I’d never heard of the Sakyadhita International Association of Buddhist Women until Brisbane Buddhist Chaplain Jack Wicks contacted me last year and asked me to present a paper on the fallout from Sogyal’s abuse at the Sakyadhita conference 2019 in the Blue Mountains, Australia in June. I asked Damcho if she’d help out with the project and she said, ‘Yes.’ Getting the funds to pay the costs could have been a stumbling block, but 48 wonderful people contributed to our Go Fund Me Campaign to cover our conference fees and some of our costs. On Monday the 24th of June, Damcho, Jack and I delivered our paper to around 800 people.
The talk was very well received, the quality of the listening was interested and supportive. We had many people coming up and speaking to us afterwards to express how grateful they were that we were talking about the issue of abuse in Buddhism. They particularly appreciated Damcho speaking publicly of her experience.
For me it came at a great time because I’ve finished my book Fallout: Recovering from Abuse in Tibetan Buddhism, which speaks of my journey over the last couple of years, and this was like a very brief summary of the book’s subject matter. I felt lighter after the paper, as if I’d shed a load I’d been carrying.
Click here to listen to the audio.
As you can see, I met many wonderful people. It was truly wonderful to be in such a kind, supportive atmosphere. It made me realise that Buddhism is so much more than the few twisted teachers and communities.
What linked us all, these groups of nuns and lay women from all over Asia, Australia and even some from Europe and Israel, is our gender, and that relationship cut across sectarian boundaries. All were treated with respect. All equal. You could feel it in the atmosphere.
The talks were all printed into a booklet so I can read the ones I missed, but what struck me about the papers is the wealth of good works being done by Buddhist women, particularly in Asia, and the strong, inspiring woman behind them. The conference was very well organised, and a very special experience. How else would I ever make such friends? Some I intend to see again. Others will become Facebook friends.
Workshops were many and varied. I did two others on the abuse issue in order to network and so that our workshop could follow up on anything that came out of the others. The two nuns seated in the next photo delivered a paper before us on sexual abuse in nunneries in Bhutan and India, and the two talks together had quite an impact. It made it quite clear that abuse is a major issue in the religion, particularly for women, and particularly in Tibetan Buddhism, not just in the West, but also in the East where both nuns and monks are lax with their vows. Many apparently don’t even know what their vows are, whereas in other forms of Buddhism the monks and nuns recite their long list of vows at least once a month.
Strong inspiring women teachers
Thubten Chodreon, Tenzin Pamo, Joan Halifax, and Pema Khandro were the teachers I knew that were there. None of them had entourages, and all were all accessible. They ate with the rest of us, sat in the same seats, and it wasn’t hard to find a moment to speak with them. Many said to me that they felt that women teachers were the way forward for Buddhism. If you’re looking for a Buddhist teacher, I don’t think you’d go wrong with these women.
I spoke with Tenzin Palmo, and in our brief exchange, she embodied the genuine principle of the teacher in vajrayana, skilfully and spontaneously cutting through a habitual pattern of mine at the same time as setting me free. It heartened me that there are such teachers around. I also heard of a lineage of married monogamous Tibetan Lamas who didn’t screw around with their students. I found that hopeful. Not that I want another teacher – I don’t – but others do.
It was a full-on six days, and the topic of Sogyal’s abuse was the main topic of conversation for us because people naturally wanted to talk about it. That meant re-living it again to some extent, but Damcho took it in her stride. I found her strength and grace also an inspiration.
I passed a couple of old Rigpa friends who looked at me as if they’d smelled dog poo – despite me smiling and saying, ‘Oh how lovely to see you,’ to one I’d known quite well. I found that hurtful until, with the help of a friend, I realised that it wasn’t personal. My friend helped me to see that I was a symbol of a point of view they didn’t want to accept and accepting me would mean accepting my viewpoint to some degree, something they didn’t want to do. Oh well. That’s how it is.
I managed to thank Tenzin Palmo for her support, and I gave her a paperback copy of my book Fallout. We had a brief exchange where she basically told me I didn’t need a teacher anymore. Her words: ‘You’re an adult, you don’t need a mummy or a daddy to tell you what to do anymore.’ I might tell you the whole story sometime, but I was amused to realise that Sogyal would never have told that to any of his students! She, Thubten Chodron, Joan Halifax and Pema Khandro were all so accessible, none of this setting themselves apart business. I thought them models of how teachers should be with their students.
I didn’t manage to get to a dharma talk, though. This ex-Buddhist has had enough of that! I did plan to listen to Tenzin Palmo, but I had a migraine. Luckily, a wonderful woman took care of me by booking me a massage and providing stick-on heat packs for my shoulders. Her care, attending to my needs without being asked, was compassion in action, and I felt very nurtured.
To top off the experience, we had a fruitful outcome. The nun on the right in this photo, Ven. Dr. Karma Tashi Choedron pulled together a group of talented women who wanted to do something about the abuse in Buddhism issue, and from her networking came the Alliance for Buddhist Ethics. It’s purpose is to eliminate abuse from Buddhism. A big task, yes, but it’s a start. You’ll hear more about this as time passes, but for now you can show your support by signing up to the mailing list.
Here’s some video snippets from the conference including the announcement of the Alliance for Buddhist Ethics and some comments from Jack, Damcho and me.
Yes, I’m not a ‘Buddhist’ anymore in that I’m not aligned with any part of the religion (or any other) but I still care about the issue of abuse in Buddhism. I have great respect for the vajrayana, and I’d like to see it free from corruption, feudalism and the parts that aren’t actually Buddhism – like the idea that abuse is crazy wisdom and therefore okay. No, no, no, it is never okay, and it certainly isn’t what the Buddha taught – as Jack says at the end of our talk.
The next conference is in Malaysia in 2021, and I’m hoping to go. I’d like to submit a paper on self reflection for communities to help them locate cult behaviours and see that they’re damaging and un-Buddhist. This idea came from speaking to a FPMT nun who told me about the cultish behaviour in her group. How, I wondered, could someone raise the issue in such a community? A short guide to self-reflection could provide a starting point for such a conversation. But that’s for next time!
Here’s links to more elegant videos of the conference – with music.