The Sakyadhita Conference 2019: Inspiring, Challenging & Fruitful.

I’d never heard of the Sakyadhita International Association of Buddhist Women until Brisbane Buddhist Chaplain Jack Wicks contacted me last year and asked me to present a paper on the fallout from Sogyal’s abuse at the Sakyadhita conference 2019 in the Blue Mountains, Australia in June. I asked Damcho if she’d help out with the project and she said, ‘Yes.’ Getting the funds to pay the costs could have been a stumbling block, but 48 wonderful people contributed to our Go Fund Me Campaign to cover our conference fees and some of our costs. On Monday the 24th of June, Damcho, Jack and I delivered our paper to around 800 people.

The talk was very well received, the quality of the listening was interested and supportive. We had many people coming up and speaking to us afterwards to express how grateful they were that we were talking about the issue of abuse in Buddhism. They particularly appreciated Damcho speaking publicly of her experience.

For me it came at a great time because I’ve finished my book Fallout: Recovering from Abuse in Tibetan Buddhism, which speaks of my journey over the last couple of years, and this was like a very brief summary of the book’s subject matter. I felt lighter after the paper, as if I’d shed a load I’d been carrying.

Click here to listen to the audio.

Inspiring

The venue
The view
Our comfortable room.
The main room.
Women practitioners from all Buddhist countries.

As you can see, I met many wonderful people. It was truly wonderful to be in such a kind, supportive atmosphere. It made me realise that Buddhism is so much more than the few twisted teachers and communities.

What linked us all, these groups of nuns and lay women from all over Asia, Australia and even some from Europe and Israel, is our gender, and that relationship cut across sectarian boundaries. All were treated with respect. All equal. You could feel it in the atmosphere.

The talks were all printed into a booklet so I can read the ones I missed, but what struck me about the papers is the wealth of good works being done by Buddhist women, particularly in Asia, and the strong, inspiring woman behind them. The conference was very well organised, and a very special experience. How else would I ever make such friends? Some I intend to see again. Others will become Facebook friends.

Workshops were many and varied. I did two others on the abuse issue in order to network and so that our workshop could follow up on anything that came out of the others. The two nuns seated in the next photo delivered a paper before us on sexual abuse in nunneries in Bhutan and India, and the two talks together had quite an impact. It made it quite clear that abuse is a major issue in the religion, particularly for women, and particularly in Tibetan Buddhism, not just in the West, but also in the East where both nuns and monks are lax with their vows. Many apparently don’t even know what their vows are, whereas in other forms of Buddhism the monks and nuns recite their long list of vows at least once a month.

Strong inspiring women teachers

Thubten Chodreon, Tenzin Pamo, Joan Halifax, and Pema Khandro were the teachers I knew that were there. None of them had entourages, and all were all accessible. They ate with the rest of us, sat in the same seats, and it wasn’t hard to find a moment to speak with them. Many said to me that they felt that women teachers were the way forward for Buddhism. If you’re looking for a Buddhist teacher, I don’t think you’d go wrong with these women.

I spoke with Tenzin Palmo, and in our brief exchange, she embodied the genuine principle of the teacher in vajrayana, skilfully and spontaneously cutting through a habitual pattern of mine at the same time as setting me free. It heartened me that there are such teachers around. I also heard of a lineage of married monogamous Tibetan Lamas who didn’t screw around with their students. I found that hopeful. Not that I want another teacher – I don’t – but others do.

Tenzin Palmo

Challenging

It was a full-on six days, and the topic of Sogyal’s abuse was the main topic of conversation for us because people naturally wanted to talk about it. That meant re-living it again to some extent, but Damcho took it in her stride. I found her strength and grace also an inspiration.

I passed a couple of old Rigpa friends who looked at me as if they’d smelled dog poo – despite me smiling and saying, ‘Oh how lovely to see you,’ to one I’d known quite well. I found that hurtful until, with the help of a friend, I realised that it wasn’t personal. My friend helped me to see that I was a symbol of a point of view they didn’t want to accept and accepting me would mean accepting my viewpoint to some degree, something they didn’t want to do. Oh well. That’s how it is.

I managed to thank Tenzin Palmo for her support, and I gave her a paperback copy of my book Fallout. We had a brief exchange where she basically told me I didn’t need a teacher anymore. Her words: ‘You’re an adult, you don’t need a mummy or a daddy to tell you what to do anymore.’ I might tell you the whole story sometime, but I was amused to realise that Sogyal would never have told that to any of his students! She, Thubten Chodron, Joan Halifax and Pema Khandro were all so accessible, none of this setting themselves apart business. I thought them models of how teachers should be with their students.

I didn’t manage to get to a dharma talk, though. This ex-Buddhist has had enough of that! I did plan to listen to Tenzin Palmo, but I had a migraine. Luckily, a wonderful woman took care of me by booking me a massage and providing stick-on heat packs for my shoulders. Her care, attending to my needs without being asked, was compassion in action, and I felt very nurtured.

Fruitful

Damcho, Jack, Tenzin, Karma and me.

To top off the experience, we had a fruitful outcome. The nun on the right in this photo, Ven. Dr. Karma Tashi Choedron pulled together a group of talented women who wanted to do something about the abuse in Buddhism issue, and from her networking came the Alliance for Buddhist Ethics. It’s purpose is to eliminate abuse from Buddhism. A big task, yes, but it’s a start. You’ll hear more about this as time passes, but for now you can show your support by signing up to the mailing list.

Click here to sign up to the Alliance for Buddhist Ethics mailing list.

Here’s some video snippets from the conference including the announcement of the Alliance for Buddhist Ethics and some comments from Jack, Damcho and me.

Yes, I’m not a ‘Buddhist’ anymore in that I’m not aligned with any part of the religion (or any other) but I still care about the issue of abuse in Buddhism. I have great respect for the vajrayana, and I’d like to see it free from corruption, feudalism and the parts that aren’t actually Buddhism – like the idea that abuse is crazy wisdom and therefore okay. No, no, no, it is never okay, and it certainly isn’t what the Buddha taught – as Jack says at the end of our talk.

The next conference is in Malaysia in 2021, and I’m hoping to go. I’d like to submit a paper on self reflection for communities to help them locate cult behaviours and see that they’re damaging and un-Buddhist. This idea came from speaking to a FPMT nun who told me about the cultish behaviour in her group. How, I wondered, could someone raise the issue in such a community? A short guide to self-reflection could provide a starting point for such a conversation. But that’s for next time!

Here’s links to more elegant videos of the conference – with music.

19 Replies to “The Sakyadhita Conference 2019: Inspiring, Challenging & Fruitful.”

  1. Wonderful work you are doing ladies! All the respect and support for this effort!

    Abuse, should never ever be permitted or ignored, under whichever circumstances and whoever the perpetrator is.

  2. Dear Tahlia: What a wonderful reminder this is that all is not lost. Thank you, and congratulations on the presentation of your paper, and on having finished your book! (Sorry about the poo-smell look you got from the Rigpa people at the conference. I gave that same look to Sogyal himself one day a few years ago when I saw him in a hotel lobby here in town. He was not well pleased.)

    1. Yes, it’s good to have something hopeful, even if it will be a long haul and will no doubt meet lots of difficulties, it is something tangible and has some very strong women behind it.

      As for the poo-smell look. The first one, I was just shocked to see her and merely kind of blinked. The second one I automatically greeted him as I always did, smiles and so forth. Perhaps, that may soften him just a little, so maybe he won’t be able to see me as an enemy quite so easily in future.

      It appears that all those contemplations we did on equanimity (how enemies can become friends and friends can become enemies and so really the idea of friends and enemies is meaningless and you might as well treat everyone as friends) didn’t sink in. Or maybe they never did actually do them, or did them as a mere intellectual exercise, a patch easily worn off.

  3. My heartfelt thanks to you Thalia, Damcho and Jack for initiating this significant leap forward by bringing the Sogyal/Rigpa situation to the awareness of an international Buddhist community. Your deliverance was impressive, presented with moving dignity and wisdom. I think you clearly explained the manner in which abuse flourishes when a large organization forms around a central teacher who is still caught up in their own selfish desires and confusions and a twisted form of Buddha Dharma develops.
    I felt very uplifted seeing the videos of the conference. It appeared to be on a much more refined level than any assembly of Lamas with their anxious-faced/blissed-out devoted acolytes. As I have hoped, it will be these women who take the lead and are the guiding lights in regenerating an authentic form of Buddhism in the modern world.

    1. Yes, indeed, that’s how I feel too Toria. I imagined the lamas gathered together and saw all their entourages and arrogance. It would be a very different atmosphere. Here women were empowered to speak from their hearts about their concerns and be respected for their courage; in an assembly of lamas, they would not even have the opportunity, and if for some reason they managed it, the response would be silence or hostility, just like the response to our email and the way DXK misrepresented and dismissed my blog posts. They are too stuck in the past and too attached to being kings of their own little kingdoms to give up their power (and slaves) for a more enlightened view, and too arrogant to see that when it comes to guru devotion, and the way they interpret that as meaning criticism is not permitted, it’s simply not Buddhism. As I keep saying, the Buddha would be appalled at what these guys do in the name of guru devotion.

  4. Thank you very much for your good and very very needed, important work, Thalia Newland. Great Respect! And I appreciate the comment from Toria Selwin.

  5. Toria said it so well. It is so helpful to hear Buddhist women from many cultures were there, and that they listened to Damcho and Tahlia, with heart. You can hear it in the applause and the stillness of the audience’s rapt attention. You can see it in the presentation given by the nun who started Alliance for Ethics in Buddhism right there, listening to women. Listening to women.

    This took a lot of courage, you two didn’t really know what to expect. Damcho, hearing you tell some of your experience to an audience of Buddhist women, standing up for others in the process as well, meant so very much. And Tahlia your presentation as a lay student not previously aware of the magnitude of abuse, spoke for many of us. It has been quite a journey.
    All my love and respect to you both.

    1. Your presentation was brilliant – and it is wonderful that so many women were so touched, and some more good work is already been taken forward as a result. Hooray for that. I found the videos really moving, and maybe I’ll ever try and go to the next conference myself. All these women, so sincere, so capable. It’s time we took our power back from the men who for so many centuries have dominated women in this sphere of spirituality (as well as so many other spheres), bringing the current situations where women still struggle for true equality, even in the area of ordination. And get abused and mistreated, sexually and in other violent ways, and seriously taken advantage of so frequently, in a perhaps even regular and casual manner. It’s time we took back our own power and our own rights as people. Tradition is no excuse for the lies and abuse and anti-female suffering that will, sadly but true, carry on forever unless we take real, proactive steps to end it now, now. Real change always involves a struggle and forcing things. It is always the only way that things get done, and the sooner we do it the better chance of doing it as nicely as possible – but we must do it, we must, for the sake of our sisters now and the ones to come next. Our sisters, and our daughters. The abusers and the ones who gain from the current bad hierarchies will object the most, of course. The good men will rally round too, but it is the women who will have to take the main steps.

      1. Well said! It’s interesting as well that the key note speaker spoke about the integrating of women into spiritual traditions paralleling the need for integration of earth/body and consciousness. She was talking about the split between the material world and man’s consciousness in how we think, this idea with which we’ve lived for centuries that man is ‘above’ the animals and the earth, that it’s merely a resource for our taking. She sees respecting the earth as intimately linked to respecting women. Just as men rape us, those with the view of earth as purely a resource rape the earth – men and women both. What is required is not a battle between the sexes, but a healing of our fractured relationship, not only between the sexes but also within ourselves, both males and female, and human and earth, a healing that benefits all.

        Idealist perhaps, but from idealism comes change, and it was great to see this kind of commitment to the highest ideals in these wise women.

    2. YES to all that. Thank you so much Tahlia and Damcho, and Jack too, for saying it so well at the conference. Very moving and a great, truthful, sensitive presentation which clearly spoke direct to peoples’ hearts.

  6. Mary Finnigan and Robert Hogendoorn’s book about Sogyal is out now, and looks really good. (I already have a copy, ordered through Amazon.) The book has a very nice Foreword, but with no indication at all of who wrote it. Mary or Robert, can you tell us who wrote the Foreword to your book?

  7. Looking again, I see that the Foreword was written by Mary and Robert themselves. The use of third-person in one or two places confused me at first. Well done, both of you!

  8. Today, the online investigative platform Open Buddhism introduces itself to an English-speaking audience with a paper by long-term Ch’an/Zen practitioner Stuart Lachs: ‘Tibetan Buddhism Enters the 21st Century: Trouble in Shangri-la.’

    With this long-read, his first excursion outside Ch’an/Zen and into Tibetan Buddhism, Lachs takes stock of some day-to-day results of Western followers’ absolute submission to Tibetan teachers who were less than deserving of blind devotion. This led to abuses of power and the perpetration of sexual, physical, and financial offenses that were ‘arguably even more extreme than in Zen Buddhist communities.’

    Lachs does not stop there, however: he also explores how the institutions that facilitate Buddhist teachers such as Lama Norlha, Sakyong Mipham, and Sogyal Rinpoche, function to a large extent—as do most institutions—to promote and protect themselves, and empower their leaders and enable that power to function no matter the consequence.

    See: http://openbuddhism.org

  9. Rob, thanks for providing the link to this really excellent article, maybe the best on this subject that I’ve seen and I hope it’s widely read. Regarding Lama Norlha: his misbehavior was actually an open secret at least 20 years ago when I first heard about it from a friend who was one of his three-year retreat students. Around that same time I was in touch with some students of the Sikkimese translator and so-called “Dzogchen master” Sonam Kazi, a really despicable character, who complained to the Dalai Lama’s Office about Kazi’s sexual abuse of his students, and were told to “leave it alone.” So disgusting.

  10. Thanks, Been there, that’s very encouraging! I agree that Stuart Lachs’ article deserves to be widely read, and I think that’s happening. I’ll point Stuart to your remarks here, because I’m sure he’s interested in learning more about Lama Norlha.

    I’d be interested to learn more about Sonam Kazi myself. I’ve read allegations about his behaviour, before so if you have further sources I’d really like to follow up.

    If you’re more comfortable contacting me off line, you’ll find my email address on the ‘About’ page of Openbuddhism.org or you can befriend me on Facebook (rob.hogendoorn92) and contact me through Messenger.

  11. Rob, thanks for the invitation to speak further, but I’ll need to think carefully before doing that. Writing things even under a pen-name is a little bit risky for me, and I ‘m always asking myself whether I should stop. I’m sure you understand. With great applause for the work you’re doing . . .

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