When Rigpa students study Ngondro, they are indoctrinated with teachings that make it very difficult for them to challenge their teacher’s abusive behaviour. Below are some of the key ‘teachings’ that supported the idea that we had to do whatever Sogyal asked of us and that everything he did, even if it didn’t ‘appear’ to be in accord with the dharma was for our benefit. These ideas were drummed into our heads through daily repetition. Those of us who did our 100,000 recitations of the Longchen Nyingtik Ngondro Guru Yoga were well and truly brainwashed into believing that following these ideas would bring us to enlightenment.
The quotes and page references below are from: A Guide To The Practice Of Ngöndro – The Brief Dudjom Tersar Ngöndro and the Longchen Nyingtik Ngöndro with commentaries and guidance on how to practise them. 2nd edition – January 2007, published by Rigpa.
“You should rely upon your vajra lama, the ultimate master whose mind is emptiness and compassion and who accomplishes the benefit of self and others, cherishing him as though he were your very eyes. Follow his instructions to the letter, and take to heart the profound practices he gives, not just now and then, but with diligent and constant application. Practise with unflagging diligence for as long as you live. Pray that you may become worthy of the transmission of his profound wisdom mind, so that your realization becomes indivisible from his.” Commentary Page 210
“Towards the lifestyle and activity of the lama, may wrong view not arise for even an instant, and may I see whatever he does, whether it seems to be in accordance with the Dharma or not, as a teaching for me.” In this respect, you should remember the story of Captain Compassionate Heart killing Black Spearman, and Brahmin Lover of the Stars forsaking his vow of chastity for the brahmin girl.” Commentary Page 221. (Note 101: See The Words of My Perfect Teacher (revised ed.), p. 125 – Read it here. It explains why negative actions performed by a Bodhisattva are in fact positive, in some circumstances)
“May I rely upon my vajra lama meaningfully,
as though he were my very eyes,
Following his instructions to the letter,
and taking to heart the profound practices he gives,
Not just now and then, but with diligent and
May I become worthy of the transmission
of his profound wisdom mind!”
(Root text. Page 273)
“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!”
(Root text. Page 278)
Wrong view here refers to seeing the teacher as an ordinary being. You can see how steeped in blind devotion this tradition is.
If the teacher was actually enlightened, or even just a decent human being who actually cared about his students, these ideas wouldn’t be so harmful, and in terms of the pure perception teachings of Vajrayana might even be helpful for students who truly understand what is meant by pure perception – very few do, though! HH Dalai Lama said in Dharamsala in 1993 about the practice of seeing one’s lama as a Buddha, “If it is misunderstood, and thus gives the guru free license, it is like poison, destroying the teachings, the guru, and the disciple.”
The assumption that a lama is worthy of the responsibility of being a guru is unrealistic these days and giving him or her this kind of trust is just not healthy. And in a situation where the lama is only concerned with his own worldly success and gratification, these ideas make a community a destructive cult.
If you think the ‘destructive cult’ label is a bit extreme, take a look at this quote from the Zindri, which you can find on page 261 f. (printed version) under chapter (1) Common Activities (of the teacher). The whole chapter is very revealing. It culminates in the statement:
“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.”
In other words, your teacher can do what he likes and you have to see it all as good! This is the kind of belief that fosters abusive cults – beliefs that put the leader above norms of ethical behaviour. Maybe all Tibetan Buddhist sanghas were actually cults according to our present understanding of the term. I have it on good authority that there is no word for destructive cult in Tibetan, not in terms of a lama and community that is controlling and manipulative. Why is that? I bet it’s not because all their lamas were perfect! More likely it’s because Tibetans were well and truly indoctrinated in this way of thinking. Not so in the West. Here we call a spade a spade, and an abuser an abuser – that is, if we’re not brainwashed into thinking the abuse is enlightened activity.
Is The Words of My Perfect Teacher a relevant text for modern times?
The Words of My Perfect Teacher and The Zindri, a commentary on it, are the two core texts of Rigpa along with The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying, 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. These teachings were often emphasised in Rigpa. Pure perception was the whole purpose of vajrayana, we were told, and to many people that meant actually thinking that Sogyal was really enlightened. They forgot that pure perception means seeing everyone as enlightened, yourself included, not just the teacher!
The trouble with following these books comes if these aspects are stressed over other sections that moderate them, and in Rigpa, the section on the qualifications of the teacher ( p 138 – 143) was rarely mentioned. Why? Because our teacher clearly did not meet the qualifications!
“He should be pure, never having contravened any of the commitments or prohibitions related to the three types of vow … He should be learned and not lacking in knowledge of the tantras, sutras and shastras. Towards the vast multitude of beings, his heart should be so suffused with compassion that he loves each one like his only child. He should be well-versed in the practices … He should have actualised all the extraordinary qualities of liberation and realization in himself by experiencing the meaning of the teachings. He should be generous, his language should be pleasant. He should teach each individual according to that person’s needs and he should act in accordance with what he teaches …”
Later Patrul Rinpoche says, “Not having many disturbing negative emotions and thoughts, he should be calm and disciplined.”
Sogyal’s negative emotions weren’t hidden; most people who went to a Rigpa retreat saw him yelling at his students, sometimes sending them into tears.
I remember being disturbed at just how much Sogyal didn’t fit the list of qualifications, but I ignored my concerns because I’d already accepted him as my teacher and been told that since he’d given me an introduction to the nature of mind I was now ‘stuck with him as my teacher’. What I failed to realise is that since he didn’t meet the requirements of a qualified teacher, the instructions for following a teacher simply didn’t apply.
No emphasis was given in Rigpa to the section on choosing a teacher – we read the section through as part of our Ngondro study, but that was the extent of it. Whereas we said the above passages daily. But those instructions ONLY apply to a student of someone who meets the requirements for a qualified teacher as laid out in the WMPT, and since Sogyal does not meet those qualifications, the rest of the book isn’t applicable to him or his students.
The whole book is based on being a student of a perfect teacher, not an imperfect one!
I don’t think this text is appropriate in an age where, in the words of the book in question, “All the qualities complete according to purest dharma are hard to find in these decadent times.” As we’ve seen in Rigpa, the result of applying these teachings to an imperfect teacher can be an abusive cult, and the numbers of lamas accused of similar behaviour makes it quite clear that we cannot blindly trust that any of them have our best interests at heart. Some do, yes, but we need to be very sure before we take them as our Vajra guru, and I suggest that, even then, we never ever give up our right to say, “No,” our right to criticise, and our discernment in ascertaining what is harmful and what is helpful. Any teacher who asks you to give up those rights is one to avoid, but be careful, some teachers will say one thing in public and expect something else in private.
Is knowledge a sufficient qualification?
Since Sogyal never did Buddhist high school, his lack of classic Buddhist studies is an obvious place where he lacks the necessary qualifications for the instructions in the book to have any relevance to him or his students, but just because a lama has done his Buddhist training doesn’t mean he or she is qualified to be a vajra master. Why? Because the requirement is that the teacher’s “heart should be so suffused with compassion that he loves each one like his only child”, and “He should have actualised all the extraordinary qualities of liberation and realization in himself.” In other words, knowledge is not enough. Compassion and realisation are necessary attributes of a true Vajra master. Without those two qualities knowledge can be easily manipulated to meet the teacher’s agenda.
In light of this, it’s clear that any teacher who shows no compassion for those traumatised by their guru’s behaviour is not worthy of your devotion because they lack the necessary compassion. Any guru that protects their religion over and above protecting and caring for those damaged by their religion is not a qualified teacher. Let’s be clear on this: having a Buddhist degree, tulku status, a sharp mind, a quick wit, an entertaining manner and enthusiastic followers is not the compassion and wisdom required to meet the definition of a qualified Vajrayana teacher.
And it goes without saying that anyone who abuses anyone doesn’t meet the requirement for wisdom and compassion either – Chogyam Trungpa and the Sakyong included.
“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.” HH Dalai Lama. Dharamsala 1993
What do you think?
Private discussion on this and other related topics can be had on our Secret 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 page has 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.
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