, the situation becomes even more traumatic. This is where the situation of those who were abused in a Buddhist community cannot be compared to those of the yogis incarcerated and tortured by the Chinese. Their tormentors never professed to love them or be torturing them for their benefit. And they didn’t betray any deep spiritual trust, because the yogis hadn’t placed any trust in them. The yogis still had their devotion to their own guru to sustain them, but the abused students were abused by the very person in which they had placed their trust.
The sense of betrayal and confusion that comes from being abused by a spiritual teacher adds a whole other layer of trauma. The inner circle culture in Rigpa had all the dynamics of a family with an abusive father, so the closest situation that can be used for comparison is that of domestic abuse, not incarceration in prison. The more the spiritual seeker in this instance relates to their lama in a way similiar to how a child relates to their father, the more traumatic the situation would be for them, and a child-like adoration of and complete faith and trust in Sogyal was definitely encouraged in Rigpa. The betrayal of trust and neglect of duty of care is similar to that experienced by the child of an abusive father.
An abusive husband makes his wife feel like it’s her fault, but we all know it isn’t. She loses her self esteem in such an environment, which makes it hard for her to leave and keeps her always trying to do ‘better’ (even to the degree of apologising for causing him to hit her), and it was the same in Rigpa, just replace ‘husband’ with ‘lama’. But the situation in Rigpa is worse because the general culture is supportive of the abuser by giving a philosophical, so-called spiritual, reason to blame the student for their trauma. This attitude only increases the trauma, and anyone who professes any kind of idea that contributes to this culture of victim blaming is enabling abuse, just like the neighbour of a family where she knows there is excessive violence, but instead of reporting the abusive father to social services, she tells herself that it’s just a parent disciplining their child.
Even if adults have been given tools to make the most of an abusive situation, having those tools does not take responsibility for the abuse away from the perpetrator. And it certainly isn’t an excuse or a reason for a lama to abuse people with impunity thinking he is giving them an opportunity to grow. And that applies regardless of the lama’s level of realisation. Permiting someone to hurt someone else on the grounds that it is good for their spiritual development is just twisted thinking that allows violence to be perpetrated in the name of teaching dharma.
Not a failure
My understanding of how it was for people is that they tried for years to transform the abuse into something beneficial for them, but eventually they saw the situation for what it was – a culture of abuse – and then they left. That was the point where their wisdom kicked in. Any suggestion that leaving, or ‘feeling abused’ was some kind of failure on the student’s part is simply a cult control mechanism, thought manipulation, nothing more. It is most certainly not true.
It’s like in family abuse where speaking up or leaving is seen as a betrayal of the family. The idea just keeps family members stuck in the cycle of abuse. In Rigpa fear of being seen and treated as a failure was one of the things that kept people stuck in that toxic situation.
That people struggled for years under the expectation that they transform the abuse into something beneficial, just made the whole situation more toxic and more traumatising.
One can separate oneself and ostracise a lama who abuses the sacred trust of being a spiritual teacher to abuse students using spiritual things as an excuse and method. It is ethical to do that. It protects yourself and protects others, but if there was some genuine learning, then one cannot hate that miscreant. One works with compassion towards people we hate, so why not apply that to the lama as well. So we still love even the bad gurus if we learned anything from them. We love the teachings, we love them, we consider them no longer qualified and we ask them to try to rehabilitate themselves, and if necessary we use law and media and reason to do that.” Bob Thurman. Abuse in Buddhism podcast.
Bob suggests that we remember the benefit we gained from a lama and honor him for that even while we reject them. This is the usual dharma teacher’s response to leaving a teacher, and being good little Buddhists, we immediatly assume that any benefit we gained from our time as an abusive lama’s student is due to the qualities of the lama.
But what if it was all a performance? All of it. Even what we felt as love. The idea that Sogyal was nothing more than a consumate performer is something that has been suggested to me by many of the people I’ve spoken to who were directly abused – and they should know better than anyone. What if the good qualities we see in our disgraced lama are just a projection of what we want to see? What if by holding onto the idea that he did have some good qualities we’re just making ourselves feel better about the situation? I guess that’s an okay reason, but we should be willing to accept that it may only be wishful thinking on our part, and if we are to see truth directly we need to drop all our attachment and aversion related to our seeking out the benefit.
I’m not saying that we shouldn’t try to see some good in our experience, or that some of us didn’t gain some beneift – clearly we did or we woudn’t have stuck around – just that we need to be careful that we don’t attribute that benefit all to the lama or hold onto our idea of benefit as an excuse not to examine our ‘realisation’.
Those who remain, still thinking they weren’t abused, and those who did feel some shift from something Sogyal did are likely not more advanced spirituality, but rather more able to manufacture or convince themselves of ‘results’, blind to the truth of the dynamics that keep them trapped, ignorant of the teachings on what a crazy wisdom master actually is, and are erroneously laying the benefit they gained on the lama, not on themselves, which is where they should be placing it. It is their devotion, their openess and trust that allowed understanding to arise, not any quality of the lama. Anything they experienced in a positive way was because of them, not him. The point we should not forget here is that the lama was not fit to be in his position.
Anyone who honours Sogyal for any transformation they may have felt from being abused by him (or taking teachings from him) is actually misplacing their attribution of benefit. Given his almost complete lack of qualificiation for the role he took on, any benefit we received was more likely to be despite Sogyal than because of him. It is more realistic to attribute any benefit we gained from our time in Rigpa to the variety of causes and conditions present rather than to one man.
The idea that a student should be able to transform abuse into some kind of realisation also contributes to the idea that tough love is part of vajrayana, and if you can’t ‘handle’ the tough love then you shouldn’t be a vajrayana student.
Is this really the kind of idea we want to propagate for Tibetan Buddhism? A religion where abuse is seen as part of the deal?
No matter from where this idea came, it was used in Rigpa, and can be used in future for so long as its propagated by lamas such as Dzongsar Khyentse, as a cult control mechanism to keep students taking the abuse and in slavery to the whims of the lama. Though some people may need to be treated firmly sometimes, we’re not talking about a sharply given reprimand here, we’re talking about what Karen Baxtor called ‘serious abuse’. There’s a huge difference between the loving parent who shouts at a child to stop them running onto the road in front of a car and then explains why they had to yell and the parent who grabs the child by the hair, drags them off the road and then beats them while they scream, leaving them bruised and traumatise. The second is abuse. The parent is merely releasing his frustration on the child. In the first instance the child learns not to run onto the road without looking. In the second instance the trauma of the beating obliterates the intended learning. They learn only to fear their father, not to take responsibility for checking for cars before stepping into the road.
Physical, emotional and sexual abuse is not love, is never skilful, and is not a teaching method. It’s been proven through educational studies that people learn better in an environment where they are rewarded for learning, not punished for their failures. That Sogyal did not see and apply this is another indication that he is certainly not enlightened, and that he went so far as to inflict this extreme behaviour on his students indicates that, despite whatever benefit anyone gained from their time in Rigpa, Sogyal and other lamas who hit, humilate, or ask sexual favours of students are not fit to teach. That’s the main point, and it should never get lost in talks on abuse in Buddhism.
Personal realities and community responsibilies
Trauma arising from abuse by a lama is NOT the student’s fault – even given their role in their perception of harm – and anyone who suggests that it is by using this idea that an advanced practitioner could benefit from an abusive lama shows a lack of understanding of the dynamics of the situation – particularly that the lama has broken his part in the teacher student relationship and therefore the required dynamics for transformation in a teaching sense are not present. They are also particularly ignorant on how such ideas have been distorted and used as a cult control mechanism.
The idea that students of any capacity can benefit from violent behaviour on the part of the lama must be discarded from Vajrayana, or at the very least, not emphasised and where it is mentioned, taught with a warning for how the idea is not an excuse or justification for harmful actions on the part of the lama. It does not bypass the lama’s responsibility to behave ethically and should not be used to make a student feel that they are a failure if their lama abuses them and they feel hurt by it.
Spiritual abuse is the worst kind of betrayal. To not feel hurt by it, rather than indicating some kind of realisation is more likely to indicate spiritual bypassing and supression of normal healthy human emotion. So don’t assume that feeling blessed rather than harmed, or experiencing what you interpret as a transendent state, indicates some kind of advanced spiritual capacity, it may just brainwashing and the kind of dissasociative state people commonly enter as a response to trauma. Or it may not.
Only one thing is certain in this play of personal realities: whatever you believe will be what you experience as truth, and only by dropping all beliefs will you have any chance of seeing reality directly. If you are brave enough to drop all beliefs and look directly at what actually is, rather than assuming that the truth is what you want it to be, then you are a true dharma practictioner.
Stopping abuse requires community participation. If we are to root it out, it is up to all of us to become educated, and Robert Thurman is not behaving responsibly by propagating this victim blaming disguised as vajrayana.
However, to his credit, he did also make some good points about teaching tantra and made it clear how unscrupulous lamas use the teachings on pure perception to faciliate abuse:
So lamas dish out initiations and then use the aspect [of the teachings] that ‘I’m now a Buddha in your eyes, and anything you see about me that doesn’t look like a Buddha, you have to imagine it is’, and then they abuse you. And worst of all they cripple your learning ability, they make you helpless.” Bob Thurman. Abuse in Buddhism podcast.
So watch out for any lama who suggests that anything you see about them that doesn’t look like a Buddha, you have to imagine it is. That’s a misuse of the pure perception teachings.