The challenge of losing your spiritual path

When members of a Tibetan Buddhist group discover that their leader abused people, their reactions tend to fall roughly into the following categories:

  1. Those who deny or ignore the abuse or explain it away according to their belief system (thinking it’s genuine crazy wisdom) and remain committed to their religion and their group;
  2. Those who accept that the abuse happened and know it was wrong, but stay in the religion and the group, believing that the group will genuinely change such that abuse can never happen again;
  3. Those who leave the group but not the religion;
  4. Those who leave Tibetan Buddhism but remain a Buddhist;
  5. Those who leave Buddhism.

Retaining the Tibetan Buddhist spiritual path

In four out of five of those broad categories, the student retains their TB spiritual path. Those in group 2 or 3 will make some adjustments to how they view the religion or the group in order to accommodate what happened; they will convince themselves that the abuse was an aberration, and that they can find other lamas who don’t abuse his or her students. They continue with Tibetan Buddhism either with another group or with getting teachings from a variety of teachers.

They may will find it very hard, if not impossible, to trust a guru fully again, and they may be very suspicious of all gurus. They will feel adrift for a while, until they work out how to move forward with their religious path. Moving forward for them may entail reading books and/or seeking a new guru and will likely entail some strengthening of their trust in their own discernment. They may be reticent to join another group and will be more aware of cult warning signs, but they can continue with (or eventually return to) their religious practice. They can go back to their Ngondro (many lamas use the Longchen Nyingtik Ngondro) visualising Guru Rinpoche or the Buddha or even the letter Ah as the guru. This continuity of practice will give them some stability, a sense that they have not lost their spiritual path, that this difficulty is just a challenge they will overcome and continue on. For them, it’s not a matter of finding a new path, it’s a matter of developing a new relationship with the religion.

‘I think so many people tend to think of faith as blind adherence to a dogma or unquestioned surrender to an authority figure, and the result is losing self-respect and losing our own sense of what is true. And I don’t think of faith in those terms at all.’

Sharon Salzberg

Retaining a general Buddhist path

Those who give up Tibetan Buddhism but continue with Buddhism can still feel that they’re on some kind of spiritual path – it’s not Tibetan Buddhism anymore; but it’s still Buddhism, and there is a prescribed path. Even so, they struggle with the loss of community, loss of innocence, loss of a set shape to their daily practice and loss of continuity of practice. But if they are willing to retain some Buddhist practice in their life, then they’re not set entirely adrift. After a period of feeling lost, they will eventually find their way back to incorporating some form of Buddhist spiritual practice in their lives.

They may return to basics, study the Theravaden teachings and practice uncontrived meditation only, or study from a variety of sources and focus on compassion practices. There are many options for those who can still engage in some kind of Buddhist practice.

No matter which group you presently fall into, you’ll experience some sense of loss as you adjust to changed circumstances. But those who leave Buddhism entirely, face the most uncertain future. They face the greatest challenge, but also the greatest opportunity for genuine freedom of mind.

Adrift

If you’ve lost your spiritual path, you tend to feel adrift, lost, directionless, floating, groundless. You have no idea where you’re going in terms of your spiritual path. This is particularly difficult for those who followed the structure of the Tibetan Buddhist practices in their daily life. Such students were used to being told what to do each day—for example; one hundred and eight one-hundred-syllable mantras; 3 of a certain prayer, and/or a certain number of accumulations of a vajrayana practice. If now they can’t face doing any of those practices, they feel completely adrift.

How do you progress on your spiritual path when you don’t have one anymore? Are you faced with a life time of not fulfilling your spiritual yearning? That’s a scary prospect for those who have been committed to living a ‘spiritual’ life.

Spiritual path or religious path?

The first thing to realise in handling this situation is to differentiate between a religious path and a spiritual path. One’s spiritual path may include following a religion as part of it, but the spiritual path continues before and after, as well as during, one’s involvement with a religion or cult. We may not always be or have been part of a religion, but we’ve always had a spiritual path, even if we didn’t know we had one – don’t we keep growing simply as part of life? And now, even if it doesn’t feel like it, even if we feel at a loss, we are still on a spiritual path. We are on our own spiritual path, and if it doesn’t look like anyone else’s spiritual path, that’s not because it’s wrong or misguided; it’s because we are unique and so is our spiritual path. Even if on the outside our path looks similar to others, it will never be the same path.

‘The spiritual path – is simply the journey of living our lives. Everyone is on a spiritual path; most people just don’t know it.’

Marianne Williamson

What is a spiritual path?

I couldn’t find a definition of spiritual path that didn’t use a religion’s frame of reference, but Wikipedia did provide a modern version of the word ‘spirituality’:  

Modern usages [of the term spirituality] tend to refer to a subjective experience of a sacred dimension and the “deepest values and meanings by which people live”, often in a context separate from organized religious institutions, such as a belief in a supernatural (beyond the known and observable) realm, personal growth, a quest for an ultimate or sacred meaningreligious experience, or an encounter with one’s own “inner dimension”.

wikipedia.org/wiki/Spirituality

Characteristics of spiritual paths are such things as prayer, meditation – the development of mindfulness and awareness – contemplation, ethical values, a belief or awareness that there is more to the world than what we perceive with our physical senses, deep self-investigation and conscious personal growth, a commitment to service to others and to ‘truth’ – whatever we perceive that to be. Engaging in such things gives a spiritual dimension to our lives even if they aren’t ordered into some kind of path with a beginning, middle and end. (Our life provides its own beginning, middle and end.)

Is there an end?

The word ‘path’ gives us a sense that there is an end point, something we will achieve at the end of the path – enlightenment, Christ consciousness, satori, nirvana and so on – but I find that idea problematic because it suggests a static state, free of mental suffering perhaps, but is there any point at which we cease changing and growing? The nature of the universe is that the only constant is that everything changes all the time; was the Buddha exempt from that? How can there be an end point past which there is no more growth?

The wisdom of not seeking

As I see it, the spiritual path is not about getting to an end point; it’s about how you live your life in every moment.  It’s not about seeking some attainment in the future, but about fully being now and trusting that your very desire to live attuned to what is real and true will naturally move you forward.

Something I’ve found transformative is dropping the idea of seeking enlightenment. It’s held up as such a high state that one is only ever likely to fail to achieve it unless you’re some very special rare individual – so most of us, in seeking this rarely defined state, are setting ourselves up for failure. I’m better able to be focused in present awareness without that constant striving for the unachievable.

We turned to Buddhism probably due to some yearning to connect with a ‘spiritual dimension’ in ourselves and our world, but we can do that by simply tuning into our present awareness. And there are many secular tools we can use to assist us to do that – meditation, yoga, gardening, walking in nature, engaging in art and craft, listening to or creating inspiring music, singing, reading something inspiring, or just sitting quietly and watching the world go by.

‘The practice of being on a spiritual path isn’t about being the best meditator or the kindest possible person or the most enlightened. The practice is about surrendering to love as often as possible.’

Gabrielle Bernstein

The role of teachers

Of course we do need spiritual teachers at some point in our lives to give us pointers for how to work with ourselves, but those of us who’ve had decades of Buddhist study and practice should be able to trust our inner guide by now – that is the point of the path, after all.

Teachers that illuminate our inner beings in some way don’t even have to be a ‘spiritual’ teacher. They could be our yoga teacher or our swimming coach or our counsellor or therapist. There are many different layers to our ‘self’ and many different ways we can learn about them.

Different teachers can teach us different things at different stages of our life, and options will appear to us even if we aren’t looking. If we’re toying with the idea of taking teachings from someone, we just have to examine that someone and their community carefully, trust our gut feelings, and not buy into hopes and projections born out of our of our insecurities.

The trick, I think, of relating to teachers and religions is not to fall into the idea of thinking that they’re ‘the one’ and that they’re all you’ll ever need, all the way to the end of your life. That idea just closes one down to opportunities. The idea that we only need one perfect teacher is untrue and could be dangerous.

Sogyal taught us to abhor the spiritual supermarket – picking a bit of teachings from here and there – but perhaps that is exactly what we need right now. Perhaps that is our path for now. Yes, we could get confused, but once we realise we’re confused, we’ll find some way to move on from that confusion. Certainly, there is a lot to pick from from within the Buddhist path itself, and there’s no reason why we shouldn’t avail ourselves of all those different options.

The greater the loss the greater the opportunity for awakening

Steve Taylor in his book The Leap: The Psychology of Spiritual Awakening talks about the research he did into people who exhibit characteristics of awakening. What is clear from his research is that awakened people, or people who show some degree of awakening, are much more numerous than Buddhism would have us believe. Taylor considers awakening as the inevitable future of the human race, the result of the inexorable march of evolution. And he discovered that the thing that causes awakening most often is some major crisis in one’s life where you experience great loss, some time when the rug is ripped out from under you – such as the death of a loved one, a serious accident or illness, anything that sets you adrift, where your old ways of being simply don’t work for you anymore.  

He discovered that though long term religious practice helps one wake up from the ‘sleep’ state experienced by the majority of people, it’s a slow process and it is most transformative when an extended period of religious practice is followed by some traumatic event that changes everything for you – perhaps like the loss of one’s religion.

Don’t despair

So don’t despair. Trust in the natural process of life as spiritual practice. All we have to do is turn up for it and pay attention to ourselves, others and whatever life presents us with. If we stay open, curious, and aware, we can trust that we’re still progressing on our spiritual path. The very yearning that brought us to Buddhism in the first place, is still there, still directing us towards whatever will help us wake up even more. We just have to be open to it and realise that opportunities for growth might not look a bit like how we expect them to.

Don’t worry if you feel lost, directionless, bereft, rudderless, and so on; those states are full of potential for transformation. Being adrift is also being without reference, and that’s something we aimed for as dzogchen practitioners, so let’s embrace our new state, whatever it is. We don’t need to know where we’re going in order to appreciate the journey. We’re on a pathless path, a journey without an end.

You also might be more awakened than you think you are. When you read the qualities of awakening laid out in the above book, you might be surprised just how many of those qualities you already have. And honestly, does it really matter where you are on the ‘enlightenment scale’? Isn’t the important thing not where we’re heading but how we live each moment?

I went to a yoga class yesterday. The first one since I joined Rigpa. And oh, how I enjoyed it. I’ve also been doing some art and craft, and gardening.

What activities do you find are an outlet for that part of yourself that yearns to connect with the ‘spiritual dimension’? And please share any thoughts you have on walking a pathless path?

Image by Jim Semonik from Pixabay

Are you Beyond the Temple?

You can’t go beyond the temple unless you were once in the temple. Those of us who think of ourselves as part of the Beyond the Temple community have a shared ground in Tibetan Buddhism, and the reason we’ve ‘gone beyond’ is the result of unethical/criminal/abusive behaviour by our lama.

But ‘the temple’ doesn’t have to be a Tibetan Buddhist one. Anyone who has left a cult has had their eyes opened to the dynamics that come into play in a community that requires unquestioning devotion to their leader. After a cult or spiritual abuse experience, you see things differently. Your niavitee is gone. Your eyes are open to the way gurus hook people, and hopefully you’ve worked out why you were hooked and how you can avoid ending up in the same position again.

But it doesn’t have to be an abuse or cult experience that causes a shift; any reason for disillusionment with religion can cause you to move beyond the temple. If you’ve left a religion or a cult, you’ve left the temple, but whether or not you’ve moved beyond the temple is a different question.

What does being beyond the temple mean?

If you’ve gone beyond the temple, it doesn’t necessarily mean that you aren’t involved in a religion or that you aren’t listening to spiritual teachers, it means that you have an unattached relationship to them. You’ve gone beyond the illusion that there exists a perfect religion and a perfect guru with all the answers. You no longer give someone else responsibility for your spiritual path. You’re the adult in the driver’s seat of the vehicle on your spiritual path.

Being ‘beyond the temple’ can mean that you’ve given up on religion entirely, but it is unlikely to mean that you’ve given up on living a spiritual life, or thrown out your respect for the dharma in its unsullied form. But how you think about and relate to your spiritual life will be different to how you related to it when you were stuck in the temple. You’re wary now – wary of charlatans, false promises, sales pitches,
dangerous philosophies, and cult mentalities and tactics – and you’re much more critical of what ‘spiritual’ teachers say, never wanting to be duped again. You have a greater respect for common sense and have probably reaffirmed the importance of ethical behaviour in all areas of life.

You’ll never give up your discernment again. And though you may have a religion or even a guru or two, and even though you may have respect for them, you’ll not fall into the unquestioning-devotion trap again. And you’ll not expect them to be anything other than a fallible and flawed human being.

You’re likely to have affirmed what in the dharma is most important to you, or has the most value, and have some idea of what is extraneous in the religion. You’re likely to be turning inwards and learning to trust your own wisdom and compassion – and perhaps that’s something you learned to do while in the temple, but now it may be your only or primary refuge.

How to be both in and beyond the temple at the same time

If you still want a guru, still want a spiritual community that you can talk to face to face (as distinct from our virtual community) and you still want to go to retreats and listen to video teachings and have a set practice to do, then you’ll find yourself with another teacher and another community. And that’s fine. You can do that while being in the temple and beyond the temple at the same time. How?

  • You don’t expect the living guru to be perfect. In your practice (it it’s TB) you realise that the perfect guru is a construct and not the same as the living guru who teaches you. You might surrender to the mental construct, but you don’t surrender to the living teacher. There’s a difference between respect and blind devotion and adoration.
  • You don’t fall into any idea that the guru is ‘better’ or ‘higher’ than you or that they have all the answers to your problems. They may know more about dharma, and have better skills in meditation, but your Buddha nature and his or hers is the same; in essence you are equal. You are quite capable of working out your own issues and even of surpassing their realisation.
  • You recognise that (where relevant) they come from a different culture, or have been taught by someone from a different culture, so their ideas of what is and isn’t appropriate may not be the same as yours – particularly as regards to sex. You see sexual coercion for what it is and don’t get lured into sex by promises or accolades of how special you are.
  • _Photo from Kunzang Dorji’s Facebook page
  • You demand ethical behaviour in your guru and community and aren’t afraid to raise issues when they appear.
  • You know the cult warning signs and pay attention when a red flag arises.
  • You recognise that talk of crazy wisdom is likely being used as an excuse for bad behaviour.
  • You question everything and aren’t afraid to speak out where you see issues.
  • You make an effort to separate the truth of the dharma from the religious baggage that surrounds it.
  • You aren’t afraid to leave or go it alone. And recognise when you’ve learned all you can from this teacher.

In essence, you’re actually practicing dharma because you’re not attached, not to the lama or the community.

Any other ideas? What does being beyond the temple mean for you? Where have you landed? Or are you still falling?


If you’d like a more private place to chat about your ongoing spiritual path after you’ve left an abusive community, you can join the Beyond the Temple Facebook group. This group is for people who don’t want to talk about abuse, but want to keep in touch and share their discoveries, inspiration and challenges as they move on with their lives.

If you want to talk about abuse, then Rigpa or ex-Rigpa students can join the secret What Now? groupApply via the contact form here, telling us about yourself and why you want to join the group. 

Students from other Vajrayana communities who need somewhere where they can talk about abuse and find survivor support can join the Survivors of Vajrayana Abuse and their Allies group.  

Note that you will not be added to these groups if you don’t answer the questions.

The Facebook page and You Tube Channel associated with this blog are called Living in Peace and Clarity. Click the relevant link on the side bar to ‘Like’ and ‘Subscribe’.