Breaking the Veil of Silence that Hides and Sustains Abuse

Abuse is particularly painful to confront when in a spiritual context. Why? Because it’s so hard to believe that those we trust with guiding us spiritually, those that talk about morality or ethics don’t abide by those principles themselves. We trust that, as spiritual advocates, they will have the practitioners’ best interests at heart. When presented with testimonies that indicate otherwise, we simply find it hard to believe.
“But he is such a nice man,” we say. We can’t believe that there is another side to him that only the victims of his abuse see. And we don’t want to confront the possibility that it’s true. Especially if the person accused is someone close to us: our husband, our brother, our father, our revered teacher. Paedophilias get away with their abuse for years because of this.

The situation is further complicated when the religious beliefs permit the abuse and create a culture where others in the religion do not support the victim.  Women from a radical Islamic political group in Australia said publically that permission from Allah for Muslim men to hit their wives is “a beautiful blessing”.
If the victim of sexual, physical and emotional abuse sees it as a blessing, does that make it not abuse? Not in the eyes of the law. As Police Commissioner of NSW Mick Fuller said, “The law doesn’t distinguish between race and religion, when it comes to violence against women it is not acceptable in any shape of form,”

The Role of Beliefs

I was horrified recently to learn that allegations of abuse by my spiritual teacher may be true, and that the religious organisation of which I am a part has a culture that supports abuse. What appears to some as abuse is seen as ‘skilful means’ to assist the student in breaking through his or her habitual patterns so they can attain enlightenment more quickly, and the supposed perpetrator is seen as an enlightened being who sees the long term benefit for the student even if we ordinary deluded folk don’t. It’s called crazy wisdom.  Add to that beliefs that one should not criticise one’s teacher (at the risk of going to Vajra hell, the Buddhist version of the worst hell), but rather see all his actions as pure and you get a situation ripe for abuse to flourish if power is misued.
There are reasons for these beliefs that work well within the system of Vajrayana Buddhism and they are not harmful in themselves; they are only a problem when the student does not understand the concepts correctly and the teacher abuses the trust his students place in him. Ordinary students are now becoming aware of this issue, but like me, they have not experienced any abuse themselves; their experience with their teacher is overwhelmingly positive, and he has brought enormous benefit to thousands of people. Because of that many simply can’t believe the shocking details when they hear them. Their challenge is to work out what, if anything, they will or can do about it, assuming a sufficient body of evidence manifests to give credence to the claims.
Though this style of ‘teaching’ (apparently hitting, punching, sexual coercion and emotional abuse) may have been acceptable in Tibet, which was a feudal society, it is simply not acceptable here in the West, as Police Commissioner of NSW Mick Fuller made clear.
Rennovations require deconstruction first
Breaking the cycle of silence is the first step to healing for all involved. His Holiness the Dalia Lama is very clear on the need for students to speak out when they see their teacher behaving unethically. You can read his guidance for students in this situation here.
If the outcome of speaking out is that a structure is demolished, then it can be rebuilt better, stronger and cleaner.
I challenge any organisation accused of abuse to end the cycle of silence by admitting there is a problem, and setting up structures that ensure that the abuse does not happen again, and if it does, to provide real support (not just lip service) and an exit strategy to help victims remove themselves from danger.

The Bottom Line

“In all ethnic groups and all classes of society, from the extremely disadvantaged to the most affluent, a veil of silence allows domestic violence to be tolerated. The result is that today abuse keeps on happening, over and over again. Silence is not golden. Women must speak out and receive the support they need to live in a safe environment. The media should draw attention to the issue to encourage communities to develop viable solutions. The bottom line: in our culture there should be zero tolerance of domestic abuse.”  – C. J. Grace

I guess I’m a humanitarian before all else.
I will not be silenced.
I will encourage others to speak up.
I will share anything that exposes abuse anywhere in any of its forms, because only through exposure will people be forced to confront it and make changes to ensure that it does not continue.
Silence is abuse’s greatest ally.
If you care for others, speak up.
Excerpted with permission from Silence Is a Black Pit of Despair by Tahlia Newland. To read the full article, which addresses abuse in religion as well as domestic violence, click on the link above.
Have you felt silenced or kept silence out of fear?  We would love to hear your thoughts in the comments. 

If you have felt harmed, silenced, or conflicted, the links on our resources page and the sangha care resources page may be of help.
More personal and private support for current and previous students of Rigpa can be found in the What Now? Facebook group. Please contact us via the contact page and ask for an invite. Include a link to your Facebook profile or the email address you use on Facebook.

3 Replies to “Breaking the Veil of Silence that Hides and Sustains Abuse”

  1. I do not think violence as a way of teaching (or anything else) should be tolerated in any country – Tibet included. We have all moved on. To say its cultural doesn’t cut it any more. I never forget seeing a panel of indigenous people saying all cultures are living and growing. The representative from New Zealand said ‘we don’t kill and eat people any more’ the Maoris are a living culture and have moved on. In the same way we would not be undermining any of the Buddhist teaching by excluding violence and sexual abuse – in fact excluding violence of any kind is supported by the First Noble Truth – do no harm.

    1. The First Noble Truth is not ‘do no harm’; the First Noble Truth (of the Buddha at least) is the truth of suffering, which seems rather apt here.

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