After religion? Do What Makes Your Heart Sing!

When you’ve become aware of the corruption in the religion you’ve followed for decades and moved on from it, what replaces the dictates of that religion for your spiritual study and practice? What comes after religion?

Tibetan Buddhism gave us a form to follow, one we thought we could trust until we discovered we’d been taken for a ride and all the pretty words we resonated with were ultimately being used as a way to capture slaves for a corrupt king. We had daily meditation practices to do that set our minds on a good track for the day, and those meditations had forms, even if only the simple one of starting with a motivation to benefit beings, practice without concepts, and at the end dedicate the practice to the benefit of all. We didn’t have to work anything out for ourselves, and if a practice didn’t suit us for some reason, we did it anyway, or tried our best.

Tibetan Buddhism appeals to people with a deep sense of spirituality, those who want to immerse themselves in the spiritual and mystical aspects of life as much as their lives allow, so how do such people move on in such a way that they continue to nurture that aspect of themselves? Some assume that we’re left with nothing, that we’ll simply flail about forever without a path and without anything to nurture our connection to our deepest self, but that’s not what’s happening.

The refugees from Tibetan Buddhism that I talk to in the Facebook groups What Now? and Beyond the Temple are much stronger than that. What I see are people forging their own paths and showing incredible joy in doing so. They are revelling in the freedom they’ve gained from leaving the religion. And their guiding light and constant spiritual practice is trusting and honouring their deepest nature.

‘Dwell with yourself as your own island, with yourself as your own refuge, take no other refuge. ‘

The Buddha, Mahāparinibbāna Sutta.

The point of all of Buddhism is to recognise your enlightened nature and remain in that awareness. We were told again and again that we can’t do that by following anything outside ourselves and that the ultimate teacher was within us, in the nature of our own mind. And yet everything in the religion kept us dependent on something outside ourselves. Now we are free of that, we can do exactly what we should have been doing all along – looking in to our own true nature. Taking our wisdom self as our refuge. That’s what we’re doing and it’s a very powerful practice.

What does trusting in your enlightened nature mean in your daily life?

It means different things to different people, of course, but for me it means turning my mind into my own awareness every time I remember and acting from that place. It means pausing before making decisions and checking in with my inner wisdom. I ask myself, is this the right thing to do? Or what do I need to know right now? Or why do I want this? Do I need it? And so on. Then I wait, looking for the next thought. I find that there’s a space and our of that space whatever comes is spot on what I need at that moment.

Times when I find it’s good to do this are:

  • At the beginning of the day to find out what’s most important to focus on for the day;
  • When someone pisses me off or I get strong emotions for any reason;
  • When I turn to social media;
  • When I want to buy something;
  • Between activities.
  • And pretty much anytime.

It also means following your interests and doing what makes your heart sing.

Following your interests

Being a Tibetan Buddhist took up a lot of our time, and now we have time to spare. People have found it really good to reconnect with the things we liked to do before we got caught in our respective cult. I’ve rediscovered yoga and finally taken a course in counselling – something I wanted to do when I was much younger. Others have gone back to making music or spending more time in their garden or in nature, but we do it now with more awareness – after all, many of us did spend decades practising meditation. Mindfulness kind of naturally came with the territory.

Something about those activities spoke to us then, and they speak to us again now. They nurture us on a deep level. We feel as if we’re reconnecting with a part of ourselves that we neglected while trying to conform to the Tibetan ideals of what a ‘good practitioner’ would look like. They may seem like superficial things to a TB ‘true believer’ but our interests can lead us towards our hearts in service of our best interests if we let them; if we do them consciously, with awareness.

A spontaneous desire to try Chakra Dance, for instance, could lead you to find out about the chakras according to the Indian system, and that could lead to you finding an alternative way into meditation, a way that does not catapult you back into the quagmire of pain you associate with Tibetan Buddhism. And we’re not likely to suddenly become so enamoured with the ‘system’ that we become a Hindu! Rather it becomes a tool in a new spiritual toolbox.

Sometimes when on social media, something someone shares may catch your eye; things that you would have ignored before, you now may be more willing to explore, just for the sake of curiosity. We’re more open to what’s on offer, more able to be spontaneous, even though we’re also more suspicious, more able to easily spot a potential charlatan. We have our eyes open now. Hopefully we have examined why we joined our cult and so can avoid falling into another one. We can dip in and out of anything that draws our interest, just to see where it takes us, and if we trust that following our interest in this way will lead us where we need to go, then it will.

Doing what makes your heart sing

It’s easy to make choices with our ordinary mind, our limited self, rather than our awakened Self, and if we didn’t manage to get familiar enough with meditation practice to be able to easily recognise that awakened Self, we could be lost as to how to connect with that part of ourselves. This is where the term ‘makes your heart sing’ can be helpful. Choosing activities and directions in life that make our heart sing is a way to bypass our thinking mind and connect with our deeper self. There’s something about the word ‘heart’ that speaks of deep nurturing and profound layers of being, so if we tune into that feeling of our heart singing, we’ll be going in the right direction for creating a life that nurtures our spirit.

I have lived my life according to what makes my heart sing, and it’s lead me to have a very interesting, creative and fulfilling life. For a time TB made my heart sing, but it had stopped doing that long before I decided to leave Sogyal and Rigpa. And I gave up too much of what did make my heart sing in order to fit myself into someone else’s idea of who I should be, so I stagnated within the religion. Now I’m back to following what makes my heart sing and it’s lead me via a round about route back to meditation, a meditation without the TB baggage. Meditation inspired by music, combined with dance and yoga and out of which is emerging a unique form suited just to myself. It was getting back to yoga, which makes my heart and my body sing a very happy song which set this in motion, and it’s not a static place that I’ve come to, not something to define and stick to, just another step along the path of my life.

Creativity has always been a kind of refuge for me, and I know others are the same. The hat and the mask are mine from my Tahlia’s Masks Etsy shop. The others just a couple of examples of the creativity in our community.

What makes your heart sing?

So let’s celebrate what makes our hearts sing. Here’s what some of the other members of the Beyond the Temple Community have been doing that makes their heart sing.

One joined a choir, another enjoys ‘doing nothing, watching my cat and learning from her. Learning from anything around me.’ Another told me they love ‘dancing, video editing, focusing on my work that I love so much. Writing, quilting, loving.’

Janet Trew is busy putting love out there with a book that encourages children to accept all kinds of differences in the world.

Another of our group has taken up dancing with ‘a beautiful bunch of women who make me laugh, keep me sane, and make my heart sing in a different way than I’m used to.’

Sandra Pawla spends time colouring in, and creates beautiful pictures that she shares with her social media contacts.

Another said: ‘Painting the Medicine Buddha Mandala gave me so much joy and peace.’

Another takes joy in cooking, even making a tiramisu yuletide log from scratch.

Mary sent me photos of her garden and said: ‘Why does gardening make my heart sing? Partly aesthetic, partly mother earth, partly trans dimensional. I guess a Taoist metaphor would work best – there’s everything you need to nourish your spirit in nature. I try of work with nature, rather than taming it. My gardens are largely intuitive – they happen as I go along rather than to plan.’

Michael is getting into photography again, along with the occasional bit of poetry, as well as eating good food and deepening his vlogging.

One response to this question that I really love is ‘I’m enjoying thinking! After having thought demonized and non-thought glorified for so long, I am enjoying the way some thoughts make my body tickle, other thoughts make me sense, some make me laugh. It is overall, really fun to just lay in bed and think!’

So in a nutshell, just trust that doing what makes your heart truly sing, such that you feel it in your heart, rather than doing what you think you should do will take you in the right direction for you as you are here and now. And if you do these things with your whole heart and awareness attuned, then they go far beyond a simple pastime.

Have a great new year everyone. I hope this post sets a good tone for 2020.
I’m on holiday until the end of January, so don’t worry if you don’t hear from me for a while.

Rigpa Australia Apologises & Admits Sogyal Rinpoche’s Abuse was Wrong

After being prompted by Joanne McCarthy, a journalist for The Newcastle Herald, Kathryn James, the chair of Rigpa Australia, recently publically gave the kinds of statement that we’ve been wanting to hear from every Rigpa organisation.

Journalist Joanne McCarthy isn’t someone that can be put off with platitudes and deflections. She won a Gold Walkley award, the most prestigious of the Walkley Awards for Australian journalism, so her writing holds weight. She’s experienced in dealing with religious groups and their methods of deflecting, minimising and covering up, due to her reporting on child sexual abuse in the Catholic Church, as well as other cult and corruption issues, such as the pelvic mesh scandal.

McCarthy did her homework, interviewing several Australians and getting confirmation of what they told her from a second source, so she knew exactly what to ask to push for some kind of admission of the truth. She wrote three articles on Sogyal and Rigpa for The Newcastle Herald (Newcastle is the biggest city in the Hunter region where the Rigpa Australia national retreats were held each year.) At least one of the articles (the first one) was also published in The Canberra Times.

The articles

The first article gave the general story of Sogyal’s abuses – nothing there we don’t all know already – but she called Sogyal a ‘mindfulness’ guru, which is not a designation Sogyal would ever have accepted, and it unfairly tarnishes the mindfulness movement. I don’t know why she didn’t use the word ‘meditation’, but perhaps it’s because mindfulness tends to be used as a secular word for meditation as if interchangeable with it. For Buddhists, mindfulness is a specific Shamata practice not an alternative term for meditation, which encompasses a wider range of methods. And we know that Sogyal rarely taught on the mindfulness practices. That aside however, she was careful to get her facts straight.

The second article is the one of most interest to those of us in the What Now? group, and contains the content to which this article refers.

In this article Kathryn James showed a rare honesty by admitting that they had a way to go to fully implement the recommendations of the Lewis Silkin report. Mind you, the journalist already knew they hadn’t implemented them properly, so denying it would have been seen as lying – not a good look. Nevertheless, it was good to see someone speaking honestly about it. My own effort to get such an admission from Rigpa Australia via email received no reply!

The third article, written after the Herald apparently received a cease and desist order from Rigpa’s lawyer, spoke about the workers compensation claim made for one of Rigpa Australia’s National Directors who had an emotional breakdown. The article restricted itself to quotes on the matter from Rigpa Australia’s communications with members. The suggestion was that Rigpa Australia, having lodged the claim, accepted some level of responsibility for the man’s breakdown.

Report findings accepted

McCarthy asked James some tricky questions that pushed James to admit (after discussing with the Rigpa Australia management team how she should answer) that Sogyal had hit her – McCarthy already knew this to be true – and that Rigpa Australia accepted the findings of the Lewis Silkin independent report into Sogyal’s abuse.  

Rigpa Australia accepts the allegations of abuse and the findings and recommendations of the Lewis Silkin Report.

Kathryn James, Rigpa Australia

In contrast, the Rigpa Vision Board only said, ‘We acknowledge the gravity of the independent report.’ By using that wording, the Rigpa Vision Board never admitted that the report was a true account of Sogyal’s behaviour and their cover up. So good on Rigpa Australia for actually accepting the findings. That means that they agree that the contents of the Lewis Silkin report are true.

Finally, we have some honesty! Go Australia!

Mind you the wording of her admission is problematic in that she said Rigpa Australia accepted the ‘allegations’ of abuse, not that they accepted the truth of the allegations. Maybe their lawyer wanted to make sure her admission didn’t open Rigpa up for a legal action, because her next statement made it clear that they do accept that Sogyal abused people.

We believe this abuse was wrong.

Kathryn James, Rigpa Australia

Hallelujah! It’s a relief to have someone in a major role in Rigpa who not only realises that what Sogyal did was wrong but also is prepared to say it publically.

A real apology

Later in the second article, James shares a genuine apology made in an email to the Rigpa Australia members after the release of the Lewis Silkin report. Unlike the communications from the Vision Board that refuse to admit any responsibility for their role in enabling Sogyal’s abuse – saying only that they apologise for the ‘hurt experienced’ or that they failed to educate students properly – this apology is the real thing.

The investigation report has laid bare the pain experienced by those students and the failures within Rigpa to adequately protect, respond to and support them. We, in Australia, acknowledge that pain and apologise for our own failures to listen, understand, accept and protect our students.

Rigpa Australia in a message to the Rigpa Australia Sangha

How wonderful to see something real, something not in the language of minimisation or denial favoured by the Vision Board.

The apology was apparently sent to the Rigpa Australia members, but it is not available to the public on their website, nor was it sent to those who Sogyal did abuse in Australia or Australians he abused elsewhere. They didn’t send it to me to distribute to those harmed, either, and they have my email address and the addresses of the Australian members of the 8. What a pity they didn’t take that next step and deliver the apology to those who most need to hear it. Sending it only to those remaining in Rigpa makes it seem as if the purpose of the apology was only to appease their members. What use is an apology if you don’t make it to the ones you’ve harmed?

The statement on Rigpa Australia’s website about the Lewis Slikin Report is the one put out by the Vision Board, the one that does not accept the findings of the report, only the gravity of it. To make this apology, admission of the truth of the allegations and that Sogyal’s abusive behaviour was wrong a real gesture of healing, Rigpa Australia needs to take a couple of further steps.

Can Rigpa Australia make this a step for genuine healing?

Rigpa Australia could take a real step towards healing by:

  • Making what James said into a public statement – one that includes the apology, admission of the truth of the allegations and their belief that Sogyal’s abusive behaviour was wrong – and putting it on their website in a prominent place.
  • Sending that statement to the 8 letter writers and all those who have left Rigpa since July 2017.

Doing these two things would be a game-changing positive step, and it would pave the way for other National Rigpa teams to do the same. Does Rigpa Australia have the courage to make their own decisions on this, though? Only time will tell. If they do do it, I hope they will send me an email to let me know.

How great would that be!

(That’s an in joke for Aussies)

Further steps that would go a long way towards healing:

  • Rigpa members have maligned, abused and attacked the integrity of the 8 letter writers and others who have exposed the truth about Sogyal’s behaviour. I suspect that apologies for such attacks on behalf of those who perpetrated them would constitute a genuine offer of reconciliation that would far exceed the bumbling attempts at ‘reaching out’ made to the 8 by a member of the Vision Board.
  • Making sure that the person who is supposed to be dealing with grievances for Rigpa Australia actually replies to all emails detailing grievances and deals with them with due respect and consideration. (I put one in and never received a reply!)

On a personal note, I would appreciate an apology to me for not allowing me to attend the 2018 retreat without discussion or explanation, and for the Rigpa Australia members who treated me unkindly at the Sakyadhita Conference in June 2019 or abused me on social media. One of the saddest things about all this that remains for me is that Rigpa and I didn’t part on good terms, that the cruelty of some members has so overshadowed the good times, and I expect this feeling is shared by many. I remember the day I put the phone down, my hand shaking, after being told not to contact anyone in the organisation again. Such things may seem petty, but the hurt is real. I can drop it from my mind, but it remains in my heart.

That aside, I would love for Rigpa Australia to show some courage and leadership by making a statement as suggested above, and publishing it on their website.

What do you think of this development?

Photo of the new Rigpa Australia National Centre as shown on the Rigpa Australia Website.

Do you Need Structure to Facilitate your Spiritual Life?

One of the reasons people join a religion is because the structures of that religion help them make time to contemplate the spiritual dimension of life. Christians head off to church every Sunday, for instance. Many people who aren’t Christians or who don’t belong to a specific church believe in God, but without the ritual of church and listening to a priest give a sermon, they may never take the time to think outside of their worldly existence. And most people do need something to remind them to at least aim to be a good person. It’s easier for the worries of life to take us over if we don’t take time to meditate or contemplate or pray or just sit and enjoy some mental space or peace and quiet.

So what do those of us who don’t want a religion do?

The downside of religion

Most of the readers here have discovered how corruption can infest even a religion that purports to teach wisdom and compassion. We’ve seen how Tibetan Buddhist beliefs on the student teacher relationship can result in abuse. This is a result of holding onto beliefs created for another place and time, beliefs that have a questionable basis to start with, and that certainly have no place in the modern world.

Most of us probably thought that Buddhism was better than the other religions, but as we’ve seen, just like all religions, when Buddhism is taken in a rigid way, it stops people thinking critically, logically or even sensibly. The danger of following stupid beliefs isn’t just for individuals, it can be seen on the level of society in the way our politician’s religion affects how they run the country.

“From an analysis of their theology and the political company they keep, it is evident that neo-Pentecostal churches are content to leave global ecological issues up to God. They believe that God loves humans and, ultimately, humans can do what they like with natural resources, because God will take care of the global climate.”

Mairead Shanahan ‘Australian neo-Pentecostal perspectives on anthropogenic climate change.’

When held by people in power, the consequences of this kind of belief has negative ramifications for the whole planet. Though Australia is presently feeling extreme effects from global warming, our prime minister, Scott Morrison, rather than using it to bring in the kind of strict emission reduction measures the world needs, does nothing to lower our emissions further because he believes that God will take care of it. Duh!

This is just one example of how religion can have a negative effect on society, all while those who follow it believe that they are the chosen ones, the ones who have it all worked out, the ones who will be saved, the ones on the right path and so on.

Why bother with religion at all?

Most religions seem to have some teachings that encourage people to be kind and ethical to some degree, but just how far that actually goes probably depends on the practitioner more than the religion. Since people seem to find it easy to be selfish and hurtful, encouragement to moderate that kind of behaviour is surely a good thing. And if we don’t occasionally remind ourselves of the importance of being kind, we’re likely to forget about it and stumble blindly through life hurting people and ultimately ourselves. But we don’t need a religion to remind ourselves to be kind and so on, we just need a way to help us remember.

Given that religions most likely also have some harmful beliefs or teachings, surely we’re better to come up with a way to remind us of the spiritual dimension of our lives without submitting to a dodgy package deal. The Christian Bible, for instance, has some truly hideous things in it! Like this one in which Samuel, one of the early leaders of Israel, orders genocide against a neighbouring people:

“This is what the Lord Almighty says … ‘Now go and strike Amalek and devote to destruction all that they have. Do not spare them, but kill both man and woman, child and infant, ox and sheep, camel and donkey.’ ”

1 Samuel 15:3:

And here is St Paul’s advice about whether women are allowed to teach men in church:

“I do not permit a woman to teach or to have authority over a man; she must be silent.”

1 Timothy 2:12

Doing it for ourselves

I never wanted a religion, but I found that the Buddhist teachings on mind, particularly the dzogchen teachings and practice spoke to me, so I ended up in one. But the teachings and practices that speak to us can be used outside the framework of the religion that brought us the teachings. There are plenty of books from which we can learn, after all, and we can join in events lead by various spiritual teachers without getting caught up in their whole deal.

We can do yoga classes and/or Tai Chi or meditation classes and spend time walking in nature and reading whatever book has caught our eye at this stage of our life without having to subscribe to whatever yoga, tai chi, meditation or belief system our teacher follows. We can do them all at once and simply use what they each have to offer to help us make time for the spiritual dimension of our lives … to remind us of what we likely already know, but can so easily forget, and to help us tune in to unbounded awareness.

We could have a journal where we write down anything we read that speaks to us and so create a personal book of spiritual guidance. And we can make a schedule for ourselves to help us to take time for whatever practice we find nourishes us and our spiritual awareness – or just our kindness. Or we can just wing it without any structure and trust ourselves to remember.

This I see as the challenge of living beyond the temple, and I talk about it a bit more in this short video.

Of course, our spiritual and daily lives are not necessarily separate.  But most people need committed time in individual spiritual practice to develop the qualities that will make them truly spiritual people in daily life.

Sandra Pawla ‘How to Make Space for Your Spiritual Life.’

I’m using yoga each morning to help me take time for the spiritual aspect of my life, and I’m dabbling with tai chi, but my ongoing practice, as I say in the video, is still dzogchen. But, at this point, it has nothing to do with any guru or religion; it’s simply a way I work with my mind.

So what helps you to live beyond the temple? If you haven’t entirely given up on the idea of having some form of spiritual practice or contemplation or self-reflection time, do you need a structure to encourage you to make time for such things? If so, what kind of structure do you use or could you use? Do you use anything you’ve learned from Buddhism – either consciously or unconsciously?

Image by apic from Pixabay

The Belief at the Root of Abuse in Tibetan Buddhism

I’m going to start writing some positive posts for those who are leaving Tibetan Buddhism behind, but before I do, I think it’s important to make the root cause of abuse in Tibetan Buddhism very clear. The purpose of this post is not to put people off Tibetan Buddhism, but to educate them so they can choose not to subscribe to the beliefs that are the root cause of the abuse and can avoid groups and teachers who teach such beliefs. For example, Rigpa, Shambala & NKT.

The root cause of the abuse in Tibetan Buddhism is usually hidden from view, particularly from beginners. By the time the beliefs that allow such teachers as Sogyal Rinpoche to physically, emotionally, psychologically, financially and sexually abuse students with impunity become stated overtly (if they ever are), the student is likely already indoctrinated to this view. By laying it out up front as I’m doing here – should any Tibetan Buddhist student bother to read this – students can be aware of when this kind of belief is being laid on them, and they can reject it.

Why some Tibetan Buddhists think basic Buddhist ethics don’t apply to the guru

This quote from p131 of the The Torch of Certainty, a revered text by Jamgon Kongtrul says it all. It’s the most extreme statement I’ve seen of the belief at the root of the abuse issue, but though I never saw this particular verse while in Rigpa, the belief it elucidates is at the core of the Rigpa, Shambala and TKT culture, a culture that permitted the abuse and still stops the Rigpa Vision Board from admitting that Sogyal’s behaviour was harmful and inappropriate.

“From the sayings of the great Kagyudpas:
Everything this precious perfect guru does,
No matter what it is, is good.
All his deeds are excellent.
In his hands a butcher’s evil work
Is good, and benefits the beasts,
Inspired by compassion for them all.
When he unites in sex improperly,
His qualities increase, and fresh arise,
A sign that means and insight have been joined.
His lies by which we are deceived
Are just the skilful signs with which
He guides us on the freedom path.
When he steals, the stolen goods
Are changed into necessities
To ease the poverty of all.
When such a guru scolds,
His words are forceful mantras
To remove distress and obstacles.
His beatings are blessings,
Which yield both siddhis,
And gladden all devout and reverent men.”

Jamgon Kongtrul, The Torch of Certainty

Is this Buddhism?

The Buddha seemed to see ethics as the basis of the spiritual path. The Vinaya Pitaka is all about ethics and is one third of the Tripitaka, the Buddhist canon – along with the Sutta Pitaka (on meditation) and the Abhidhamma Pitaka (on wisdom). He encouraged people to use their own wisdom in ascertaining what kind of ideas to follow and his criteria was whether something caused harm or benefit.

“Do not go upon what has been acquired by repeated hearing; nor upon tradition; nor upon rumor; nor upon what is in a scripture; nor upon surmise; nor upon an axiom; nor upon specious reasoning; nor upon a bias towards a notion that has been pondered over; nor upon another’s seeming ability; nor upon the consideration, ‘The monk is our teacher.’ Kalamas, when you yourselves know: ‘These things are bad; these things are blamable; these things are censured by the wise; undertaken and observed, these things lead to harm and ill,’ abandon them.’

The Buddha, Kalama Sutta

If the Buddha wouldn’t condone this idea that unethical behaviour by a guru is good, then how is it Buddhism?

Rigpa’s view on the belief that everything the guru does is good

I recently sent this quote to the national director of Rigpa Australia and asked, ‘How does Rigpa see the following teaching from the section on Guru yoga in The Torch of Certainty.’ I received no reply. My guess is that they don’t want to admit that they believe this nonsense. If they don’t believe it, then surely they would have had no reticence in telling me so. The fact that Rigpa management and senior students accepted Sogyal’s abusive behaviour is proof that they do follow this kind of teaching – and it’s the same for Shambala and other similar groups.

And the fact that the Rigpa Vision Board have never admitted that Sogyal did abuse his students – despite the results of the Lewis Silkin report – and the fact that they have not denounced his behaviour as harmful and inappropriate proves that they still believe that ‘Everything this precious perfect guru does, no matter what it is, is good.

Sogyal may be dead, but this damaging belief remains in place to define Rigpa students’ relationship with whatever guru they take vajrayana empowerments from – including dzogchen and mahamudra introductions to the nature of mind.

One of the core texts for the Rigpa sangha A Guide to The Words of My Perfect Teacher – a commentary on Patrul Rinpoche’s commentary on the Longchen Nyingtik Ngondro, the main Ngondro practice for Rigpa students and many other Tibetan Buddhist groups – tells students that:

‘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.’

Khenpo Ngawang Pelzang, page 261 A Guide to The Words of My Perfect Teacher

Here is the ‘scriptural authority’ that guides Rigpa students in the matter of their guru’s behaviour. When I read this during my studies, I never thought a lama would actually do such things. I assumed it was overstated for effect and that the aim of the words was simply to encourage students to open themselves up to their teachers, not to suggest it was okay for the lamas to behave in such a manner.

Those two quotes came from books written in the 19th Century, but Dzongsar Khyentse wrote his book The Guru Drinks Bourbon? this century, and on page 19 in a section headed ‘Liberation Through Imprisonment’, he admits that in the student teacher relationship as traditionally laid out in Tibetan Buddhism, ‘The potential for abuse of power exists.’ Then, in the very next sentence, he speaks of a fully submissive relationship in which if the student wants to be enlightened, they can’t even call abuse abuse. He says:

‘However, once you have completely and soberly sur-rendered, you may not interpret certain manifestations and activities of the guru as the abuse of power. If you want to be fully enlightened, you can’t worry about abuse.’

Dzongsar Khyentse, The Guru Drinks Bourbon?

Dzongsar Khyentse (DZK) is one of Rigpa’s spiritual advisers. At least he is being honest and open about his commitment to teaching this kind of thing. That honesty helps students make an informed decision about whether or not they want to enter into a student teacher relationship with him.

Just as those who take the bible literally are called Christian fundamentalists, so, too, DZK and the other Rigpa advisers who take these kinds of teachings literally fit the label of Tibetan Buddhist fundamentalists.

The fundamentalist view

The following quotes from Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche, written as part of his 10,000 word public Facebook opinion after the July 2017 letter state the fundamentalist version of Vajrayana. The whole thing can still be read here: https://www.facebook.com/djkhyentse/posts/2007833325908805

Recently, it was alleged by some of Sogyal Rinpoche’s students, who also consider themselves to be practitioners in the Vajrayana tradition, that Sogyal Rinpoche regarded abusive behaviour as the ‘skilful means’ of ‘wrathful compassion’ in the tradition of ‘crazy wisdom.’

However you describe Sogyal Rinpoche’s style of teaching, the key point here is that if his students had received a Vajrayana initiation, if at the time they received it they were fully aware that it was a Vajrayana initiation, and if Sogyal Rinpoche had made sure that all the necessary prerequisites has been adhered to and fulfilled, then from the Vajrayana point of view, there is nothing wrong with Sogyal Rinpoche’s subsequent actions. (By the way, ‘initiation’ includes the pointing out instruction which is the highest Vajrayana initiation, known as the fourth abhisheka.)

Frankly, for a student of Sogyal Rinpoche who has consciously received abhisheka and therefore entered or stepped onto the Vajrayana path, to think of labelling Sogyal Rinpoche’s actions as ‘abusive’, or to criticize a Vajrayana master even privately, let alone publicly and in print, or simply to reveal that such methods exist, is a breakage of samaya.



The bottom line here is: if both student and guru are consciously aware of Vajrayana theory and practice, I can’t see anything wrong in what Sogyal Rinpoche then does to his so-called Vajrayana students – especially those who have been with him for many years. Those students stepped onto the Vajrayana path voluntarily; it’s a journey that they chose to make. At least, I assume they did.

Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche, Facebook Post, Aug 15 2017.

In an age when teachers can’t be trusted to behave ethically or in accordance with the Buddha’s teachings, we need to re-evaluate the relevancy of these teachings/beliefs/ideas. And since we can’t make or trust the lamas to do it – especially not the fundamentalist lamas – the students must do this re-evaluation for themselves.

You don’t have to believe or follow such teachings

Just as plenty of Catholics don’t follow the Catholic Church’s teachings on not using birth control, and don’t believe everything in the bible, so people can follow Tibetan Buddhist teachings without believing the above. You don’t have to, or need to, take on board the superstition that pervades the Tibetan culture either, or buy into fear tactics such as ‘break samaya and you’ll go to hell’.

Sogyal had us believe that at a certain point, if we really wanted enlightenment, then we had to get rid of our doubts and follow the tradition to the letter. He said that picking and choosing was fine for beginners, but not for older students. This, however, is in direct contradiction the Buddha’s advice:

Do not accept any of my words on faith,
Believing them just because I said them.
Be like an analyst buying gold, who cuts, burns,
And critically examines his product for authenticity.
Only accept what passes the test
By proving useful and beneficial in your life.

The Buddha, from the Jnanasara-samuccaya

Should a Buddhist follow a Tibetan Lama or the Buddha as their primary source for authentic Buddhist teachings?

One thing is for sure, the idea that ‘everything this precious perfect guru does, no matter what it is, is good‘ has been proven to be not ‘useful or beneficial’. If you don’t believe me, read the Lewis Silkin Report into Rigpa.

Gurus don’t have to teach such ideas, either

 ‘The problem with the practice of seeing everything the guru does as perfect is that it very easily turns to poison for both the guru and the disciple. Therefore, whenever I teach this practice, I always advocate that the tradition of “every action be seen as perfect” not be stressed. Should the guru manifest un-dharmic qualities or give teachings contradicting dharma, the instruction on seeing the spiritual master as perfect must give way to reason and dharma wisdom. I could think to myself, “They all see me as a Buddha, and therefore will accept anything I tell them.” Too much faith and imputed purity of perception can quite easily turn things rotten.’

HH Dalai Lama, The Path to Enlightenment

I showed the above quote from Jamgong Kongtrul to someone who has been a student of Tsoknyi Rinpoche for 15 years. She said that she’d never heard him teach on anything like that in all that time. He and his brother Mingyur Rinpoche don’t talk about devotion much either, and never in relationship to students being required to have devotion for them. Contrast that with Sogyal’s insistence that without devotion to him no realisation was possible. And don’t forget Mingyur Rinpoche’s take on unethical behaviour published by Lion’s Roar that he wrote in response to the abuse allegations against Sogyal.

Tibetan Buddhist teachers won’t reject outright any teaching with scriptural authority behind it. It’s just not their way. The most we can hope for in terms of change is that they cease to teach such ideas.

The massive contradiction

The traditional advice for avoiding an abusive guru is to not choose them in the first place. The same book from which our first quote came from today also says this:

In particular, you should absolutely avoid [a master who commits the following misdeeds], for such a master can only confer the “blessing” of Mara:
1. Explaining or demonstrating to a crowd of common fold [such practices as] Tsa-Lung or Mahamudra meditation, those which employ mantras, or the essentials of the Fulfillment Stage;
2. [Boastfully claiming to possess] instructions others lack and spreading instructions in the profound philosophy and practice of the Mantrayana in the marketplace;
3. Behaving in an undisciplined manner;
4. Verbalizing the ultimate philosophical perspective (footnote: Since it is not subject to verbalization, any attempt to do so is pure distortion).
5. Greatly coveting money or property belonging to the Precious Ones;
6. Being highly deceitful and hypocritical;
7. Giving empowerments and instructions which do not belong in any tradition;
8. Indulging in the pleasures of liquor and sex;
9. Teaching a doctrine which conflicts with the Dharma, in words of his own invention, because he does not know how to teach the true path.

Jamgon Kongtrul, The Torch of Certainty p 134

If you follow those guidelines, you cut out all those self-styled dzogchen gurus that are popping up all over the place as well as all those lamas who indulge in sex. But note the conflicting teachings here. On the one hand we’re not to choose a teacher who ‘indulges in the pleasures of liquor or sex’ or ‘who behaves in an undisciplined manner’, but on the other hand if you do happen to choose someone who ‘unites in sex improperly,‘ lies, steals, scolds and beats you, you’re supposed to see ‘all his deeds’ as ‘excellent’.

In addition, given that gurus hide their ethical failings, it’s impossible for anyone to choose teachers with any confidence, especially when all you know about them is the nice stuff written on a glossy website. Clearly, you can’t trust any guru not to abuse their power; you can, however, not give away your power.

What does a student wanting Tibetan Buddhist teachings do?

‘The only way out of this mess, I think, is for students to vow to never compromise their personal integrity, to take responsibility for their own spiritual path rather than handing control over to another, and to keep their critical thinking faculties engaged at all levels of the path rather than blindly accepting every pronouncement by a lama as wisdom. To give any of that up in the name of devotion is neither wise nor in line with what the Buddha taught.’

Tahlia Newland. Fallout: Recovering from Abuse in Tibetan Buddhism

Image by ArtTower from Pixabay

Looking for a Tibetan Buddhist Teacher? Or Been Mistreated by one? Here’s some good advice.

This video is an interview with Karma Yeshe Rabgye (a Western monk in the Tibetan Buddhist tradition) in which he gives good advice for students of Tibetan Buddhism looking for a teacher and particularly for those being abused by their lama. He is, of course, talking from a Western perspective, and we’ve hit the wall of cultural differences here when trying to get lamas to make public stances against misconduct, so I don’t think he’ll get far with his call for lamas to speak out. But his advice for Western students is basically: you’re a Westerner, you know it’s wrong, so don’t be bound by the fear tactics (samaya) of a feudal culture that has no relevance to you as a modern Western person, and report all incidences of criminal behaviour to the police. Lamas in the West must abide by Western law and should be given no special treatment just because they and you think they’re someone special.

I agree with his point that Tibetan Buddhism in its feudal form will continue on the fringes, but it likely will eventually die out in the West because the feudal aspects (in which he includes the tulku system) are simply not relevant to the modern world. The Tibetan Buddhism that will survive is where the lamas adapt to the modern world and needs of their Western students. Adapt or die is the way of the world, after all.

Finding a teacher

Many of the readers here are so disgusted by the behaviour of Tibetan lamas that they don’t want anything to do with the religion anymore, but others understand that despite the religious limitations, Tibetan Buddhism does have a lot to offer those seeking to understand their mind and learn effective ways of operating in the world. The question then is how do you find a teacher that won’t abuse you.

As well as checking them out thoroughly, particularly noticing whether or not they practice what they preach and whether they have a secret inner circle (particularly if it’s all young women), Karma Yeshe talks about looking at how we are as students, and asking ourselves, what do we want from the relationship and how do we see the teacher. If we see him or her as a saviour who will tell us what to do, as a daddy figure or a god, then we’re opening ourselves up to abuse.

This echoes the approach I take in my book Fallout: Recovering from Abuse in Tibetan Buddhism where I suggest that we can’t change the teachers but we can change the way we relate to them. ‘We must forge a new way of relating to our spiritual teachers’, a healthier relationship than the teachings proscribe, one where we do not fall into blind devotion.

Such a relationship, however, can only be achieved by someone who does not have codependent tendencies, someone who has clear boundaries and good self-esteem, but those who seek gurus may be weak in these areas. If you don’t think you can manage not to fall into a submissive, codependent relationship with a guru, I suggest you do some solid work with a psychotherapist before seeking a guru.

From Ch 48 of Fallout: Recovering from Abuse in Tibetan Buddhism

The other important point Karma Yeshe makes is that we should have many teachers. We can learn different things from different teachers. The idea that we should have one teacher for life should be discarded as it’s limiting at best and dangerous at worst. We must retain control of our spiritual path.

The only way out of this mess, I think, is for students to vow to never compromise their personal integrity, to take responsibility for their own spiritual path rather than handing control over to another, and to keep their critical thinking faculties engaged at all levels of the path rather than blindly accepting every pronouncement by a lama as wisdom. To give any of that up in the name of devotion is neither wise nor in line with what the Buddha taught.

From Ch 48 of Fallout: Recovering from Abuse in Tibetan Buddhism

And what if you’ve been abused?

Speaking up is Karma Yeshe’s advice, but we all know that’s not easy. Certainly it’s important to step outside of the TB conditioning so that you’re not afraid to make a police report, but stepping outside of a belief system into which you’ve been indoctrinated is really hard. It takes time. I think I’ll write a whole post on this after some more thought, but the first step is to follow any grievance procedure that is in place in your sangha, and to record all communications.

If no such procedure exists then email whoever is in charge with a formal complaint. You can google how to make a formal complaint. Also keep a record of when the email was sent, and send a copy to a another person for them to also keep a record of. Again, keep a record of all communications on the matter. Copy and paste them into a Word document.

And lodge a complaint with the police as soon as you realise you’ve been abused in some way. That doesn’t mean that you’ll be taking legal action, it just means the police will have a record of it. We have to get over this idea that good Buddhist don’t involve the police. If a crime has been committed, we need to report it. We don’t need to sue, but we do need to make a report. This is vital for any investigation, particularly if someone else comes forward with a similar experience.

Going public

If you get no satisfaction from a grievance procedure or from lodging a formal complaint, then you may wish to warn others by going public. That will have repercussions that will be hard to handle – such as vilification from sangha members (and I’ll go into them in more detail another post) – and if you decide that’s the way you want to go, the question is how best to do it. Clearly getting others together so there is more than one voice speaking out is the best option, but it’s not always possible to do that even if you know the same thing is happening to others.

If you’re a lone voice, it’s hard. Journalists can’t publish someone’s story unless it’s verified by at least one other person, and they have good reason to believe that the allegations have some basis in fact. Someone not publishing your story doesn’t mean they don’t believe you, it just means they need more information. It’s about responsible journalism. My policy here is not to be the original source for someone’s public statement of their experience of abuse.

Facebook rants don’t work. Share in a closed group, by all means, but if you want to make a clear statement, I don’t advise Facebook because it’s too easy for people to abuse you and even get your account shut down. Utube videos do work, but I suggest that you don’t allow comments unless you’re either going to ignore them all, or are prepared for abuse from the true believers.

Tell your story to the camera and make sure you begin by saying that this is your lived experience, your story, that this is what happened to you. To be even safer, do not directly accuse the perpetrator of a crime. You can say, he sexually abused me in these ways, but don’t say, ‘He’s a sexual abuser or a sexual pervert.’ That’s slander.

If there’s only you and you don’t want to do a video, I suggest making your own statement on your own webpage (they’re free through WordPress.com). Then you can share the link to it wherever you want, and blogs like this can link to it as an allegation.

Most important is to look after yourself. I suggest reading my book and seeing a counsellor.

If you’ve been in a cult, or have been a victim of spiritual abuse and institutional betrayal, reading Fallout could literally be even better than going to a psychologist, because it will go straight to the point, it will take you step by step through a process of recognizing what you’ve been through, in order to deal with it.

Dr J Perez   Goodreads Review

What do you think of what Karma Yeshe Rabgye says in the podcast? And do you have any advice for those who have been abused and are wondering what to do that I can include in a comprehensive post on the topic?

Image by Jan Alexander from Pixabay

The challenge of losing your spiritual path

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

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

Retaining the Tibetan Buddhist spiritual path

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

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

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

Sharon Salzberg

Retaining a general Buddhist path

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

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

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

Adrift

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

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

Spiritual path or religious path?

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

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

Marianne Williamson

What is a spiritual path?

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

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

wikipedia.org/wiki/Spirituality

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

Is there an end?

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

The wisdom of not seeking

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

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

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

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

Gabrielle Bernstein

The role of teachers

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

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

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

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

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

The greater the loss the greater the opportunity for awakening

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

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

Don’t despair

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

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

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

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

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

Image by Jim Semonik from Pixabay

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?

Reginal Ray: Transmitting Trungpa’s lineage of abuse.

Another Tibetan Buddhist heavy weight bites the dust!

Eight students of Reginald Ray, inspired by the revelations of abuse in Rigpa in the letter written by eight Rigpa students and in Shamabala by Buddhist Project Sunshine, have written an open letter revealing Reginald Ray’s abuse of students and the cult dynamics in his organisation, Dharma Ocean.

An all-too-familiar story

This excerpt from the letter sums up the general contents, and those of us familiar with this kind of thing from Rigpa, Shambala, NKT and other Tibetan Buddhist groups will recognise the methods and language used to create this kind of cult-ure. It’s the same-old story. Clearly, we, as Westerners, are importing the worst of this tradition on a grand scale.

“The forms of emotional and spiritual abuse perpetuated by Reggie Ray and, by extension, those in positions of leadership within Dharma Ocean, are commonly acknowledged as characteristic of high demand groups :
● grooming;
● love bombing new group members;
● questioning and doubt being discouraged or punished;
● public shaming of community members;
● a cycle of verbal abuse and triangulation in interpersonal communication;
● selective enforcement of rules/community norms; dissent framed in terms of spiritual immaturity/shortcomings;
● a pervasive culture of fear and paranoia;
● a charismatic leader insulated from any external accountability;
● reframing dissent or the loss of prominent members as proof of the worthiness and
exceptionalism of the “in-group”;
● frequent public appraisals of other spiritual paths and communities, which were
always found inferior by comparison with Dharma Ocean.
● the organization’s all-important ends justify its unethical means.”

A worrying transmission of abuse by Westerners

This abusive Tibetan Buddhist teacher is a Westerner, a man whose books I loved for their clarity and the depth of the author’s dharma understanding. But as we’ve come to realise, knowledge, and even practice of, the dharma according to Tibetan Buddhism is no guarantee of developing any kind of decency as a human being, especially if your master practised abuse in the name of dharma.

Chokyo Lodro, Sogyal Rinpoche’s master, was abusive in his behaviour, and so was Chogyam Trungpa, Reginald Ray’s master. Sogyal can be cut some slack for his perception that abuse was acceptable behaviour due to being a child while under the influence of at least one man who thought beating increased wisdom, but RR came to the dharma as an adult with a Western upbringing and presumably some awareness of the concept of human rights, so why is he behaving in a similar fashion? Answer -Chogyam Trungpa. He’s following a flawed role model, and presumably, like many of us did, has given up his personal integrity (presuming that he did at one point have some) on the altar of devotion.

Chogyam Trungpa: the father of the Western lineage of Tibetan Buddhist abuse

Trungpa’s alcoholism, womanising and hedonistic lifestyle have long been well-known but were generally brushed off as a result of the free-love ethos of hippy days in the sixties and seventies.

“Vajradhatu students had a reputation for the wildest parties in Buddhist America. Although most Tibetan Tantric schools clearly discourage “acting out” passions and impulses, Trungpa Rinpoche did not. In fact, drunk and speeding, he once crashed a sports car into the side of a joke shop and was left partly paralyzed. He openly slept with students. In Boulder, he lectured brilliantly, yet sometimes so drunk that he had to be carried off stage or held upright in his chair. …

When Trungpa Rinpoche lay dying in 1986 at the age of 47, only an inner circle knew the symptoms of his final illness. Few could bear to acknowledge that their beloved and brilliant teacher was dying of terminal alcoholism, even when he lay incontinent in his bedroom, belly distended and skin discolored, hallucinating and suffering from varicose veins, gastritis, and esophageal varices, a swelling of veins in the esophagus caused almost exclusively by cirrhosis of the liver.

“Rinpoche was certainly not an ordinary Joe, but he sure died like every alcoholic I’ve ever seen who drank uninterruptedly,” said Victoria Fitch, a member of his household staff with years of experience as a nursing attendant. “The denial was bone-deep,” she continued. “I watched his alcoholic dementia explained as his being in the realm of the daikinis.'”

Tricycle: Encountering the Shadow in Buddhist America

However, some have revealed an even darker and clearly abusive side to Trungpa, and though (as it was with such students in Rigpa) vehemently denied by those who cannot bear to have their faith shaken, others have corroborated most of the stories that have come to light.

Chogyam Trungpa’s abusive behaviour has been documented in various places, such as the frank revelations of Leslie Hays, one of his ‘wives’, Katherine Rose talking about how Trungpa and his followers stripped a couple naked against their will, and John Riley Perks who shares the story of Trungpa’s abuse of a dog in his book The Mahasiddha and His Idiot Servant.

A worrying transmission

On its website, Ray’s organisation, Dharma Ocean, says that it’s core mission is “transmitting Trungpa Rinpoche’s living lineage in the modern context.” That page goes on to tell us that “Dr. Ray has practiced and studied in the lineage of Chögyam Trungpa since 1970, when he met Rinpoche just after his arrival in the U.S. ” And “Dr. Ray passes on the “moving and remarkable trust” he received from his teacher. Under this guidance, many of Dharma Ocean’s senior students are beginning to instruct others along the Dharma Ocean path of Chögyam Trungpa.”

Now that “senior students beginning to instruct others along the path of Chögyam Trungpa” is a worry. And one wonders what “moving and remarkable trust” refers to. Is that the never-question-your-teacher-because-they’re-perfect-and-what-might-appear-as-abuse-isn’t-really-because-it’s-all-for-your-benefit bullshit?

The third point on that page where it summarises the essence of the lineage is “The everyday practice to “never turn away” — to develop an attitude of complete acceptance and openness toward all experience …” But if you take a look at the letter   you’ll see a lot of non-acceptance and close-mindedness in practice. Another instance of the guru and his organisation not walking their talk.

The lineage of abuse Trungpa left in his organisation, Shambala, carried by his son, the Sakyong, is also now widely known thanks to Buddhist Project Sunshine. In between Chögyam Trungpa and the Sakyong, Shambhala was led by an American-born Buddhist who is mainly remembered for having sex with students even after he knew he had AIDS.

In the book Sex and Violence in Tibetan Buddhism, Mary Finnigan tells how in 1975 Sogyal’s behaviour changed abruptly from jovial to a tyrant’s attitude, which included public berating and humiliations of his students, after he returned from his visit to the U.S. where he met Trungpa in Boulder/Colorado.

Unfortunately, Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche has also made his respect for Trungpa clear, and who knows how many other Tibetan Buddhist teachers, of both Eastern and Western roots, idolise a man now known to be a serial abuser.

How do we stop this transmission of abuse?

SPEAK UP! Tell it as it is, just like these eight students of RR and the eight Rigpa students and others who have broken the silence. And report crimes to the police. Treat abusive dharma teachers as we would any corporate boss who abuses his workers.

If you have knowledge of others abusing in the name of dharma, find others who can corroborate your story and write an open letter signed by as many students as you can who witness the same kinds of behaviour in their teachers, and post it wherever you can on the internet. If you can’t find anyone to back up your story, maybe you could be the first and hope that others will come out of the woodwork if you speak up. Best is make a You Tube video where you simply tell your story as ‘this is what happened to me’, no accusations, just facts as you know them. It’s hard, I know. But videos work best if you’re the only one speaking out. On a video you’re a real person, much harder to disregard, but don’t allow comments on your video. Best not to open yourself to further abuse. Be prepared for a backlash, though. Unfortunately those who feel threatened by such revelations will retaliate. For support, join the Survivors of Vajrayana Abuse Facebook group.

Cut the lineage here, now. No matter how wise they might sound, do not quote abusers or teachers who were once their students unless that person has made a public statement denouncing their teacher’s abuse and vowing not to continue it. To stop lineages of abuse from taking deeper root in the West, we have to stop seeing having Trungpa as a teacher as some kind of respected qualification.

Don’t support dodgy organisations and teachers. Only take teachings from teachers who make a public stance against abuse and cult behaviour. In today’s climate, I don’t think it’s too much to ask.

PS: A Website for those Leaving Dharma Ocean

Leavingdharmaocean.com is a resource site for recovering students of Reggie Ray and Caroline Pfohl, as well as for those who are curious about what happened at Dharma Ocean, or who are considering deepening their commitments to these teachers. It includes letters, emails between Reggie Ray and a student, essays from past students, articles, a list of behavior to watch for among enablers in Dharma Ocean — or any meditation community, and resources for healing from spiritual abuse.

The King is Dead: Long Live the King

A reflection on Sogyal Rinpoche’s death and feudalism in Tibetan Buddhism.

The first thought I had on hearing of Sogyal’s death was ‘The king is dead: long live the king.’ I ignored it, thinking it was one of those useless bits of mind vomit that invade our minds, but the phrase kept popping up during my quiet times, during my morning walk or meditation, along with a sense of what unpacking that phrase might mean in the present circumstances of Sogyal’s death. Wanting to retire into anonymity, I resisted writing about it, but eventually the insistence with which the phrase kept reoccurring made me accept that, like it or not, I had to write about Sogyal’s death in light of this phrase. So here it is:

The King

King Louis XVI giving alms to peasants in the winter of 1788.” – painting by Louis Hersent 1817 . This scene looks very familiar if you substitute King Louis with Sogyal, clothe the peasants in modern clothes, and set it in Lerab Ling.

Sogyal is the king to which we’re referring here. He (along with his willing slaves, of which I was one) created his kingdom, Rigpa, and he sat on the Rigpa throne – usually an office chair – encouraged by his students, who showed the kind of deference and devotion peasants are expected to show their king.

He gathered a court around him, an inner circle of lords and ladies, who protected him from the demands of the peasants and pandered to his every whim. And he had a harem of beautiful women to attend to his sexual gratification. Women who he and his court convinced were ‘special’ and lucky to gain his attention.

This is not Buddhist in any way, it’s just feudalism. Even Western kings prior to the time of the French Revolution had access to pretty much any woman they chose. No one would turn away the attentions of the king. The benefits to one’s family were considerable – see the movie The Other Boleyn Girlnot to mention the lavish lifestyle to into which the woman would be thrust as a concubine or mistress. Coercion into the bed of the master, lord or king was a fact of life for woman in medieval times, as was the brutal disregard with which they were discarded when the person with power over them and their family grew tired of her charms.

And he had knights who went out and did his work for him: National Directors, Study and Practice Co-ordinators, Practice co-ordinators, Finance and fundraising co-ordinators, event managers, and so on.

Those who spoke badly of the king were publically drawn and quartered, and so dissent was effectively squashed. The only option for those who saw that the Kingly garb was an illusion was exile.

We even called him a ‘master’. The historical meaning of that word is ‘a man who has people working for him, especially servants or slaves’. Synonyms: lord, overlord, ruler, sovereign, monarch, liege

The true nature of the king

Few knew the true nature of any king in a feudal society. Only his closest courtiers. And if the king was an idiot or abusive (as I suspect many of them were, given that absolute power tends to corrupt absolutely and the brutality of the human race in general up until the development of the concept of human rights around 250 years ago in France), his knights and advisors worked with that as best they could. The monarchies were good at making fine shows to satisfy the populace that they were being taken care of – so long as they were faithful to the crown. Pomp and ceremony and fancy speeches promoted the idea of a truly wise and benevolent king or queen regardless of the true personality of the regent. Sound familiar? Anything Buddhist here? Nope, just feudalism.

In the same way, us ordinary peasants had no idea of Sogyal’s true personality. We saw aspects of it, but just as a peasant in a feudal society would ignore any indications that the king wasn’t the noble being he was made out to be, so did we. To see him differently was dangerous. If the illusion came tumbling down, so did our place in the society/cult. And King Sogyal’s knights and couriers always did the required damage control to soothe the peasants concerns.

When I realised that Sogyal wasn’t the man I thought he was, when I realised that although he could be kind and apparently (as I saw him) loving, he could also be incredibly cruel, and that although he seemed very insightful at times, he could also do incredibly stupid things, I realised that the ‘kingliness’ I’d perceived in him had been nothing more than a projection on my part.

I wanted a spiritual teacher who was perfect, so that’s what I created for myself. But there never was a king. Even though we had one.

I’m reminded of the words: Mind (it exists) is devoid of mind (it doesn’t exist). The nature of mind is clear light. (Nevertheless it manifests as clear light.) Sogyal was not a king, nor was he enlightened, nevertheless he manifested as a king for those who wanted a king. Despite his personality disorder, he faithfully dispensed his kingly duties as he’d been taught to do by his upbringing and teachers, and just as a king who is rotten to the core can still follow legal protocol and preside over a court to dispense justice for those seeking it, so, too, could Sogyal provide what we came looking for. If our introductions to the nature of our mind was just a projection from our side, it still did the trick, because the protocol for introduction, well established over centuries, was strong enough in itself that it still worked regardless of the lacks of the person presiding – at least for those whose minds were ready for a little nudge in the right direction.

Is Dead

King Sogyal died for me as soon as I realised he wasn’t a king (not a role model for achieving enlightenment). I grieved back in June 2017.

Now the man Sogyal Lakar is dead as well. People have their own reactions to that, depending on their relationship to him. But regardless of how one feels about this personally, his death likely raises questions about death and our relationship to it.

Our personal relationship to death

I grew up on a farm. I saw a lot of dead animals. Death was simply part of life for us. Even now I live in the country and on my walks will come across the remains of some animal. I’ve also travelled a lot in outback Australia where road kill is common. I’ve driven along sections of roads lined with the desiccated corpses of kangaroos, and plucked feathers from dead birds with which to decorate masks and hats.

I look at my family often with the awareness that death will one day take me from them or them from me. My daughter, when she was growing up, often told me how unusual our family was because her friends’ parents never talked about death. My husband often says, ‘I’ll be dead by then.’ We don’t pussy foot around the topic. My mother (93 yrs old) told me how relieved she was that I would actually talk to her about her impending death. ‘No one else will talk about it,’ she told me.

My father died from cancer when I was in my twenties, and that hit me hard. I remember him saying to me, ‘I’m not afraid to die. I’ve led a good life. I know where I’m going.’ As a Christian who lived by the words of Jesus, he had no reason to fear. He was a genuinely good person.

I’m not afraid of death, either. I never believed the Tibetan Buddhist stuff about bardos and ending up in lotus flowers for centuries if you didn’t realise you were in one! And being released into a pure realm if you did realise. Sheesh who needs that kind of pressure to remember all that shit when you’re dying – don’t look at the dim lights or you’ll end up as a pig! Apparently Tibetans fear death more than any other race. And it’s no wonder. I’d be scared, too, if I really thought I’d be facing terrifying beings in the bardos.

I prefer the near death experience idea of ‘rapid movement toward and/or sudden immersion in a powerful light or being of light’ accompanied by ‘an intense feeling of unconditional love and acceptance.’ Not only does it seem ‘right’ to me, but also the characteristics of near death experiences have been formed from research, not just because a ‘master’ says so.

Since any idea of death that isn’t supported by research into people who have actually been dead is really only a belief about death not a fact about it, you can believe the Tibetan version or not. It’s a choice. If you’re Tibetan, it would be difficult to step outside that Tibetan cultural perspective, of course, and near death experience research indicates that people interpret what happens according to their beliefs. So if you believe in the terror of the bardos, that’s what you’ll experience – assuming there is some continuation of consciousness after death. I’m happy to leave that question until I’m dead. I figure I’ll find out then, and until then, the question is kind of irrelevant to me.

I figure that if we live a good life and do our best to die in a good frame of mind, then if we do have some continuation of consciousness, we’ll be in a good space for going forward, and it there isn’t any continuation, then at least we will have died in peace.

What do us ex-Tibetan Buddhists we do when we die?

This is a scary question for someone who had it all worked out according to a tradition that they no longer believe in. If you figured that you’d just do Guru Yoga at the time of death, and now you couldn’t possibly do GY, what do you do?

You could follow the same idea but cut out the middle man. My practice for a long time has essentially been merging my mind with the true nature of reality every time I remember to do it. Another way to think of it is turning my mind onto my own awareness or looking for the true nature of my awareness.  And that’s what I plan to do when I die. Maybe you could think of merging your mind with that ‘being of light’ they talk about in the near-death research. Same idea but without the bad associations.

Imagining yourself flying up into a being of light that is unconditionally loving sounds like the kind of thing that will help you die in peace. It’s also the kind of thing that will help you live your life in peace. No need for even a buddha. I sometimes visualise a ball of light with all the enlightened beings in it, all together. A kind of generic version of vajrayana. It’s great when you’re feeling like shit. Just pop them in the sky and have them send a whole lot of light down to fill you up. Anyway, it’s just a suggestion for ex-vajrayana practitioners. For me it takes the essence and leaves the garbage out of it.

Cultural perspectives on death

And then there’s the Rigpa flying circus and the homages. We’ve talked about those issues before, but it seems that a notable number of the Tibetan lamas, despite their cultural programming, removed their homages or made condolences rather than homages in deference to the outcry as to the inappropriateness of whitewashing the crimes of someone just because they’re dead. The homages were in stark contrast to the articles that appeared in the Western media that spoke about both his ‘good’ works and his abuse of students.

Our ideas of what is and what isn’t appropriate at the time of death depend on our cultural upbringing.

For instance, there were arguments as to whether the original image (similar to the one below) used for the last post was appropriate. I removed it because the author of the blog and others didn’t like it and I figured since it was her blog, she should decide what image should go with it. Others complained that it had been removed, because they thought it was the perfect image. There’s no right or wrong here. We just have different ideas, and they tend to reflect your background (for me this corpse is no different to all those dead animals I’ve seen.)  

To put this into perspective, I did a bit of research on death customs, and I found that there are some really weird ones. The weirdest I found was those of the Malagasy people of Madagascar, who, in an effort to hasten decomposition — what’s seen as an crucial step in the ongoing process of getting the spirits of the dead into the afterlife —dig up the remains of their relatives, rewrap them in fresh cloth, then dance with the corpses around the tomb to live music. ‘The living family members then reflect with the bodies in their laps, pose for photos, and again dance with the bodies of those they’ve lost within the tomb -before putting them back to rest.’

Until recently, female members of the Dani tribe of Western Papa, New Guinea had a finger amputated each time an immediate family member died.  The Yanomami, an Amazonian tribe who live in the jungles between Brazil and Venezuela eats their dead. They see the consumption of dead tribe members as a unity-strengthening act. The Rigpa flying circus is nothing on this lot!

Funeral procession of Thai King Bhumibol Adulyadej_2017

Parades of the deceased so people can pay their respects are something seen in both the East and the West.

Cambodian King Norodom Sihanouk’s Coffin

Though such funeral processions in the West are grand for kings, queens, prime ministers and presidents, they don’t exhibit the kind of bling seen in the East, just a simple flag-covered coffin on a carriage or in a Hurst.

Corpse preservation

According to one article, in southern Tibet corpses are ’embalmed with ghee, salt and perfume and placed in a wooden casket’. The book, Sources of Tibetan Tradition says that the ‘practice of embalming became widespread in Tibet in the seventeenth century’ and the first step in mummifying a corpse is to pack it in salt. Salt shrinks cells by drawing liquids out of them, so packing a corpse in salt will remove the liquids from the body, which will help to stop it stinking, and also cause it to shrink – another way to suggest spiritual attainment. Removing certain foods from one’s diet and eating little, such that one loses weight before death also helps the body not to decay after death.

In modern embalming, practised by many funeral homes, the blood is removed from the body through the veins and replaced by injection into the arteries with a mixture of  formaldehydeglutaraldehydemethanol, and other solvents. According to this article on different methods of corpse preservation, ‘Bodies embalmed in this manner have a shelf life of approximately 10 years’. Lenin was embalmed 145 years ago and ‘the Soviet founder’s corpse still maintains the look, feel, and flexibility of Lenin toward the end of his life. If anything, the body’s appearance has improved with age.’ No spiritual accomplishment involved there – unless Lenin was enlightened!

Long Live the King

As Wikipedia says ‘”The king is dead, long live the king!”, or simply “long live the king!” is a traditional proclamation made following the accession of a new monarch in various countries. The seemingly contradictory phrase is used to simultaneously announce the death of the previous monarch and assure the public of continuity by saluting the new monarch.’

Tibetan Buddhist practice can continue seamlessly after the death of a master by adding the dead one to one’s perception of the master that represents them all – i.e. Guru Rinpoche for the Nyingmas – and by taking on a new master. Just replace the old with the new and carry on. That kind of continuity is reassuring at a time when it might feel, to the devoted, that their world is falling apart.

Those who still want a ‘master’ will be looking (if they haven’t already) for a new one. The questions for those students are: Will you just swap one king for another? Will you continue to play the master/servant game? And, is that a healthy relationship to be in?

And what of Rigpa? Who will take over Rigpa? Will the vision board find a new king? Or will some narcissist rush in and save them from making a decision by offering to take it on?

An opportunity for change.

Rigpa actually has a great opportunity here to make healthy changes. They could be quite clear and say that they will no longer have any spiritual advisors, that they will run Rigpa as a Western organisation without a king or a council of kings. They could institute democracy where the members vote for the vision board and have a real say in policies, and they could simply employ teachers on a simple fee basis.

Even with a democratic structure, unless they voted out the ‘old guard’, reject their fundamentalist views, and any new board denounces Sogyal’s behaviour, it will make little difference.

For sure the time of kings and feudal structures is long gone in the West. We gave them up around 250 years ago around the time of the French revolution. Surely we can take the Buddha’s teachings to heart without having to step back a few centuries and take on the feudal baggage we outgrew here with the birth of the idea of human rights for all.

The king is dead: Long live the king.

Sogyal Rinpoche’s Last Tour

Rigpa has sent an email to their devotees sharing their plans ‘for the ceremonies that will be performed for Sogyal Rinpoche over the next few months’. These plans show a stark difference in cultural attitudes between Tibet and the West as to the respectful way to treat a corpse, and we can respect that. But Rigpa could have been culturally appropriate without the elaborate charade they have planned, and in their communications, they could have been respectful to those Sogyal abused rather than painting them as enemies.

Parading his corpse around as if he were an enlightened master just continues the lie that damaged so many and disillusioned many more. It’s nothing more than their usual manipulation of the faithful. The actions of a cult. They’re essentially repeating the ‘Rigpa party line’ in a big display, saying, ‘Sogyal is a great master; it was crazy wisdom, not abuse; the 8 and their supporters got it wrong. We can be safe in the knowledge that we are right; we can go on with our worship as if nothing happened. ‘

The anger arising now is not that of people clinging to anger about the abuse; it’s fresh anger arising from what Rigpa is saying by this display. Sel Verhoeven talks about this in this guest post.

Note the meaning of Kundung according to Rigpa Wiki: ‘kudung’ refers to ‘the sacred body of a great master who has passed away, or to their relics, such as ringsel, or a stupa housing relics’

Rinpoche’s last tour

Thanks to Sel Verhoeven for the following:

First of all, I would like to say my heart is with anyone who is truly mourning the passing of Sogyal Rinpoche. It is a shattering experience to lose someone you love. If you are feeling very raw about this, you might not want to read this blog – even though it is not about Rinpoche’s passing away, but about what Rigpa is making out of it.

A man has died who has done a lot of bad and a lot of good. He still has thousands of devotees, but he has seriously harmed dozens of people and around a thousand students have left Rigpa, feeling completely disillusioned because their trust has been so badly broken.

What kind of a goodbye should be chosen? That is a difficult decision. Of course family and close ones should have the opportunity to say their goodbyes. And an opportunity for the devotees to pay their respects should be created. But, one would think that, given the circumstances, it would be wise (and compassionate to his victims) to try to keep it as small and discrete as possible.

Not Rigpa. No; let’s fly his body from Thailand to France, then to Bodhgaya in India, then to Sikkim and then to West-Sikkim on a 3 month tour:

Sogyal Rinpoche’s kudung will be taken firstly to the Buddhist temple of Wat Thong Nopakhun in Bangkok, Thailand. From 17th-22nd September [the temple] will be open to visitors daily between 5am-10pm. The kudung will then be taken to Lerab Ling in France where a private ceremony will be held for Sogyal Rinpoche’s family and community of close students. The kudung will remain at Lerab Ling from 24th-29th September, before being taken to India.

In India, Sogyal Rinpoche’s kudung will be taken to Bodhgaya, the seat of Buddha Shakyamuni’s enlightenment. The kudung will remain there for approximately one month, from 1st-31st October, at the Shechen Gompa. Lamas and monks from the Shechen Monastery and other Dharma communities will be invited to perform various practices and rituals in its presence.

From Bodhgaya, the kudung will be taken to Chorten Gompa, Kyabjé Dodrupchen Rinpoche’s monastery in Gangtok, Sikkim, where further practices will be performed by the Lamas and monks there throughout the month of November. Finally, the dungshyu (cremation ceremony) will take place on 2nd December at Tashiding in west Sikkim, a most sacred site and one of the Eight Great Charnel Grounds, blessed by Guru Rinpoche.’

Rigpa email

In other words: let’s do as many ceremonies as we can over a 3 month period of time and let’s involve as many lama’s and monks as possible. Let’s just bombard everyone into believing he is a saint by making a flying circus out of it.

Turning the victim into the offender

Let’s look at this in terms of the DARVO technique commonly used by individuals and organisations when their unethical behaviour is exposed. (Deny it, Attack the whistle blower, and Reverse the Victim and Offender – make the abuser/offender appear to be the victim, and the victim appear to be the abuser/offender ). Again in the email they sent out: 

‘But now that Rinpoche is deceased, we pray that, for the sake of his family, loved ones and close Dharma brothers and sisters, our plans to offer the traditional ceremonies and rituals will unfold peacefully and harmoniously. We simply ask, in all humility, for your respect and understanding at such a time.’

This would make you think that we (the community of victims of spiritual abuse, their supporters, and advocates for ethical behaviour) are a bunch of barbarians that would try to bomb the temples where the ceremonies are being held. When all we have ever asked for is to stop the denial, to acknowledge the abuse, for Rigpa to take responsibility for its part in it, and if possible, for them to really apologize. (On a side note, humility is a trait I have never seen in Rigpa …)

Dismissing the abuse

They also write:

‘Sadly, unresolved controversies in Sogyal Rinpoche’s life have elicited strong feelings in many people.’

So abuse that has been confirmed by an independent investigation is now just an ‘unresolved controversy’. It sounds a whole lot better than abuse, doesn’t it?

I don’t think there will be any protest at any of the ceremonies that are to be held in the next three months. There is no need to protest against this charade, because any sensible person will see it as a cult-warning sign when someone accused of abuse is sent off in such a grandiose way. So let them have their flying circus.

As someone in the What Now group worded it: 

‘Strange maybe, but I feel compassion for Sogyal’s dead body being dragged around for so many days, through so many countries. To me, that doesn’t sound respectful at all. And this ‘traveling circus’ is even worse than all the eulogies we’ve read on the Rigpa home page … it’s about officially, and with lots of pomp, promoting a lie to a ‘truth’ that will be spread for decades to come…’

What Now group member

The repercussions for Tibetan Buddhism

What saddens me most of all is that what started out as the harmful behaviour of one person and the denial and whitewashing of one cult-like group has now, through the endorsement of so many lamas (by way of writing homages and participating in ceremonies) and the remaining silence of so many other lamas, become a reason to seriously doubt all of Tibetan Buddhism.

It has a treasure to offer. But so much seems to be rotten that I’m not sure whether the treasure can be saved. A lot of Sogyal Rinpoche’s ex-students have left Tibetan Buddhism, and I can’t blame them.  I’m ever so grateful for HHDL, Mingyur Rinpoche, Tsultrim Allione, Ato Rinpoche, Dagpo Rinpoche, Thubten Chodron, Tsoknyi Rinpoche, Matthieu Ricard, Namgay Dawa Rinpoche and Jetsunma Tenzin Palmo who have spoken up against the abuse*. That’s ten teachers that can be trusted. Unfortunately around twenty teachers have endorsed Sogyal Rinpoche’s behaviour and contributed to his aggrandisement by writing a homage for him. One of them, Ringu Tulku, even turns out to be the champ of reversing abuser/victim roles by writing that ‘some of his trusted students attacked him with most serious accusations’.

Sel Verhoeven