Authentic Experience with an Inauthentic Guru?

Can an unrealised teacher induce a genuine spiritual experience in his or her students? This is something we’ve talked about before here, but for me, up until now, my examination has been very much informed by beliefs instilled in me by Tibetan Buddhism. In fact the whole quandary is due to the dzogchen teachings insistence that one needs a realised teacher for any genuine transmission of the nature of mind to occur.

‘So in Dzogchen, the direct introduction to rigpa requires that we rely upon an authentic guru, who already has this experience. It is when the blessings of the guru infuse our mindstream that this direct introduction is effected. ‘

Dzogchen, Heart Essence of the Great Perfection, HH Dalai Lama

Now I’d like to step out of the Tibetan Buddhist framework of beliefs and look at this question from a different perspective.

The quandary

Given this kind of teaching,

  • When you discover that your dzogchen teacher is abusing people and so isn’t a reliable/authentic/realised guru, does that mean that what you experienced that you thought was the nature of mind, couldn’t have actually been the nature of mind after all?
  • If you did experience the nature of mind, does that mean that the teacher must be authentic/realised/reliable despite evidence to the contrary?

These two questions – posed due to the dzogchen teachings emphasis on the importance of the teacher having some realisation – leave students in a bind. It means that any student who had a taste of the nature of their mind in the presence of their guru, when faced with revelations of that guru’s abusive behaviour, either has to believe that their teacher did have some realisation, or they have to deny their own experience, thinking that a fake guru means a fake experience.

The first option is the one taken by those who deny or minimise their teacher’s abuse. The second option is the one taken by those who declare that all Rigpa students wasted their time and couldn’t possibly have had any genuine taste of the nature of their mind.

But there is a third option. It’s just not the option the religion wants to emphasise because it diminishes the importance of the teacher’s qualifications.

The other ‘uncomfortable’ option

The other option is that one can have a genuine spiritual experience with a fake teacher.

Those invested in holding to either of the first two options might find this option uncomfortable because if you accept this possibility, you’re questioning the truth of the religion’s insistence on the necessity of having a realised teacher. And examining how such a thing might be possible leads one to see the whole religion in the stark and unromantic light of open enquiry.

To really be open to this option, to see what the video below is showing us, you need to step completely outside of the belief structure of Tibetan Buddhism. You’ll need to ignore, or put aside with a question mark, the opening quote in this article .

Watch this video with an open mind and suddenly you can see all those rituals, the words the lama says, how he says it, the gestures he uses, and the environment in which is occurs for what they are: the manipulations of a skilled mentalist. Realisation is not a requirement so long as you follow the procedures set down by the previous skilled mentalists in your lineage.

In this video, Derren Brown demonstrates how he can induce a ‘religious experience’ in an atheist. He reproduces a number of well known psychology experiments which show how even non-believers are ‘hard-wired’ to be susceptible to suggestions of super-natural (and religious) presences.

Note that when he tells the woman how he induced her experience, he states that her experience was genuine. It was ‘her’ experience, something real, not something he gave her. All he did was set up the conditions where it was likely that she would experience some kind of spiritual opening. Just like a lama induces experiences in us and calls it ‘introducing us to the nature of mind’.

But is it the ‘real’ thing?

When I first watched this, the Tibetan Buddhist indoctrinated part of me wanted to say that such an experience wouldn’t be the nature of mind, that it would be some other ‘lesser’ state. Then I realised that I’d fallen prey to the elitist cult tactic, the ‘we have the answer that no one else has’ belief. The point here is not what kind of spiritual experience can be induced in this way, the point is that a spiritual experience can be induced by someone who willingly admits that he is not a guru and has no special powers, just the knowledge of a mentalist.

What this video is showing is that what kind of spiritual experience we might have when the right environment is created through chanting, meditation, tone of voice, gestures, belief in the power of the guru, suggestion, and so on depends entirely on us, not on the guru. That’s the point. All the guru does is set up a situation where we are most likely to have some kind of spiritual experience. What we actually experience is individual, and could be any of a variety of mental states.

Given that as part of a pointing-out-mind instruction we would’ve had teachings on the nature of mind, the likelihood that those who are ready would experience the nature of mind would be quite high. And if we were following the instructions on what to do – or not do – with our mind, there is no reason to believe that such a thing would be a ‘manufactured version of the real thing’. If you believe that the teachings and instructions are a true guide, then why would we not experience it if following those instructions?

The point is that during pointing out instructions, the guru is nothing more than a catalyst to help us experience our own nature, and he doesn’t need any qualities other than knowing the procedure to follow to induce a spiritual experience in his followers. The religion has a reliable system in place that has worked for centuries. They’re not faking it; their religion simply works based on lineages of skilled mentalists. The delusion is the idea that these lamas are anything other than skilled mentalists.

Views on this issue from within Tibetan Buddhism

“It is possible to gain genuine realisation even when the teacher later proves to be unqualified. If the student has a direct realisation of the nature of the mind, then that is so, whatever the status of the lama who gave the pointing out instruction or facilitated this insight. Some teachers have the ability to open the minds of the students even when in other ways the conduct and wisdom of the teacher may be questionable. This is one reason for the confusion nowadays with lamas who have helped so many students yet have been shown to be unworthy of their role. Still these students were helped….”

Tenzin Palmo. 30th December 2018 (Email response to a question)

Sogyal often told us the story about the woman who achieved realisation through praying to a dog’s tooth because she thought it was a relic of the Buddha. He told the story to us to show us that what was important wasn’t the quality of the teacher, but the quality of our devotion. I even heard him say on a couple of occasions that he might be ‘just a dog’s tooth.’

But don’t forget the most important part of the dzogchen teachings. The part that tells us that the lama doesn’t actually give us anything, and that realisation of the nature of mind is up to us:

‘What we have been looking for—the true nature of our mind—has been with us all the time. It is with us now, in this very moment. The teachings say that if we can penetrate the essence of our present thought—whatever it may be—if we can look at it directly and rest within its nature, we can realize the wisdom of buddha: ordinary mind, naked awareness, luminous emptiness, the ultimate truth.’

Dzogchen Ponlop Rinpoche from the“Wild Awakening” lecture series , February, 2004.

The power of suggestion

In Tibetan Buddhism we practice ‘seeing the lama as a buddha’; what’s that if not using the power of suggestion? In the following video, the people gathered – all declared atheists – have been told that Derren has the power to convert people instantly. See what happens …

What you see in this video shows what is actually going on in Tibetan Buddhism when the lama introduces us to the nature of mind. There’s nothing magical or mystical about it. Our expectations simply make us highly suggestible. We want to experience something, so we do. But that doesn’t mean that what we experience is somehow ‘fake’. It’s a real experience of a real mind state.

Do we create something or do we drop our defences and allow something to arise? I expect that would depend entirely on our training. If you’re trained to drop everything and see what’s left, that’s what you’ll do. Hence, a genuine experience of the nature of mind can come from a guru who does not have the qualities of a realised being.

If this is hard for you to accept, why? What beliefs are holding you back? How do these videos make you feel about your experience with Tibetan Buddhism?

45 Replies to “Authentic Experience with an Inauthentic Guru?”

    1. Oh, that’s a shame. The first one shows him inducing a spiritual experience in a woman who is a stem cell scientist and atheist. They’re in a beautiful church and he talks to her in such a way that he sets up unconscious connections in her mind between her experience of her loving father and God, while using tapping fingers as a key to bringing those two ideas together. All this is explained in written words on the video as it occurs. Then he leaves her alone and suggests that she might like to stand up. When she stands up she has a spiritual experience during which tears run down her face.

      Then we see her invited into a TV studio where this video has been shown and he explains to her what he did, emphasising that she had a genuine experience, but that it was not due to a ‘God’ or any special qualities in him except his skill as a mentalist.

      The second one shows a similar kind of thing where he induces ‘spiritual’ experiences in individuals from a group of atheists who have come to see if they can be converted. About 50% of them leave after the first one – when a woman bursts into tears when he touches her head – because they don’t want to be converted, so those who are left are open to the idea. In this he induces common experiences Christians have with charismatic preachers. The power of suggestion is very clear in this one.

  1. Programming is a technique to yield power. It is up to students to discriminate whether the guide they follow is a selfish programmer or an enlightened teacher truly capable of helping. You relied on a programmer and do very well now connecting with your own heart instead of an outer guide. Once you can discriminate between teachers, you will not make a mistake, and be able to rely on authentic teachers only. Teachers are not perfect, because students don’t have karma to meet perfect ones these days, but a teacher must be sincere in their wish to help the student and have some realization. Not relying on any outside help at all seems much longer path.

    1. What this is showing, however, is that enlightened or not, the teachers of the lineages are using the same kinds of techniques as Derren Brown uses to induce spiritual experiences – just a Tibetan Buddhist version. In other words, it works regardless, and there is no reason to believe that it works any better if the teacher is realised than if he’s not, because it’s a technique to induce a spiritual experience. It’s not programming, it’s just drawing together elements that will make it most likely for a student to have some kind of spiritual experience. And there is nothing wrong with that, so long as we know what’s going on and aren’t being fooled into thinking that it’s because of the qualities of the teacher that we have this experience. It’s because they are following tried and true inducement techniques, that’s all. The kind of experience we have is up to us. If we’re ready to recognise the nature of mind, we will, even without a guru nearby. TB stories indicate that – I’m thinking of the guy who burned his finger on a spark and realised the NOM.

      A question we perhaps should ask is whether the charisma we tend to feel around people we assume have some realisation is due to their realisation or simply because they happen to also be charismatic. A lot of fake gurus are charismatic, so charisma (that which we feel as an energy when in someone’s presence) is not something that only realised people have, and not all realised people are charismatic. I expect that people who aren’t charismatic either wouldn’t teach or would teach very few. So the important take away from this, I think, is simply that, realised or not, the guru is not as important for our realisation as the religion has us believe.

      1. I think it is not helpful to make strong negative conclusions about Tibetan Buddhism at large based on your own quite negative experience. There are structures in this religion that help students to not put the guru in such an important position when they are not ready for it. Sogyal’s students seem to have embraced the highest teachings with no proper preparation in the lower vehicles. Him being willing to take the position differentiates him from compassionate Tibetan teachers, who time after time tell to their western students: “You are not ready, you are not Milarepa/Naropa and I am not Marpa/Tilopa”. Sogyal Lakar was power hungry and his pointing out the mind became tricks compared to mind control programming. The mentalist on the video is giving out some tricks.

        I am sorry for you and happy you have managed to leave a bad teacher. You seem to be still very much confused. I am looking at your answers to some other posts in this chain, and you are still wondering about the nature of mind while trying to deny the whole thing. Honestly I am not sure how you could sort out the mess, but hope you do not spread confusion while attempting to learn, heal, pick up the pieces or whatever. Writing and discussion in a responsible way with correct information is useful. Us as people discussing here are trying to find some of the sore points and be of help.

        1. I am not making strong negative conclusions. That’s how you’re reading it, not how I’m writing it. I have the greatest respect for the teachings and practices. I’m merely sharing information that sheds light on how the methods of introduction work to produce a ‘spiritual experience.’ That does not lessen the value of the experience or its authenticity – as Derren Brown makes clear to his subject.

          I resisted paying attention to this kind of information myself for a long time, so I know it’s hard to integrate it with a belief in the necessity of having a realised guru, but it doesn’t negate those teachings or lessen the power of that language and ritual, it merely explains how it works. The word ‘trick’ is problematic because you feel tricked and think that’s a bad thing, so call it a ‘method’. That’s what the teachings call it – the authentic method of introduction. It’s still an authentic method. And it’s so good that it works even when the teacher’s realisation is questionable. There’s nothing wrong with that.

          You say that Sogyal’s students “seem to have embraced the highest teachings with no proper preparation in the lower vehicles,” and that’s a common misconception from those who were not his students for many years – and fostered by DZK. It’s a belief that conveniently moves the discussion away from the problem of Sogyal’s behaviour and makes it seem that there was something wrong with the student instead. Watch out for that belief. It’s like a politician’s sidestep to avoid dealing with a problematic question or issue.

          It is true that some didn’t have sufficient grounding, but not for the majority. What people who say this kind of thing don’t realise is that if you followed the Rigpa curriculum all the way through, then you studied ALL the yanas (but not madyamika unless you were in Australia or went to the Shedra or studied it on your own). It was a pretty comprehensive curriculum actually and taught by people who had done the required study for each level. Those studying Ngondro were well versed in The Words of My Perfect Teacher by Patrul Rinpoche, so we knew what was involved in having a varjrayana teacher – we just didn’t know what went on behind the scenes and we never thought for a moment that any lama would behave like that.

          The problem for most of us wasn’t that we didn’t have the grounding for the higher teachings, it was simply that the lama we had committed ourselves to, knowing full well what that meant, ended up not being the man we thought he was. We only discovered after we’d taken him as our teacher, that he wasn’t worthy of our devotion. The idea that the problem is that we weren’t ‘properly prepared’ suggests that if we were ‘properly prepared’, then we wouldn’t have a problem with the abuse. We would know that we had to simply take it and see it as being for our benefit. That’s a belief system that broke down for me when I realised just exactly what was being done in the name of crazy wisdom.

          Those abused knew they were ‘supposed’ to see it as crazy wisdom, and some tried hard to see it that way for decades until the day they realised they were suffering from trauma, and all they’d got from their time as a vajrayana student were bruises, a crushed sense of self and ptsd. It does not good to say that they weren’t Milarepa. What were they supposed to do? Stand up and say, ‘Hey Rinpoche, don’t hit me, I’m not Milarepa?’ They were trying to be good students seeing everything Sogyal did as pure. So don’t throw stones at the students. They were doing their best to do everything required of a vajrayana student. Until the point where they woke up and realised that they’d been fed a lie. The lie was that Sogyal wasn’t a realised master; he was a manipulator and an abuser.

          Also, I’m not wondering about the nature of mind. It’s quite clear to me, and I’m grateful to Sogyal and all my other teachers for introducing me to it. I feel enormously clear now that I’m no longer bound by beliefs. But I’m sorry that my responses confuse you; it’s probably because I talk differently to different people because they see things from different angles and I try to respond to them in a way where we are most likely to connect.

          As for spreading confusion. I’m not a teacher, so no one needs to listen to me with any thought that I know anything they don’t. And I’m not promoting anything other than that people examine such issues for themselves using their critical thinking faculties and all the information available to them. That’s all I’m doing here, and I hope it encourages others to examine as well. If a period of confusion ensures, then that should stimulate them to examine further until they sort out their confusion. And I see that as a good thing.

          Btw. In Rigpa we were told not to ‘spread confusion’, too. It was a way to shut us up, to stifle this kind of healthy discussion.

          1. Thank you for clarification, my impression was that you have left Tibetan Buddhism due to abuse in Rigpa. Perhaps it is good to clarify your stanpoint now and then the way you just did, so confusion disappears.

            Not all teachers are abusive and not all teachings end up being tricks. Tricks are bad to my opinion, as they overrule free will. It seems you think the method is a trick, so the enlightened one is kind of ultimately tricked.

            I think there is something wrong in both a bad teacher and the students who choose such teacher. Sogyal was facing public lawsuits in America in the beginning of 90’s due to sexual misbehavior. I myself tried to speak someone out from going to Rigpa explaining all that, but she insisted in going there anyway, as it seemed very fascinating to her, and the centre was growing in power.

            It is just not possible to become properly prepared to anything within a broken system, which has a huge emphasis on the highest teachings. I am not saying that it would have been possible to twist abuse into your benefit. Absolutely not possible and your reaction to oppose it is a healthy one.

            It is not on student’s responsibility to say don’t hit me. It is the teacher’s responsibility to say: “I am not going to hit you even you asked, because you are not Milarepa and I am not Marpa.” This situation did not occur as your teacher went on hitting you telling it is a “method” and as victims you tried to rationalize it. That is very terrible indeed.

            1. Very terrible, yes. And just so you know, when I first went to a Rigpa retreat, I knew nothing about Buddhism and I didn’t have a computer or internet. There was np way that I could have known about the law suit.

              1. I am sure there were people in Rigpa who were not told about the lawsuit and some who overlooked it as it was silenced by paying to victims. What is important now is to stay clear that enchanting experiences and high sounding promises were not based on true buddhist values. Those values are more important for future realization than any fleeting experience.

                1. Introductions where one recognises, if only for a moment, the nature of one’s mind are fleeting, yes, but many introductions plus diligent practice alone leads to one being able to recognise without the lama’s assistance, and recognising over and over leads to stability and confidence in that recognition. At that point, one doesn’t need a lama anymore. They have played their role. Then it’s a matter of practice to bring that awareness into every waking moment. So it’s up to the student how far they progress, but those fleeting experiences – regardless of how and by whom they have been facilitated – set the student on the dzogchen path.

            2. Ani Sherab, you tried to talk to me in the early days. My memory about the talk was that you had fear and concern /horror /pain in your eyes when you talked about it. I don’t know how you found Akong Rinpoche and what convinced you about him. I had just met S recently. I met other lamas who were mostly monks. I didn’t think any of those fragile, calm, serene monks would be able to be my teacher. He was the only teacher I felt I could trust being strong enough.

              I spoke to some people about the abuse, At the time I didn’t know a) they didn’t know anything b) they lied to themselves or c) they lied to me. Now I think they belong to a cult. I never belonged to such an extent because I was never 100% true believer. I am much too rebellious and independent to wear a complete blind fold. I’m always questioning and not trusting enough. Still I managed to get some positive experiences from the practice. When I read the letter by the eight, I thought the scene in Rigpa was much worse than I would have ever imagined.

              I’m sorry Ani but many of the things you say sound like “programming” (kind of typical stuff what people say among the TB circles… repeat the party lines on and on.) Maybe you have good reasons to trust your lama, which I can’t know. I have travelled and met many Tibetans. They are humans like us even though they wear the robes chosen by their parents. I have no special expectations from them. Perhaps the practices work but the carriers of the faith are just humans. You say that you think there was something wrong with me. I agree. But then again i think there is something wrong with all human beings. I think here lies the biggest difference between our views about the world.

              1. I do not know who you are because you are not using your name in the post. What I may have said exactly I can’t remember, but believing in buddha nature there cannot be anything wrong with anybody ultimately.

                I have met several people who praised Rigpa in those years, before people started to talk about the abuse. Some still praise Sogyal, including a number of lamas. It is not easy to get out from a cult this influental. Let’s not let it poison the Buddha’s teachings in general. They are still upheld in this world in their entirety. When they decline, the highest teachings decline first due to people not understanding lower teachings, vinaya ( monastic vows) in particular, and in the end only vinaya is left. This is a prediction coming from the Buddha.

                The vocabulary I use is buddhist. Any word can be made to mean something else if one wants to use it in evil purposes yielding power over others through some technique. I do not wish to do that to anyone, neither has it been done to me.

                People who take robes do not change overnight into perfect. They are dedicating their life to one spiritual path with less mundane distractions. In Asia these days families put children in monastery so they get at least some education, or for avoiding too many mouths at home. That unfortunately ends up with some people in robes when they don’t have a true calling for it.

                1. In a Facebook group Vajrayana Survivors and Alllies you can read many more stories about abuse. It seems epidemic in Tibetan Buddhism.

  2. two remarks:
    1. I think it is possible that a teacher has some realisation and also at times can be distracted into the patterns of his of her ego.
    2. This blog is all about spiritual experiences, and indeed these are rather easy to induce in people. Spiritual realisation is something completely different; it is not an experience, it’s the loving clarity that pervades any and every experience, both pleasant and unpleasant. No teacher can bring this about, it is through practice (after receiving the right teachings) that realisation dawns.

    1. Yes, and yes.
      There are levels of realisation and stability in our realisation, and one can certainly be in the nature of mind sometimes and not at other times. So yes, S could be in the NOM when he was introducing and not when he was abusing people, and that’s a very reasonable way of explaining those two seemingly contradictory aspects of his behaviour.

      And, as you say, experience is only an experience, not the ‘real’ thing which is with us always, but for most people, experiences are the basis of their sense that the guru has or must have some special power, and that’s the belief that this blog is trying to challenge.

  3. During a retreat I was at once, a newcomer who had heard SR talking about the Dzogchen Introduction to the nature of mind remarked sceptically, ‘It sounds like a trick”. A deadly hush fell over the audience, as the more experienced students expected SR to be angry. But he very calmly and flatly said ‘It is. It is a trick – but a very high level one’. No-one had any come back for that. I think it backs up your view that an unrealised teacher can successfully introduce students who are ready – he or she just has to be skilful enough.

  4. It’s interesting that some of the experiences described are similar to what happens Tibetan Buddhism. When they talked about the “inner hug” that’s a pretty good description of how I felt around certain teachers. However, I somehow can’t shake the feeling that the people in these videos are just acting, and my b.s. meter is going off. Yet even though these videos might be include some fake acting, there might be something real to the science behind the power of suggestion.

    Still, the inner doubter in me is wary of these videos, and I’m not saying they are fake for sure, but I am wary. In the second video, it’s hard for me to believe that a true skeptic would fall backward just because the mentalist guy does something with his hands in the air. How is that supposed to influence the skeptic if the skeptic has no idea what the man is doing, he isn’t watching or processing any information, either consciously or unconsciously, so how is he being influenced? There is no tapping, and there are no ‘association’ tactics, as there are in the first video. So I am left wondering how he is effected only by the hands moving behind his back.

    The first video seems a bit “off” to me as well. I wonder if they are just acting, like in a dramatic movie. The woman in the first video is almost too gullible to be believable, and she must have been extremely suggestible to begin with. It’s hard to believe she could be a scientist if she is so easily swayed by his tactics. I’m not saying rational people can’t be converted, but it takes some work for cults to recruit them, and it also takes time, (and a lot of love bombing too). If people in general were THAT easy to convert, I should imagine that EVERYONE would be converted by now!

    However, the point made in this article is well taken and it does offer a valuable perspective. The take away is that one inner experiences can be induced, either by clever, outside influences (even psychic abilities), from humans, or even by hypnotizing oneself into the trance. The “guru” figure simply replaces the “god” figure in the convert’s mind, and both are generally a replacement for a “daddy” figure, (only on a very grand scale).

    1. Yes, that’s the point here. I think you’re right about these people being highly suggestible. My understanding of the second video is that the people volunteered to subject themselves to this guy who had been touted as someone who could convert just with a touch, so they went either willing to be converted, or to debunk the fact that this guy could ‘convert’. And half of them left after the first woman’s experience – ie those who weren’t open to having that kind of experience. The word ‘convert’ is a bit strong for just having a spiritual experience, but in this case it refers to people who don’t believe in any kind of spiritual power, changing into believing in the possibility of something.

      As for acting. The way these videos were presented to me in a cult recovery workshop was that this guy goes around debunking a lot of this kind of thing. He has videos on exposing faith healing tricks and so on It’s his thing. So I don’t think he needs to rely on acting. But there does seem to be some kind of prior selection to weed out those who are most susceptible. That’s normal for any of these kinds of inducements though; it’s part of how it works. For instance anyone taking up dzogchen shows they’re suggestible. They ‘believe’ there is a nature of mind beyond what we ordinarily experience (which is kind of bs because we actually do experience all the time, we just don’t realise it) and that the guru can introduce them to that. Since recognition is the lynch pin of the whole practice system for dzogchen, they are definitely highly suggestible during pointing-out-mind instructions.

  5. Mind-control is a fascinating topic and I think most of us would agree that humans can and do manipulate one another, either deliberately or unconsciously, by any number of different techniques and for a wide variety of motivations. It’s the basis of communication, most lifeforms do it, and we’ve evolved into a complex one so our techniques are complex.

    Complex on a very wide spectrum, in intention and morality, benefit and harm, ranging from telling someone the meal was delicious because you don’t want to hurt their feelings… staging massive theatrical rallies and trying to whip up collective hatred in an entire population because you want world domination and a Thousand Year Reich.

    Where this particular type of manipulation we’re discussing is located on that spectrum and what importance you accord it, is mostly a subjective judgement and we tend to forget that providing we’re adults with a reasonable degree of freedom of choice, then quite often that manipulation requires our consent both in terms of our presence and our positive evaluation of the manipulator…..usually because we believe we have something to gain so we don’t engage our critical thinking in the same way as if we were neutral or perhaps suspicious.

    This is where it starts to get murky because un-examined assumptions begin to proliferate.

    And what strikes me about the way this is even discussed is the number of terms that express these assumptions or received ideas as if they were facts rather than speculative, subjective concepts which are impossible to verify.

    It’s a very long list but a few examples to hand from the text and comments so far are:

    Genuine spiritual experience, realised teacher, nature of mind, introduction to rigpa, authentic guru, direct introduction, genuine realisation, wisdom of Buddha,
    naked awareness, luminous emptiness, the ultimate truth, authentic teachers, karma, enlightened teacher, spiritual realisation….etc.,

    So perhaps the issue isn’t so much “Authentic Experience with an Inauthentic Guru?”….but whether these familiar terms represent any objective reality at all that provides a sound basis for discussion.

    We all interact and communicate, we have our own mental experiences and attribute meaning to them but as far as I can see in this instance, there’s absolutely no basis for assuming they have a particular overarching meaning, value, outcome and significance which is commonly shared and identical for all individuals.

    There’s always the risk of imitating those medieval theologians discussing how many angels could stand on the head of a pin.

    1. I agree. I’m very aware that in these blog posts I’m writing for a particular audience with a particular ‘technical’ vocabulary that we share. Since we’re dealing with the concepts behind these words, at this stage it seems relevant to use them, and I haven’t quite worked out what language to use that isn’t part of that ‘system of thought’ but that refers to something equivalent. It’s a kind of translation process. And is there anything real behind these words at all? They aren’t things that can be proved objectively, only experienced through subjective experience. And even if you try to do some kind of study, you’re still stuck with the limitations of language in describing something that by its very nature is beyond concepts an therefore beyond our ability to fully express it in language. It’s hard to compare my description with someone else’s when they may be describing the same state using different language.

      As the prajnaparamita sutra says: Beyond words, beyond thought, beyond description. Prajnaparamata, unborn, unceasing, sky like nature. Yet it can be experienced by our very own wisdom.

      How do we know there is a true nature of our mind? Because we have experienced it. But then that’s a bit like the is-God-real issue; people believe in God because it feels good to do so. Why do you believe in God? Believers are likely to say something like, “Because I feel his presence.” But is God real because you believe in him? The faithful will probably answer “Yes,” even if you point out that someone believing the world is flat does not make the world flat, not even for them if they try to walk to the edge.

      Maybe one day a scientist will work out how to measure if there is anything behind these words. In meantime, we really do only have our own experience to draw on to ascertain their reality or otherwise. And just as my mum will probably die peacefully because she believes in God; I will die with the likelihood of having a peaceful mind state because I’m practised in dwelling in that mind state. Religion is indeed the opiate of the masses. I might have cast off the religion, but I’m hanging onto that peaceful mind because it helps me live my life the way I want to live it.

      Is that peaceful mind real? Does it matter? Especially when things appear to me to be real and not real at the same time. It’s like thinking the television is real because we’re focusing on the picture and not on the pixels of light and the machinery behind it. Is the picture any less real due to the machinery that makes it appear?

    1. But seriously, what I miss is the option that a teacher has a deep realisation and at the same time has disorders that cause abuse behaviour. In a ‘healthy’ individual, the degree of realisation would go hand in hand with respectful, loving behaviour, so that the more realised a person is, the more respectful and loving their behaviour. But if someone has a serious disorder (for example, sex addiction) then these things would not develop side by side. That is the nature of ‘disorder’.

      1. Yes, sure but then he wouldn’t fit the category of an inauthentic guru, and that’s who I’m talking about for the purpose of this post. Where Sogyal fits on the inauthentic-to-authentic scale or not realised-to-realised scale is another – though related – question.

        And in order to really examine that, we have to decide exactly what we mean by the words ‘realised’ and ‘authentic’ and how we are to evaluate that. Certainly it’s a sliding scale and certainly we can be well developed in some areas and underdeveloped in other areas (which, of course, doesn’t fit the description of a fully enlightened being). Does where one is on that sliding scale make you more able to induce an ‘experience’ or ‘recognition’ or ‘realisation’ in another person? Probably. Based on the centuries of investigation the Tibetans have taken into the mind, I’d say that they have good reasons on which to base that belief; however, the importance of the teacher may have been over emphasised in a feudal culture and in service of the gurus – likely not all of them had deep realisation. The point, however, is that though we can assume that it would help, it doesn’t take a realised teacher to introduce one to their own nature, it takes a system of inducement and a student who is ready. Even with a ‘realised’ teacher, if the student isn’t ready, they won’t recognise.

        The idea here is to take back our power – to see who we are and where we are as more important in our spiritual journey than what guru(s) and belief system we take on.

  6. That is an interesting question you’ve asked Thalia and I think there is some truth in it. Much of the skilful means employed by TB teachers does very possibly work along the lines of the “power of suggestion” and openness on the part of the student and that is why “devotion” plays such a strong part and is emphasized so much. In the hands of a genuine teacher who has deep authentic experience themselves this shouldn’t be problematic. I do think that the quality of realization experienced by the student will be very different depending on whether the teacher has authentic realization and whether they have not. I don’t think that a fake lama can open a student to a profound level. I am not an expert in the matter but my understanding is there are different levels to the nature of mind before it is truly Rigpa. You have put forward three options but I would like to propose a fourth one which is in keeping with the above quote of the Dalai Lama,……. “‘So in Dzogchen, the direct introduction to rigpa requires that we rely upon an authentic guru, who already has this experience. It is when the blessings of the guru infuse our mindstream that this direct introduction is effected.'” It is entirely possible that a student who is ready can receive a transmission through reading a text written by a deceased Master of the calibre of Karma Lingpa, Longchenpa, Dudjom Rinpoche for example. This fact has been confirmed to me. So this is the way I am drawn to. It frees one up from ever having to bear the dilemma that several ex-Rigpa people have gone through and frees one from the danger of being abused by a guru. I think it can be helpful to have things explained to one by a qualified teacher who does not have to be a guru as such. I also think it is vital (at least for me) to have a grounding in bodhicitta and a good sense of physical and mental well-being. Those qualities will protect us on an undoubtedly challenging course of life so a grounding in Mahayana is I think essential. I do value the truth of the Great Perfection very highly and feel it can stand independent from the aspects of Tibetan culture that need to be dropped here in the west. Of course each person will have their own understanding and the one that leads to freedom is the best.

    1. A couple of things popped out in your reply: First, you said, “I do think that the quality of realization experienced by the student will be very different depending on whether the teacher has authentic realization and whether they have not.” The trouble is that we can’t evaluate that. It’s a belief. And a reassuring one at that because it still has that lovely feeling of being in ‘good hands’, of being able to trust that we really are cared for by a wise and compassionate being – it’s such a lovely, cosy, romantic image. Perhaps one person may experience glimpses of NOM differently with different teachers, but then that raises the question of whether it was actually the NOM both times (since if it were NOM and not just an experience, then it should be the same), and the same question arises for those who experience it the same both time (perhaps it was just shamata without support). I think this is just something we need to remain open about because if we think recognition of the nature of our mind can ONLY happen in the presence of a realised master, we may be making it impossible for us to ever experience it. And that belief in itself is certainly dis-empowering, because what about when he or she isn’t around? We’re supposed to do Guru Yoga, yes, but if that guru never becomes our inner guru then we’re just remaining dependent on an external being for our realisation/experience/ whatever you call ‘it’.

      Second, you say: “It is entirely possible that a student who is ready can receive a transmission through reading a text written by a deceased Master of the calibre of Karma Lingpa, Longchenpa, Dudjom Rinpoche for example.”

      Yes, so if an ‘unqualified’ teacher reads from such a text as part of his dzogchen teachings, then … the likelihood of a deeper experience is increased. It’s another tool that can be brought to bear. And calling it a tool, does not lessen it’s impact or effectiveness.

      For me this isn’t about disproving or denigrating anything, and the religion seems to have all these angles covered somewhere or other, anyway, it’s just about looking at these things in a different light, examining the elements at play through a different framework, one free of wishful thinking brought on by my desires and magical thinking brought on by a belief system that, given the scriptural authority for lamas to abuse their students, isn’t as great as I initially thought it was.

      I feel as if, through this kind of examination, I’m peeling back layers of an onion.

      1. I’ve re-read my earlier post and saw that I had typed Dudjom Rinpoche when I had meant to type Dudjom Lingpa. For sure the mind is an extraordinary medium for consciousness and we human beings can have any number of insights or glimpses into realities that are beyond our usual scope of awareness either in meditative states or just coming out of the blue. I like the Dzogchen system when it is clean and clear. For me devotion is not to an outer Guru but felt in the core of my being as my highest aspiration, then I know I am on the right track. It is not a question of having magical thinking or believing anything. This is the path I have chosen by my own free will. The whole business of Sogyal’s methods is repugnant to me. I have a few translated Dzogchen texts which I find enormously helpful and regard as treasures. Not because anyone has called them treasures or I need them to be treasures to have an affect on me. No, simply because they actually work and open my receptive mind directly so I treasure them. I do it entirely my own way and take the liberty to avoid any mental effort by relying on intuition. This free-style way suits me so that I can enjoy the very best that true Tibetan contemplative practices may offer. I first went through just about every ghastly aspect that people who have been turned off connect with Tibetan Buddhism and in a sense have fought for my freedom to take from it what I will and can now truly value. I also completely understand why people have turned away after seeing the behaviour of some of the Rinpoches. I did myself but was determined not to let go of what rings true for me.

  7. Thanks for the Derren Brown description Tahlia. IMHO all evangelists deploy similar techniques. Their religious affiliation is irrelevant. Here’s a personal anecdote: I was in New Orleans when the 13 year old Guru Maharaji turned up. I went to his satsang. It was intensive, stage managed, orchestrated. Everyone in the packed hall got a fabulous love buzz. I was on cloud 99. Totally blissed out. His henchmen were in the lobby, signing people up. I walked past with a silly grin ear to ear. The bliss lasted for 3 or 4 days. Very lovely experience, but it did not make me want to “take knowledge” and do his practice because I was reading Evans Wentz and interested in Tibetan Buddhism.

  8. I have a few thoughts on this, coming from my own experiences:

    1. I don’t think that the foundational education that many of us have received from cultic, faith-based Dharma Centres was such a good one. It was skewed from the start.

    2. The unique feature of Buddhism that I have discovered since leaving those cultic environments behind and spending most of my time in study is the emphasis on critical thinking. That is the brilliance of the Dharma in my opinion.

    3. While it is true that in Vajrayana, there is a shifting emphasis to more faith-based approaches, if a proper foundation of critical thinking, as in years of study and doubt and reflection in an equalitarian environment, is made, then even the Vajrayana can (and must) avoid those magic-thinking, born-again, hypnotic experiences. This is my opinion that grows stronger the more I learn.

    4. As Mary just explained, and those videos demonstrate, there are many ways that powerful spiritual experiences can be engendered. Just yesterday, during a chiropractic session, I had a powerful experience. Obviously, this isn’t Dharma, just because it’s powerful. And obviously, a charlatan can use powerful experiences towards his/her ends. However, my goal in doing Chiropractic sessions is to clear some obstacles I have blocking meditation and to become more present/kind with people in my life– and that’s when it becomes Dharma.

    5. So maybe it is better not to spend too much time asking the unanswerable questions. I really don’t think we can ever fully solve the puzzle of SL. He was a brilliant teacher at times. All of us know that. He was also a charlatan, corrupt businessman, abuser and sexual predator. I have a friend who is brilliant and has benefitted a lot of people in her work/life– but she also suffers from a severe mental illness and has damaged people as well. She also has a powerful psychic presence that blew me over once in my life— I’d say that was a “spiritual” experience as well.

    So it’s complicated!

  9. I don’t like to brag, but I’ll share my experience here because it seems to be relevant at this point. I had a glimpse of the nature of mind after I finished Chapter 4 of Sogyals book. It was before I’d met any Tibetan lamas. I’m quite sure it was the real thing. I wasn’t even practicing a method or even trying to get some sort of effect as it was before the chapters on meditation, which I didn’t know how to do. Shortly after I went to bed at night I was lying in bed completely at peace with myself and being naturally contemplative I was watching my thoughts. I completely let go of everything almost as if falling through the bed. I noticed at a deeper level the mind kind of flicks between images or sub thoughts. I then looked into the gaps between the flickering sub thoughts. It was a bit scary to let go at such a deep level. The whole surface of my skin buzzed with an electric pressure- don’t know what that was as I haven’t read about it anywhere. Then a subtle movement started in my heart and moved up to my head, all the time while I was looking into the gaps of the sub thoughts. When that very subtle energy got to my head, my mind completely collapsed. Like kicking out the keystone from a building and it all falls quickly to the ground. An infinite expanse of extremely awake awareness remained. What was most striking was the incredible wakefulness, compared to normal waking consciousness and an incredible, almost deafening silence. Complete absence of any thoughts whatsoever. Then my mind reformed about 1-2 seconds later. It’s exactly how it’s described in Dzogchen. It’s kind of painful to admit that Sogyals book had genuine blessings from the tradition in it. I later chased up a Rigpa (organization) in Australia and stayed for four intense but fruitless years before I left after reading about Sogyals dodginess! I think Rigpa (org) might place too much emphasis on a glimpse of the nature of mind. I’m reminded of what Huston Smith said about the psychedelic culture: “altered traits, not altered states” are what is important. I haven’t had another glimpse because my traits are not pure enough to enable me to let go enough to be there again.

    1. @Taxila, the Dalai Lama talks about an experience he had to do with a teaching on emptiness, in which he experienced “something like an electric shock”. I had a very powerful experience the day that I left the bookshop with a copy of TBLD and also a Lamrim text by HHDL.

      I think the comments about “experiences” are relevant– I don’t think you can attribute anything to the videos above other than that strong experiences can be evoked by all sorts of different means. What makes these experiences Buddhist (or “authentic”) is how they are used and sustained within the context of the Buddhist path. It is my impression, thought I was never a Dzogchen practitioner, that Rigpa did have a strong program of legitimate practice within the Dzogchen mandala. Is that right? So the worth of whatever experience one has from being in a room with SL is really tried and tested through the practice itself?

      1. We actually did get a solid foundation in all the Buddhist yanas, just with too much emphasis on devotion, and Madyamika came in only once you were a dzogchen student, which is a bit late. It should come before.

        As far as dzogchen goes. We got it all. I’ve read enough to know that. The teachings we received were not distorted because S remained true to the words of the dharma when teaching. It was when he wasn’t teaching formally that was the problem. As I say in Fallout, the distortion was only in emphasis not content.

        Sogyal’s dzogchen students were well trained in terms of teachings, that they fell into nihilism and weren’t corrected was due to S’s narcissistic personality disorder. It suited him not to correct their misunderstanding of the meaning of pure perception even if he did understand it himself.

        I think it’s important to stress again, that the method of introduction is no less meaningful and the introductions we received no less authentic just because we now know how the method works.

        I have had many spiritual ‘openings’ in my life, one while reading the TBLD, so yes, that book is so well written that it can facilitate that sort of thing – and yes, that is likely due to Andrew Harvey who is very skilled with words. Sogyal did have a lot of skill with the method of introduction, though. And he did genuine introductions – anyone who says he can’t have clearly wasn’t there.

        The point of this post is merely to show how what he did worked despite the limits (or lack) of his realisation.

        1. If Sl understood pure perception why did it not help him to overcome his mental disorder?
          I agree with you that the teachings were right and at the same time that realisation makes it difficult to explain why things stay persistently wrong in Rigpa and did go wrong.
          Or lies the difficulty in accepting that you can still learn from “bad or impared people”
          Likewise if you discover that you mathematic teacher at school was a pedofile,
          does it mean that what you did learn about geometry, Pythagoras becomes untrue.

  10. Yes agree with this post. And I suppose the point I was trying to make with my rather embarrassingly detailed account is it goes a step further, you don’t need a teacher to “introduce” you. Just reading an accurate description can be enough of a suggestion/reminder, but your mind has to be purified as well. I related my experience to a senior student in private at my first Rigpa retreat. It was clear they didn’t believe it was the real thing and were quite dismissive. I later realised it was because they were trained to believe it could only come from a “realised” guru. This links to a broader theme that I think is quite devious and that is how the lamas have appropriated the dharma and effectively glued it onto themselves. So that if you reject them it equates to rejecting the dharma. I struggled with that for years after leaving Rigpa. It turns out that the “dharma” is a mix of great truths and sinister manipulations that have been thrown in to shore up religious power structures.

  11. Perhaps these comments shed some light on why the concepts behind Buddhism and religion in general are so persistent. I believe it works like this:

    A fairly common range of subjective experiences triggered by temporary changes in the brain, induced by different external or internal circumstances, can seem overwhelmingly significant to the individual who experiences them. I think religion is when the concept of these is appropriated, commodified and then marketed by an individual or group who uses them get status; power; wealth; control; sex and so on.

    They do this quite simply, by claiming to understand the ‘true nature’, benefits and source of these experiences, implying that they themselves can access these states at will and are able to teach others to do so. They also imply that this makes them superior ( perhaps the most obviously false claim that’s inevitably exposed in all religions over time )

    Since the brain will always seek to re-establish it’s equilibrium and normal functioning, these experiences may be enjoyable but are relatively short-lived ( the reason many drugs are addictive and require increasingly large doses )

    So we both crave and want to repeat these events…… meaning there’s always a market and it’s an easy and reliable way to make a living: no guarantees, no checks and balances, no verifiable product, not even really any reliable qualifications needed……and if nothing happens, well then, it’s the customer’s fault for being too lazy or stupid, not having the necessary Karma.

    The perfect scam.

    What strikes me is the degree of subtle nostalgia expressed for these experiences, the wistful longing for something that happened in the past, the objectification of a brief subjective mental event. It’s normal but it can become kind of obsessive and in effect the entire Buddhist path seems to be built around the exploitation of that obsession.

    So whenever I hear that Buddhism helps you to be less grasping, less neurotic, mentally clearer, aware, compassionate and more present in the moment, it all sounds hollow, I don’t think it does that at all.

    To me, it looks more like addiction…..which I understand fairly well, so that’s not a moral judgment, just an observation that might strike a chord with some people.

    1. @Pete, I can understand how you could see it that way. It’s something I tried to touch on in my awkwardly candid comment about my experience of the nature of mind, the divulging of which was in fact assisted by a drug – too much Blanton’s Gold bourbon that night I think! (Oh the horror of the Kali Yuga!) Maybe in the West, Buddhist groups have focused too much on experiences. But if you read older teachings, like the Pali Cannon it’s not about that. That’s why I like the quote from Huston Smith – the spiritual path is about altered traits, not altered states. I think we have to remember the definition of realisation. It means to make something real. So if you haven’t taken the highest truths and made them real in your everyday life then you haven’t realised them – you haven’t altered your traits. The Buddhist teachings actually have helped me in my everyday life. Psychology is taking a lot from Buddhism these days such as mindfulness and meditation. It’s very hard in such a materialistic culture to follow a spiritual path. Religion has a very bad name and for good reason. But we should also remember that materialism has given us more destructive weapons and global environmental crisis.

      1. @ Taxila
        Thanks for your reply, there’s a lot in it, so I’ll reply soon when I’ve got more time to do it justice.

        1. @Taxila
          I imagine Theravadins must get something that keeps them at it, but I don’t know anything about the Pali Canon so I can’t say.

          Maybe ‘addiction’ as a way of describing Tibetan Buddhism will shock, but the sheer number of people who kept coming back to abusive lamas like Sogyal and Trungpa despite being subject to aggression, stress and humiliation would indicate a compulsion that over-rides harm to oneself and others….one rough definition of addiction.

          I’m not a moralist about drugs or addiction, there are plenty of people who live functional lives on drugs and religion, and live their entire lives with addictions of all kinds; outside the negative consequences for others, it’s a personal decision. Life being what it is, most of us need something to help cope, and that includes a very wide range of activities indeed.

          What concerns me is informed consent: obviously you’re better off knowing as much as possible about anything you get involved in and the problem with Tibetan Buddhism is that there’s systematic dishonesty about that. For instance: no-one told me that I’d end up with a lot of obligations before I got really involved and committed, but having done so, it was assumed that consent existed for an ever growing list of things I’d never even heard of.

          I won’t get into the issue of Sogyal and consent, we’ve been through that thoroughly.

          It’s exactly like politics, once a government is elected it assumes consent for a wide range of policies that nobody has heard about and wouldn’t vote for if they did. It’s a con that exists everywhere, it’s also called “Bait and switch”.

          I think that’s the real reason for all the secrecy in Vajrayana, it’s to protect the business not the client.

          So while the “altered traits” you mentioned are included, and promised, it’s perhaps more the altered states that attract people. It was for me anyway.

          After all, if you want to become a kinder person for example, you don’t need mystical experience, just a decision will do. There are plenty of people who manage that without any affiliation to religion of any kind and it seems misguided to believe that spirituality is a necessity for that. The same goes for mental clarity, perceptiveness, non-aggression and so on.

          It could be that for some people, mystical experience, however induced, can change them, but I’m not convinced. I know it’s just my anecdotal evidence, but I’ve known a lot of individuals who remained basically unchanged by these experiences. ( I took quite a lot of LSD, but I don’t think it changed me as such…..I enjoyed it though.) Quite a few Buddhists actually seemed to get worse as people the longer they practised. Especially long retreats and positions of authority seemed to convince some people that the sun shone out of their arses.

          I suppose life changes you naturally as you age, learn more, your environment, suffering maybe…..but it seems to be a slow accumulative process….brief weird mental events induced by meditation or drugs, less so I think.

          To be honest I’m not sure what “highest truths” actually are, but certainly if it helps….it helps.

          I suspect the fact that more and more people are understanding that their experience is their own rather than the imaginary blessing of some ‘guru’, must be making the lamas uncomfortable now. What if they had to go out and earn a living?

          Your point about materialism is important but maybe you could define what you mean a bit more? My response is already longer than I intended.

          1. @Pete,

            I’ve had and enforced hiatus due to young kids and busy job!

            I’m a fan of the perennial philosophy and Huston Smith. I think the original messages of the world’s religions were pure but can become dogmatised and misunderstood the further you get from the source. For example, where in the bible does Jesus say you can’t have sex before marriage or make it a major part of his message? But it’s one of the most important beliefs for many fundamentalist Christians.

            I’m not a philosopher like Huston Smith was. And I’m not against science and accept all of it. The problem is when science gets extended beyond its remit into a materialist philosophy. The biggest problem is that all science can pose about consciousness is that it is an epi-phenomenon of material things: molecules in the brain and electric and magnetic fields etc. I think a materialist view tends to devalue consciousness. But in fact our whole lived experience depends on it. And of course the invention of science arose from consciousness.

            I also used psychedelics – mushrooms. I think psychedelics help people to appreciate the importance of consciousness more.

            Religion (the original message) to me gives an incredible meaning and significance to conscious existence.

    2. One can certainly become addicted to ‘experiences’ and people do, but there’s a difference between experiences and an actual changed perception of one’s self and the world that does not dissipate. ‘Experiences’ are only part of the picture. All they do is open the mind and heart to a wider perspective, but with practice that wider perspective can become one’s ordinary perception.

      There’s no addiction then; there’s not even any ‘thing’ to be addicted to; it’s simply how you see the world. Trying to not see like that woukd be like those who can see colour trying to see the world in black and white.

  12. Lets found a group, called ” anonymous buddhists”, where the addicts help themselves with a 10 point programme. Meeting once the week, and so on.

    ” Hi I am Adamo, I was addicted to a abusive group, called Rigpa, and I needed higher higher doses of that feelings that I am a member of an elitarian group of almost enlighted buddhist”

    ” Good evening, I am Charlene, I am addicted to my group of very special people, we are going to save the world, our name is Shalala. I am afraid of truth and sincerity and
    wont loose my job”


  13. There is an interesting movie that shows a case of authentic experience with a fake (deliberately fake) guru. The movie is called “Kumare” and it’s really worth watching. The filmmaker posed as a spiritual teacher just to investigate how easy is to fool people and to make them follow a false guru. That was supposed to be originally the topic of the film. However, during the course of the hoax, people started – to complete surprise of the filmmaker – experience something very authentic during his completely made-up meditation sessions. Even when at the end of the project he revealed to the participants that it was all fake, they still were thankful to him and wanted to keep in touch.
    However, he didn’t abuse anybody; on the contrary, he was very careful not to hurt them.

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