Does Tibetan Buddhism Condone Abuse?

Does Tibetan Buddhism condone abuse? Let’s look at the information we have on this.

The crazy wisdom tradition

A favourite story of all teachers in the religion is that of Marpa and his student Milarepa. Milarepa had a lot of bad karma so in order to purify his karma, Marpa made him built towers of rock and then pull them down and build another. I think he built and demolished seven towers. Apparently this purified his negative karma and eventually he became enlightened, and a favourite saint of the Tibetan people. Marpa also beat him and this is seen as an acceptable teaching method for Milarepa because apparently he had great potential. Marpa is seen as a great master. However, Marpa also beat his wife and she didn’t become enlightened.

There are other stories of masters throwing stones and hitting students with sandals – shared by Sogyal in The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying – and these stories are told to show that unconventional teaching methods can wake students up if those students are ‘ready’ for some realisation and the teacher is a great master who knows that the student needs this.

Whether or not you believe there is some value to this kind of idea, and whether or not you believe teachers use the idea as an excuse to do what they want, it is a fact that this kind of behaviour is part of the tradition.

Sogyal certainly thought he was a crazy wisdom master and so do those students who are still devoted to him. In this video he tries to justify his actions to a student hes just hit. If you think this does actually justify it, then I’d say you’ve been brainwashed. The idea that hitting someone brings that person closer to their attacker is nonsense! And why would you want to be close to someone who hits people?

(If the You Tube video has been removed, the file is attached below.)

Of course, some lamas recognise that abusive behaviour isn’t crazy wisdom.

‘Unfortunately the term “Crazy Wisdom” has now become so popularised that people will use it to explain any kind of bad behaviour by gurus, as if “Crazy Wisdom” is some special Tibetan cultural practice which allows a Vajrayana guru to ignore all laws and vows, all of the Buddha’s teachings on ethical behaviour, and any consequences for their actions! …  The time for the misuse of “Crazy Wisdom” is over. “Crazy Wisdom” is not an excuse for breaking vows or for bad behaviour.’


Dr Nida Chenagtsang, Karmamudra:The Yoga of Bliss, Sexuality in Tibetan Medicine and Buddhism

A lineage of abuse

 ‘The people of Katok experienced Khyentse Chokyi Lodro’s arrival as something of a tsunami. They said he was like an “invading force” (they used the same Tibetan word to describe the advance of the Communist Chinese) because his sovereignty over them was absolute and indisputable. Monks were punished ten at a time. When a flogging was called for, Rinpoche insisted in four or five hundred lashes, never a mere hundred, and he always watched from the window of his residence as the punishment was meted out.’ The Life and Times of Jamyang Khyentse Chökyi Lodrö: The Great Biography by Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche and Other Stories. Dilgo Khyentse and others, Shambhala (July 25, 2017)

This is the man Sogyal talks about in the TBLD as a great master and saint.

During a talk at the Paris centre, Orgyen Tobgyal Rinpoche said about spiritual teachers, ‘Such great beings, whether it corresponds to western ideas or not, if they kill someone, it’s fine,’ and, ‘Beating hard increases wisdom.’

Abuse is widespread in Tibetan Buddhist monasteries. The young Kalu Rinpoche on You Tube talks about being gang raped in a video titled Confessions of Kalu Rinpoche. I saw a video of a monk beating a young monk—badly—and a friend told me of nuns she had spoken to in India who were regularly raped by the local monks, monastics who apparently have no concern over breaking their vows.

Sexual misconduct is very common amongst high level lamas.’

Dr Nida Chenagtsang, Karmamudra:The Yoga of Bliss, Sexuality in Tibetan Medicine and Buddhism

Teachings on how to follow a teacher.

Rigpa students chant the following in their daily Longchen Nyingtik Ngondro practice:

‘Towards the lifestyle and activity of the lama,
May wrong view not arise for even an instant, and
May I see whatever he does as a teaching for me.
Through such devotion, may his blessing inspire
and fill my mind!’

This idea that you have to see anything your guru does as a teaching (and therefore okay) is not helped by one commentary on this text used by Rigpa which adds another phrase to the last verse: ‘and may I see whatever he does, whether it seems to be in accordance with the Dharma or not, as a teaching for me.’ A Guide to The Words of My Perfect Teacher, another commentary on this Ngondro, expands this idea on page 261 by saying: ‘His [the teacher´s] charisma may attract men and women alike, but even if he were to seduce a hundred girls daily, see it as the activity of bringing under control. And when he causes trouble, stirring up disputes and so on, even if he slaughters hundreds of animals every day, regard this as the activity of fierce subduing.’

If you take these words at face value without the depth of understanding to moderate their apparent meaning, then what is it saying to those who chant it every day?

The Dalai Lama doesn’t agree with this, but then he’s from the Gelupka lineage. There are 3 other lineages and the heads of those lineages have not said a single thing about all this abuse.

As far as Gelugpa is concerned, Lama Tsonghkapa clearly mentioned; if a lama teaches something that is against the dharma it should be avoided and opposed. If the lama’s teaching is in accord with the dharma it should be followed, if it is in discord with the Dharma it should not be followed.

Dalai Lama, National Seminar on Buddhism in Ladakh, India on August 1, 2017.

The Words of My Perfect Teacher and a commentary on it A Guide to The Words of My Perfect Teacher are the two core texts of Rigpa on the Vajrayana preliminaries or Ngondro—the entrance into the Vajrayana path—and both books make it very clear that once you’ve taken a teacher as your Vajra master you have to do what he or she says, see them as a Buddha, see everything they do as enlightened activity, and never criticise. Many teachers use these books as a reference for how students should follow their teachers. The book is based on being a student of a perfect teacher, however, not an imperfect one! And these days, even the book in question (written a couple of centuries ago) admits that good teachers are rare:

‘All the qualities complete according to purest dharma are hard to find in these decadent times.’

Patrul Rinpoche. The Words of My Perfect Teacher

Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche

Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche is the only lama who has spoken extensively on the matter, and for that I am grateful, but he sees the problem of guru abuse in Vajrayana as being caused by student’s misinterpretation of Vajrayana Buddhism, not the guru’s behaviour. He is often ambiguous, but if you look carefully, you’ll see he does make the bottom line clear.

‘The key point here is that if his students had received a Vajrayana initiation, if at the time they received it they were fully aware that it was a Vajrayana initiation, and if Sogyal Rinpoche had made sure that all the necessary prerequisites has been adhered to and fulfilled, then from the Vajrayana point of view, there is nothing wrong with Sogyal Rinpoche’s subsequent actions.’


Dzongsar Khyentse, Guru and Student in the Vajrayana, Facebook 15t August 2017

In a teaching called Being Savvy at following the Guru , Part 2
Chile, January 20th 2019 he said:  ‘And what I have basically, among other things that I’ve said, if Sogyal Rinpoche had applied the correct procedure and if the students also knew what was happening, then if they had taken him as a vajrayana master, that’s it, then you have to continue with this practice of pure perception, but if SR haven’t taken the correct procedure, and I have said that that time and I say now, that I doubt that SR had taken the correct procedure. This is my personal thought. You know the correct procedure … and someone says you do my chores for 3 years, these are the correct procedures. If SR didn’t apply the correct procedures, students didn’t know what was happening and students also don’t know was happening, it is totally wrong for Sogyal to demand whole-hearted pure perception so that he can do what he likes; it’s totally wrong. Okay. ‘

In other words, abuse by a guru is only ‘totally wrong’ if that guru hasn’t taken the correct procedure to prepare you. He’s saying that the problem with Sogyal’s abuse of students was not the behaviour itself, but that he behaved that way to students who weren’t properly prepared. He doesn’t say that a teacher shouldn’t abuse students who were properly prepared – and some were.

In page 19 of his book The Guru Drinks Bourbon? he makes this even clearer. In a section headed ‘Liberation Through Imprisonment’, he admits that in the student teacher relationship as traditionally laid out in Tibetan Buddhism ‘The potential for abuse of power exists.’ Then, in the very next sentence, he says: ‘However, 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.’

There you have it. Vajrayana according to DZK does permit abuse just so long as
the guru has properly prepared you. Not only that, but if this is the case, then you can’t even complain about the abuse when you discover that that’s what’s happening to you. Ouch!

Failure of lamas to condemn abuse

In an attempt to encourage some more native Tibetan lamas to state their position on abuse, some of us got the letter by the eight translated from English into Tibetan and sent it, along with the Lewis Silken report and over 100 signatures to thirty-eight lamas, with a question. We asked: Do you think the behaviour of Sogyal Lakar/Rinpoche as described in the 2017 letter by eight close students and confirmed by the Lewis Silkin Report is ever an acceptable way for Tibetan Buddhist teachers to behave towards their students?

We received only two replies and one of them referred students to The Words of My Perfect Teacher for information about how to follow a teacher! Apparently no one wants to simply say that beating, promiscuity, humiliation, abuse, are not acceptable behaviours, not in the Vajrayana, nor in any Buddhist context. We explained how important it was that they respond, how their silence is seen as complicit, and still they did not respond. I understand that there are cultural reasons that make speaking out difficult for them, but to not do so after we made it clear in our email just how important it was shows a sad lack of concern for their Western students.

Where teachers in a religion do not denounce abuse when asked to, does it not indicate that they condone it?

The names and responses of those few lamas who have made a clear stance against guru abuse can be found on the ‘Which Lamas are Trustworthy?’ page on the Beyond the Temple website. Take a close look at those who received the letter and never replied. You may be surprised to find lamas you respected on that list.

Conclusion

It’s hard to talk about Tibetan Buddhism as a whole because each lama rules his own little kingdom and isn’t beholden to anyone else, so every lama has to be taken on his or her own merits. However we can discern generalities.

The Nyingma lineage clearly does condone guru abuse for the student who is properly initiated into vajrayana – at least according to DZK, Orgyen Tobgyal and Sogyal Lakar. Though Mingyur Rinpoche said that ‘abuse is not a teaching method’ in his Lions’ Roar article, the Kagyu is the lineage with the most ‘crazy wisdom’ masters in their history. I know nothing about the Sakaya’s philosophy because none of them have said anything, but I do know of at least one woman abused by a high Sakaya lama. The Gelupka lineage appears to be the only one where their leader has clearly stated that lama abuse is not acceptable.


This post uses some excerpts from my upcoming book Fallout: Recovering from Spiritual Abuse in Tibetan Buddhism

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’.

16 Replies to “Does Tibetan Buddhism Condone Abuse?”

    1. It saddens me to admit that elements of the religion and the majority of lamas do condone abuse by gurus. I really wanted it to not be true, but I can draw no other conclusion to the almost complete lack of response to our email asking for a statement.

  1. This topic is examined in detail in Sex and Violence in Tibetan Buddhism…The Rise and fall of Sogyal Rinpoche by Mary Finnigan and Rob Hogendoorn. To be published by Jorvik Press on 10 May this year.
    We use Rinpoche for search engine recognition only.

    1. You’ll be covering other examples of this kind of behavior from over the last few decades, too, right? I remember hearing years ago that you were working on a book like this but were having trouble finding anyone interested in publishing it.

  2. Bizarre exceptions justified by “Milarepa was a mass murderer” become the rule for those who have only the most tenuous link to the lineage

    1. Well said Sangye! The rarest of the rarest exceptions in about 1.500 years of Indo-Tibetan Vajrayana Buddhism, with the most exceptional students, Naropa and Milarepa – who both are said to have been incredibly qualified students -, and the most exceptional teachers, Tilopa and Marpa, are (ab)used by these Lamas “as the rule for those who have only the most tenuous link to the lineage”

      This is a key problem IMO.

      1. It is, but it does also say something about the religion that these stories of teachers treating their students badly are held in such high regard. Are there not stories of gentle, kind teachers and their realised students? Why are these stories of tough teachers so revered? And why are they used to show the way students should be with their teachers? According to these stories, we’re supposed to be like Milarepa and do as we’re told and take the beatings and so on. That’s the message of those stories for a student. The suggestion is that if we don’t have that total trust in a teacher and obey his every request that we won’t become enlightened. Is that really true? I don’t believe it is, not anymore. Tibetan Buddhism isn’t the only or even the best way to enlightenment.

        If Tibetan Buddhism is to come out from under this stain of accepting violence in a teacher, then the heads of all the lineages need to do what HHDL has done and say that crazy wisdom has no place in the modern world, and that students should not tolerate that kind of behaviour in their teachers. They have to very firmly relegate it to the past where it belongs.

  3. Congratulations, Tahlia.This is a great post in which you publish the video and you sum up everything that has been said or written about abuse in Tibetan Buddhism.
    The video is not exactly a video, it’s an audio recording with a picture of Sogyal and a translation by Seth that proves that the victim is French.I also wonder who recorded it and if they were allowed to record it.
    Anyway, the video should become “viral”.It is short and it is a first hand testimony.Sogyal himself confesses that he hits students ant that he does so for their benefit!
    Most of the Rigpa “true believers” don’t know much about Sogyal’s behaviour.They don’t read the press articles: They assume they don’t trust the press and they are not allowed to read them for fear of breaking their samayas and going to hell.Some have never read the letter by the eight students for the same reasons, the letter makes them feel like vomiting.
    If the video became viral, they would have to see it , it’s short, only two sentences, and even if they took it at face value, the issue of abuse would at last be raised and discussed for the first time in Rigpa centers and in the social networks.

    1. Unfortunately, however, those truely still caught in the cult will probably see these words as a validation of the hitting. They will think, ‘Oh, how wonderful, if he hits me I will be closer to him.’ Or ‘He hit me many times, that proves how close I am to him!’ Those still committted to the Rigpa party line will probably not see how sick this really is.

  4. It’s important to note that the self-same lamas and enablers whose rhetoric employs ‘crazy wisdom’ as an excuse or justification of the lama’s abusive behaviour have been so unwilling to test their reasoning in a civil or criminal court of law.

    When (former) devotees object to theses lamas’ and enablers’ abuses, they tend to prefer hiding from view by going ‘on retreat’ in undisclosed locations, rather than open up their ‘firmly’ held, ‘well-established’ views to legal scrutiny.

    Apparently, they’re not so certain of themselves after all. Clearly, they worry more about the possibility of experiencing real time consequences of their ‘enlightened’ actions than they’re willing to publicly admit.

    I dare any one Tibetan lama or enabler—Dzongsar Jamyang Khyentse included—to propose even a single operative jurisdiction—including those of the exiled Tibetans’ judiciary and Tibet—where the ‘tantric exemption’ they so liberally claim for themselves would have even the remotest chance of holding up in court.

    Meanwhile, on the balance of probabilities, their views are much more likely to be crudely hypocritical than highly principled.

  5. Att: Been There (with shrewd idea of your real name). 100% correct. I have been on side with exposing Sogyal since 1994. Not correct that the book i planned back in the day was similar to the one to be published in May. The original went through many changes and was rejected by several publishers. It was a survey of the transition of Tibetan Buddhism into the materially developed world. The title was Taking Refuge. Also please note that the times have changed. Sexual abuse is high on the socio-political agenda now.

    1. Thanks, Mary! (And hello!) I look forward to reading your new book, and will probably be one of the very first to order it. With best wishes . . .

  6. And on it goes…. Thankyou TFC for shining a light on the dark side of monastic culture: “Serious observations by a Tibetan woman highlighting hypocrisy and the status quo in our community. How much more “uncomfortable” will it have to get before we honestly face taboo issues and achieve accountability? These are criminal acts that are swept under the rug for the sake of social and cultural comfort while victims quietly pay the price. ”
    https://www.facebook.com/TibetanFeministCollective/

    “”We are losing faith because the ones who we look up to as our spiritual teachers and guides are the ones inflicting pain”.

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