The Sakyadhita Conference 2019: Inspiring, Challenging & Fruitful.

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.

Inspiring

The venue
The view
Our comfortable room.
The main room.
Women practitioners from all Buddhist countries.

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.

Tenzin Palmo

Challenging

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.

Fruitful

Damcho, Jack, Tenzin, Karma and me.

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.

Click here to sign up to the Alliance for Buddhist Ethics 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.

“THEY’RE A***HOLES” – MY FIRST VISIT TO LERAB LING

This is a guest post from someone who had an ‘enlightening’ experience at Lerab Ling. It’s anonymous, but none-the-less truthful. The author simply doesn’t want to open themselves up to abuse. This person’s experience shows the attitude at the core of the Rigpa organisation towards to issue of Sogyal’s abuse.

I wrote the following after visiting Lerab Ling last September. I chose not to publish it at that time as I wanted to give Rigpa the chance to “do the right thing” in responding to the report that had recently been published upholding the abuse allegations against Sogyal Rinpoche. I am sharing it now for two reasons. Firstly, nine months have gone by without Rigpa accepting the testimonies in the report as true. Secondly, via a third party I received a message that Vinciane Rycroft of the Rigpa “Vision Board” had requested I share what happened when I was there.  I have chosen to do this publicly rather than privately as I feel it would be more beneficial.

Lerab Ling open day

I decided to take a week out to travel from around Montpellier in France down to north-east Spain, where I was to go on a Salvador Dali-related pilgrimage. Through the wonders of Google I discovered that the Buddhist centre at Lerab Ling, in a lovely location near Montpellier, was having an open weekend at that time, where one could even stay overnight. Although I have some Buddhist friends, I had never been anywhere like that in my life, so I booked a night.

However, between booking and arriving I saw news in the press about the report of the independent investigation into the abuse allegations about Sogyal Rinpoche, which made pretty shocking reading. So I hoped that while I was there I might get some insights into how they were feeling about it.

When I arrived, they explained that there was an organised retreat going on (the nature of which no one would tell me) but that there were also private retreatants staying and said I was welcome to join them for a meditation class in the morning. Having never tried meditation, I immediately agreed.

A meditation class

After breakfast, I gathered with others outside the impressive temple. The class was in an upstairs room in the temple with a vista of the woods. A picture of the Dalai Lama was prominently displayed, as it was in the temple below (I saw no images of Sogyal Rinpoche there). I was pleased to be allowed to meditate from a chair as I’m not good cross-legged.

The class was led by Sinsi Ong, who, from his bio on the Lerab Ling website seems to be one of the regular meditation teachers. I recognised him from dinner the night before, where I had seen him engaged in lengthy and intense conversation with some retreatants, who seemed to be listening closely to him. 

I enjoyed the class and the meditation. Sinsi encouraged us to ask questions and whilst meditating I felt strongly that I would like to have a conversation with him. So afterwards I waited while he patiently and clearly explained to one of the private retreatants the difference between “self-cherishing” and simply being egotistical, which made me feel even more sure he was a good person to discuss my first meditation experience with.

Broaching the topic of abuse

We then spoke about that for a while and, since he seemed happy to talk, I broached the subject of what I had read in the press and asked him what he thought about it. He started by saying that “something had clearly gone wrong”, that people had been harmed and that they needed to look at how this had happened.

I recounted that the previous night I had been chatting to a German student who was on the main retreat, who called Sogyal Rinpoche “my teacher”. When I asked if he was still her teacher she had gone silent and blanked me. Sinsi explained that some people couldn’t accept it and were very closed: he tried to talk with them, but in the end he had to respect that where they were was different from where he was.

I asked him how he personally viewed Sogyal Rinpoche and he replied with a Japanese word, which he said meant “a riddle” – in terms of weighing up what he had done versus the benefit of his teachings. He told me they viewed it as an opportunity for learning.

He said that Sogyal was his teacher but had retired and was now on retreat. I asked if Sogyal was still his teacher, in the sense of receiving teachings. He didn’t reply. I tried asking more directly if Sogyal was still teaching in some way. He did not reply.

In terms of the meditation classes, he said, “People are begging us to continue with the classes. They say, “We know things have happened but please don’t stop.” That’s the reason that I stay and continue.”

Attitude towards those who broke the silence

Then came something I really hadn’t expected.

“Anyway,” he added with a shrug, “These people were arseholes.”

 “Who?” I asked, “The people who wrote the letter?”

“YES!! They were arseholes!”

I must admit, it was not a word or an attitude I had expected to come from the person who had been patiently and peacefully leading me through my first meditation a short time before. He went on to explain that everybody at Lerab Ling considered them to be problem people. He said that talking with them had made him feel shame because of the things they said and their wrong ideas.

“Even the monastics?” I asked.

 “YES!!”

I pointed out that to take up precepts as a nun or monk was a huge commitment, a bigger commitment, surely, than he himself had ever made. He replied that it had taken him years to see monastics as not being perfect. That was clearly not a problem any more.

I mentioned that many of the people he referred to were key helpers or leaders. He replied, “You can’t always get good people,” adding that you just have to put up with what you have.

In Tibet it’s normal for students to be hit

He stressed that all the letter writers had problems with learning Sogyal Rinpoche’s teachings and went on to discuss at length the fact that in Tibet it is normal for students to be hit and said that they need it. He told me how Tibetan teachers throw stones at students, but what they are doing is hitting their chakra points, like in their forehead, to open their minds. I replied that punching someone hard in the stomach, as had been described, is not anything beneficial. He answered, “There’s a chakra point in the stomach!” with great relish, as if it cleverly settled that argument.

I discussed a personal story about a teacher I liked very much in secondary school who, after 4 years, hit me. It didn’t help me at all, it just made me feel sorry for him, that he had lowered himself to doing that, and it made me lose my respect for him and my trust in him. Sinsi nodded but did not reply to this.

I argued that surely if this method of hitting people worked, then one should see results: an improvement, not just suffering. If a teacher hit somebody 10 times, without any beneficial effect then surely that wasn’t working? Is he supposed to hit them 20 times, 50 times? Sinsi did not answer.

So I said “One of the witnesses in the report was hit over 200 times: surely it was therefore not working?”

He replied, smiling, “I don’t know. I can’t say.” as if this was just a mystery of Buddhist wisdom.

Minimising the issue

Sinsi pointed out that Rigpa itself had commissioned the report – which was evidence of their good intentions. He kept talking about the witnesses in the report as “these 20 people” in a manner which implied that this was the total number of people who had ever had a problem with Sogyal Rinpoche, as opposed to the ones who had been brave enough to talk. I also found it interesting that he (or someone) had counted them.

More than once he stated that Sogyal Rinpoche had apologised, but I have not since come across anything that could be described as an apology – in the conventional sense of recognising what you did wrong and then saying sorry.

Culturally subjective ethics

Sinsi talked about the limitations of thinking in terms of “good or bad”, arguing that morality and ethics were culturally subjective and varied from one place to another. So, I asked if it would be OK for a teacher to kill someone.

His reply was to tell the story of “Captain Super Compassionate” – a previous incarnation of Buddha –  killing a man on his boat who he had realised would was going to kill all 500 passengers. Not only did he do good by saving their lives but he also prevented that man from going to hell as a result of committing murder. Captain Super Compassionate still suffered for doing it, but it was with good intention and he was taking the bad karma on himself – so it was a kind of compassionate self-sacrifice to kill the man. I tried to say that the same could be said of people who reluctantly fight in war to protect others, but he insisted it could not be applied because their intention was not pure.  (I failed to see why Captain Super Compassionate didn’t simply tie up or lock up the bad man, rather than killing him, but didn’t say this.)

So Sinsi’s reply to the question of whether it was OK for teachers to kill people was a story of justifiable homicide. When I pushed him further on the subject of ethics, his manner changed, as if realising he may have gone too far and he pointed out that Rigpa had now drawn up an ethical code and stressed, “There is no place for abuse at Lerab Ling.” This sounded like a rehearsed statement and flatly contradicted the opinions he had expressed just moments before.

He argued that Sogyal came from Tibet, so would naturally have the mindset from that culture. I pointed out that Sogyal had left Tibet as a child and had actually spent the vast majority of his life in the West, so surely he should understand Western culture very well. I cited that I had lived abroad for 7 years and soon learned the different cultural norms in terms of behaviour and did not have a big problem adapting. Sinsi did not reply to this.

I brought up the necessity of abiding by the laws in the countries where you are. I mentioned the answer Jesus gave, when asked about whether people should obey the invaders – the Romans – which was, “Render to Caesar what is Caesar’s and render to God what is God’s.”: meaning that whilst honouring your beliefs, you must also behave according to the law of the land. Sinsi seemed reluctant to agree with this.

Women enjoyed the sex

Instead, he began telling me that plenty of women really enjoyed having sex with Sogyal and were happy to do so. I replied that most rapists have also had conventional, consensual sexual relations. He visibly bristled at this.

“Let’s not go too far,” he said, “The report doesn’t say anything about rape.” I explained that I wasn’t referring to Sogyal Rinpoche, just making the general point that a person may have consensual sex and yet also be a rapist. He visibly reacted when I mentioned the word “rapist” again.

It comes down to karma

Referring to those who complained of being abused, Sinsi commented, “They were free to go any time they wanted. But they stayed. Why didn’t they go?” I asked him if he would simply go if there was something he didn’t like or if he would persevere. He said he would stay because of the benefit. So I suggested that the same thing might have happened to these people: despite being unhappy, they stayed in the hope that things would improve and/or because they didn’t want to throw everything away. It is a lot to walk away from after many years of commitment. He stressed again that they were free to go.

He summed up by saying that “It comes down to karma”. It was the karma of those people, he explained, what happened to them, either to do with something in this life or past ones.

Following his lead, I replied, “I see. So if that’s the case, then what is happening to you now and to everybody here is YOUR karma.” He sort of winced, whilst nodding. I went on, “And what has happened to Sogyal Rinpoche is HIS karma.”

He seemed reluctant to look at it like that but didn’t argue back. He told me that he had things to do and left.

NOTE: If anybody in Rigpa wishes to communicate with me about this, I can be reached via the person Vinciane Rycroft contacted about it.

How do you feel about this?

If you’d like a more private place to chat about your ongoing spiritual path after you’ve left an abusive community, you can join the Beyond the Temple Facebook group. This group is for people who don’t want to talk about abuse, but want to keep in touch and share their discoveries, inspiration and challenges as they move on with their lives.

If you want to talk about abuse, then Rigpa or ex-Rigpa students can join the secret What Now? groupApply via the contact form here, telling us about yourself and why you want to join the group. 

Students from other Vajrayana communities who need somewhere where they can talk about abuse and find survivor support can join the Survivors of Vajrayana Abuse and their Allies group.  

Note that you will not be added to these groups if you don’t answer the questions.

The Facebook page and You Tube Channel associated with this blog are called Living in Peace and Clarity. Click the relevant link on the side bar to ‘Like’ and ‘Subscribe’.

Tibetan Buddhist Tulku Privilege – a Cultural Clash

Conversations with people who have spent time in Tibetan society and been close to lamas have made me realise that, in general, Tibetan people accept unethical and even abusive conduct in their reincarnated masters (tulkus) without question or censure. But ‘tulku privilege‘, which essentially places tulkus above the law, conflicts with modern Western values where equality is the very basis of our democratic and legal system. Also the Tibetan injunctions against criticism and requirements for subjugation to one’s teacher are in direct opposition to Western values of freedom of speech and choice.

‘Human rights recognise the inherent value of each person, regardless of background, where we live, what we look like, what we think or what we believe. They are based on principles of dignity, equality and mutual respect, which are shared across cultures, religions and philosophies. They are about being treated fairly, treating others fairly and having the ability to make genuine choices in our daily lives.’ https://www.humanrights.gov.au/about/what-are-human-rights

Tulku privilege in action

In the West, sex between a student and teacher is considered unethical due to the power imbalance, and coercion into sex is considered sexual harassment at the least and sexual abuse at the worst. But Tulkus see nothing wrong with coercing women into sex through such things as threats of hell and promises of a fast path to enlightenment for the woman and/or her family members.

Sexual misconduct is very common amongst high level lamas,’ Dr Nida Chenagtsang Karmamudra: The Yoga of Bliss, Sexuality in Tibetan Medicine and Buddhism.

Tulkus are brought up believing that they are ‘holy’ and by right of that designation are not subject to the same ethical restrictions as normal beings. They grow up in a religious culture where coercing women into sex is the acceptable norm and under the tutelage of role models who take full advantage of tulku privilege. I expect this is why so few of them have made statements denouncing abuse perpetrated by other lamas.

‘Once you have completely and soberly surrendered, 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 Khyents, page 19, The Guru Drinks Bourbon?

In other words, after you’ve taken a vajrayana initiation with a teacher, that teacher can do what he wants to you and you can’t complain. In Tibetan Buddhist thinking, Tulkus have a free pass to treat people any way they wish because it’s all seen as ‘enlightened action.’

This attitude can be clearly seen in Lama Zopa’s response to Dagri Rinpoche’s inappropriate behaviour. He uses a lot of words to basically say that since Dagri Rinpoche is a ‘holy being’ anything he does is a ‘holy action’ and therefore not ordinary action which shouldn’t be held to the same standards as the actions of those who aren’t ‘holy.’  

Lama Zopa is so completely ignorant of how ridiculous his kind of thinking appears to the majority of Westerners—excluding those who swallow such beliefs without examination—that he doesn’t hide his views. This is a good thing, because it’s certainly time for some transparency on this.

Clearly Dagri Rinpoche didn’t take the FPMT code of conduct as having any relevance to him, and due to tulku privilege, I expect all tulkus will think the same way—Rigpa’s special category for Vajrayana and Dzogchen in their code of conduct certainly upholds that idea.

In the West, all are equal before the law. A crime is a crime, no matter who commits it. Cardinal George Pell, the Catholic equivalent of a very high lama was convicted for sexual abuse in Australia. Western law sees abuse by spiritual figures as crimes, not ‘holy actions.’ In fact, the very fact that the abuse was perpetrated by a spiritual figure makes it all the more abhorrent.

Not only is the idea of spiritual leaders being above the law not accepted in the West, as James R. Lewis explains in his book Cults in America, probably the most important characteristic of a dangerous cult is that ‘The organization is willing to place itself above the law.’ (See http://abuse.wikia.com/wiki/Cult_checklist )

If Tibetan Buddhism wants to be seen as a reputable religion in the West, instead of a religion comprised of dangerous cults, the lamas have to give up their tulku privileges. I’m not holding my breath waiting for that, though, but we could at least get some transparency around the issue. Westerners should be under no illusions about their Tibetan Buddhist teachers.

Celibacy? Nah. Even the monks do it.

One of the things that really shocked me on my journey of discovery of tulku privilege is that even the tulkus who are monks have sex, and they have it with multiple partners. One Western woman teacher of Tibetan Buddhism with decades of experience around lamas and their communities told me that sometimes tulku monks have sex with many women while looking for a wife, and once they’ve found their wife, they give up their robes. Why, I wonder, don’t they give up their robes before looking for a wife?

She also told me that having a wife does not necessarily stop them from continuing their multiple partners, and some do not give up their robes, even if they do have a wife. So they appear to be a monk, but they aren’t.

Another woman told me that she heard HHDL on two separate occasions saying that a monk could penetrate a woman without breaking his vow of celibacy so long as he didn’t ejaculate! I couldn’t find any scriptural authority on this, but the woman assures me that he shared this fact in Kalachakra teachings she attended.

The fact that ample numbers of Western women have appeared all too keen to have sex with a tulku, robed or not, hasn’t helped the lamas to recognise the reality of the situation—that in the West, as a spiritual teacher, they are expected to behave ethically in all areas. And having sex with a student is considered highly unethical for any teacher no matter whether the student wants it or not.

Teachings or a way to cover their asses?

‘Capitulation to the teacher’s wishes is [seen as] virtuous and defiance has dire consequences as does breaching the secrecy that typically surrounds such encounters.’ Holly Gayley (Department of Religious Studies, University of Colorado) ‘Revisiting the “Secret Consort” (gsang yum) in Tibetan Buddhism.’

The biography of Lingza Chökyi, Travels in the Nether-worlds, includes the story in of a 16th Century women who refused to be the ‘secret consort’ of ‘a master of esoteric teachings’ and complained about his inappropriate conduct. In the story, ‘Yama declares, “It is a greater sin to denigrate and slander lamas and teachers than it is to murder a thousand living beings,” and condemns her to suffer the torments of the hell realms.’ Lama Zopa’s response mentioned above is really just a more subtle way of saying the same thing.

Teachings that do nothing more than maintain the power of the lamas should be thoroughly questioned, not simply accepted as an integral part of the Buddhist teachings. Some lama some time made up the teachings on how to follow a teacher, but did they do it for the sake of the students or to provide themselves with slaves for their own gratification? Given the abuse enabled by these teachings, the latter purpose seems most likely.

And yet these teachings are now seen as integral to the religion. But are they? Really? Isn’t some openness and respect towards a lama enough? Why accept behaviour from our Tibetan Buddhist teachers that we would not accept in any other area of our life?

A huge cultural clash

Western culture has taken a very long time to develop the idea of equal rights for all human beings. Are we going to throw all that away because Tibetan Buddhist teachers expect us to play the serfs in a system that places them in the role of a feudal lord? Didn’t we get rid of that way of thinking back in the time of the French Revolution? Wouldn’t accepting Tulku privilege be a huge step backward for is both individually and collectively? And how does giving up our right to recognise abuse as abuse contribute to our spiritual development, anyway?

Tibetan Buddhism has a lot of offer, but tulku privilege is not something we should import along with the teachings.

A call for transparency

On the issue of unethical conduct, I’ve seen no willingness in tulkus to move an inch from their exalted position where they feel they can ignore ethical guidelines with impunity. Since they appear unwilling to even consider that their beliefs in this area may be needing some revision, then they should at least do us the decency of being transparent about their behaviour.

Isn’t it high time that a lama sat down with a panel of Western students and answered a few core questions such as:

  • Is there any behaviour that would be considered unethical for a tulku?
  • Are tulkus who wear monks’ robes celibate? If so, what does celibacy actually mean for a tulku? Does it mean no sexual contact as it does in the West?
  • The teachings on How to Follow a Teacher in The Words of my Perfect Teacher benefit lamas by providing them with compliant slaves, how do such teachings benefit the students?
  • Do tulkus think that having sex with a woman is beneficial for the woman regardless of whether the woman wanted it or not?
  • Do tulkus see anything wrong with threatening a woman or promising her something in order to get her to have sex with them?
  • Tibetan Buddhist values and Western ethical values clash where tulkus are not held to the same standards as the rest of society, why shouldn’t tulkus behave in accord with Western ethics if they want to teach in the West?

What questions would you like to ask to bring some transparency to the issue of tulku privilege?

For further perspectives on this see the article Why I Quit Guru Yoga by Stephen Batchelor.

Image by lanur from Pixabay

Does Dagri Rinpoche’s Response to Attestations of Inappropriate Conduct Embody Lojong? Where is the Compassion?

Post by Joanne Clark

Recently, Dagri Rinpoche, a monk who has been accused of inappropriately touching women on at least two occasions wrote a statement in defence of himself. Here is the English translation:

In this statement, his own version of events is very different from the version of the two women making the allegations. He is stating that the women are lying, that they have no basis whatsoever for their allegations and are making them up out of thin air. He also suggests that the woman who made the allegation in the UTube video was mentally unstable.

Then in the final paragraph, after making an assumption about the “contempt” of those who have “made these baseless allegations and have accused me of misdeeds that I did not commit”: he then declares some Lojong-style (See footnote on Eight Verses, below) statements in regard to these accusations, saying somewhat proudly that “I welcome you to use whatever means you can to continue to wrongly accuse me”.

Sadly, I feel that the tone of this declaration feels a little confrontational to me. I don’t think one can practice Lojong at the same time that one is publicly accusing someone of lying. The declaration feels a little proud too while Lojong is a unique practice of humility. Now, I am no great practitioner or scholar of Dharma, but I do treasure Lojong teachings and have used them frequently to help me through troubled times. It strengthens my resolve, compassion and patience to take on the ill will and harm done to me by others, to take all suffering and blame onto myself—and to put all victory onto others. It is really a miraculous and transformative practice in my experience.

So I agree with Dagri Rinpoche about the value of cultivating gratitude towards harm-doers for their gift of giving us the practice of patience. But I question whether one can view the two women in this case as “harm-doers”. And Lojong is a very private practice in reality and I wonder about the worth of declaring this gratitude publicly. So I question his purpose in doing that now.

And there’s another problem with this, the bigger problem. At least one of the women who have made allegations regarding Dagri Rinpoche’s misconduct has spoken about the many years of suffering she has undergone as a result of his actions. She claims that her spiritual path has been ruined. Watching her on UTube, it is clear that she is in distress and a natural response to her would be some compassion. However, there is no mention throughout his letter about that, about her clear suffering, no compassion expressed.

The only reference to suffering Dagri Rinpoche makes is to the suffering of bad karma experienced by those who make false allegations and hold “contempt” for him. The only compassion he expresses is for those who are behaving wrongly. Now again, I am no scholar or great practitioner, but the essence of Lojong in my experience is compassionate humility, a special kind of strong humility that is hard to explain to those who have not experienced it. It is not about beating one’s chest and declaring oneself a practitioner, nor is it self-debasing, but it does increase self-confidence, quiet self-confidence. And it increases one’s capacity to deeply feel the suffering of others. Sadly, I see no evidence of that in his statement.

Here is a suggestion I have for how Dagri Rinpoche might have demonstrated that he was practicing Lojong, without once needing to even quote from the Lojong instructions. He could have said:

“I have always said that I am full of flaws and I deeply regret the harm that I have caused these women who have made allegations against me. I take full responsibility and blame for their suffering and will do anything in my power to help them find peace and to insure that I never harm any being in this way again.”

It is said that the essence of Lojong is to take all blame and defeat onto oneself and to give all praise and victory to others. If so, isn’t it better to do this than to say you’re doing it? Wouldn’t that statement above be more in line with the practice than repeatedly accusing those who have made allegations regarding his behaviours of lying?

Also, there have been statements from teachers both within the FPMT and within Rigpa that we should see our teachers as Buddhas and their “supposed” faulty actions as simply “manifestations” to help us on the path. They say this in response to our distress over seeing teachers abuse students. However, I suggest that a Buddha manifesting such flaws that cause harm to others would necessarily follow up with manifestations of how we can honestly own our flaws and take proper steps to end the suffering. Surely that would be the least a skilful Buddha would do?

Many of us were drawn to the Dharma because of its unique, profound and vast teachings on how to cultivate love and compassion. The Lojong teachings are a great example of that. Every time I see a teacher within this tradition using the teachings in order to turn coldly away from a suffering human being, it chills me to the bone. I continue to pray that someday the unique and transformative teachings preserved within the Tibetan Buddhist tradition will be used properly to honestly and courageously address these challenging situations and to alleviate the suffering caused from them. It is time to stop using these teachings improperly in order to pile harm on top of harm.

Here is an example of a Lojong Text, treasured particularly in the Gelug tradition:

With a determination to achieve the highest aim
For the benefit of all sentient beings
Which surpasses even the wish-fulfilling gem,
May I hold them dear at all times.


Whenever I interact with someone,
May I view myself as the lowest amongst all,
And, from the very depths of my heart,
Respectfully hold others as superior.


In all my deeds may I probe into my mind,
And as soon as mental and emotional afflictions arise-
As they endanger myself and others-
May I strongly confront them and avert them
.

When I see beings of unpleasant character
Oppressed by strong negativity and suffering,
May I hold them dear-for they are rare to find-
As if I have discovered a jewel treasure!


When others, out of jealousy
Treat me wrongly with abuse, slander, and scorn,
May I take upon myself the defeat
And offer to others the victory.


When someone whom I have helped,
Or in whom I have placed great hopes,
Mistreats me in extremely hurtful ways,
May I regard him still as my precious teacher.


In brief, may I offer benefit and joy
To all my mothers, both directly and indirectly,
May I quietly take upon myself
All hurts and pains of my mothers.


May all this remain undefiled
By the stains of the eight mundane concerns;
And may I, recognizing all things as illusion,
Devoid of clinging, be released from bondage.


The Eight Verses of Mind Training

How do you feel about this response?

Image by omer yousief from Pixabay

Rigpa’s Vision is Still Missing the Vital Point

The new Rigpa statement “Rigpa’s Vision” put out by the Rigpa Vision Board contains the following statement:

It is also clear that the Rigpa leadership has made mistakes that we need to learn from. This includes not hearing, supporting or guiding some of our students appropriately. We are truly sorry for the hurt this has caused, and feel a strong commitment to making deep changes and ensuring that we do not repeat these mistakes again under any circumstances.

Is this an apology for their cover up of abuse and gaslighting of members?

This is not an apology to those who were abused during their time in Rigpa or even to the general student as regards their breach of trust. What they’re apologising for is not enabling and covering up abuse, but their ‘mistakes’ in not ‘hearing, supporting or guiding some of our students appropriately ‘. In the usual Rigpa style, this merely diverts attention away from the main issue – abuse and its cover up.

On top of this, they say they’re sorry for ‘the hurt this has caused’ instead ofthe harm we have caused‘. Their use of ‘this has’ instead of ‘we have’ indicates a lack of willingness to accept that they through their ‘mistakes’ have actually caused harm. And by using the word ‘hurt’ instead of ‘harm’ they are once again diminishing actual harm to a mere feeling that people have felt ‘hurt’.

Their list of ‘mistakes’ for which they are ‘truly sorry’ leaves out essential issues: covering up and enabling physical, emotional, sexual and financial abuse, truth-teller shaming, and manipulation of the community’s perception (gaslighting). Instead they are sorry that they didn’t hear and support students, which sounds great, but what do they actually mean by ‘supporting or guiding some of our students appropriately’?

What is meant by ‘guiding appropriately’?

What would this mean if a young woman was ordered to undress and perform a sex act. How exactly would Rigpa hear, support and guide her?

‘Guided’ is an extremely dangerous choice of words. Given the Rigpa world-view, the only direction they could’ve conceivably guided anyone they or Sogyal harmed was either toward accepting their lama’s abuse as a teaching or to let someone know they ‘weren’t ready’, which would have been a not-so-subtle punch in the belly of their spiritual aspirations.

Then there is the guidance of the group as a whole. And there was plenty of it. Indoctrination is a better word for it. Why else would all of us have sat there in the teachings while a very large percentage of it was given over to berating people for the smallest errors? Why else did we hear nervous testimonies from his harem, feel nauseous, wish it was over, and still continue on? Why else did many people come away from these teachings talking about how inspiring they were? They fucked with our heads, to be sure. And that was their ‘guidance’.

What Now? group member

What constitues ‘adequate preparation’

The statement goes on to say;

In addition to setting clear boundaries, we have learned the importance of emphasizing that the decision to practise Vajrayana or Dzogchen with the guidance of a teacher is a personal choice. It is not a condition for being part of the Rigpa community. What is more, it has become clear that it is the responsibility of the teacher to adequately prepare the student for the Vajarayana path. This is something that the student must consciously decide to embark upon through proper preparation and a formal request.

Is, for example, being ordered to undress and perform a sex act part of the Vajrayana path in Rigpa? And if it is, what does Rigpa think is an adequate preparation?

We permit guides to take people into the “death zone” on Everest, where roughly 10% of them will die. Navy SEALs train past the point of safety. But they are fully aware of the risks. They know the ways the task will damage them.

In terms of Rigpa, ‘adequate preparation’ would first be to inform the student of exactly what they mean by ‘the vajrayana path’ in terms of the student’s relationship with their teacher, including how to test the qualifications of such a teacher. It would involve – before committing to such a relationship – observing the relationship students in the inner circle have with their teacher and hearing about what embarking upon the vajrayana path would mean for them in terms of Sogyal’s behaviour . What they are commiting to must be completely transparent, which means that the very worst of it should be clear. There should also be proof that can be examined for what the “result” will be.

Think about the preparation people do before they get married, how well they know their partner.  Preparation would also involve knowing that the relationship is not exclusive, on either side, and knowing how to call it quits – how to leave without threat or coercion. And does the Rigpa belief system even permit leaving without risking hell? Will instructors tell potential vajrayana students that once they’ve made their ‘formal request’, they aren’t even allowed to interpret the kinds of behaviour attributed to Sogyal as abuse?

All these aspects need to be made clear.

What isn’t being made explicit

But Rigpa is not making their attitude towards abuse in vajrayana clear. What they aren’t saying, but what is suggested by their whole approach to the matter of Sogyal’s behaviour is that they think that abuse is an acceptable part of vajrayana, so long as people are ‘prepared’ and have given ‘consent’.

It’s DZK’s approach; it’s reflected in the problematic area of the code of conduct, and is made explicit in the teachings on How to Follow a Teacher in The Words of My Perfect Teacher which is a core text of the Rigpa sangha.

Dzongsar Khyentse (DZK), a key spiritual advisor for Rigpa, said in his first statement on the matter of Sogyal’s abuse:

‘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.’’

Dzongsar Khyentse, Rigpa spiritual advisor.

People tell me that DZK has said that because Sogyal isn’t a qualified teacher and the students weren’t properly prepared, then what Sogyal did was wrong, but DZK has never said that it also would’ve been wrong if he had been a qualified teacher and the victims were ‘prepared’. He never said that such behaviour is not an acceptable part of vajrayana, and neither has the Rigpa Vision Board. On the contrary, DZK has made it very clear that he thinks abuse is quite acceptable in the context of a qualified vajrayana guru:

‘Once you have completely and soberly surrendered, 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, p 19,The Guru Drinks Bourbon?

Is abuse really acceptable in vajrayana?

It appears that Rigpa and their advisors do consider abuse acceptable by vajrayana teachers. Thankfully, other Tibetan Buddhist teachers disagree.

The practice of tantra is never an excuse for unethical behaviour.’

His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama

Few have been willing to publically state a stance that indicates that they agree with HHDL. Those who have are listed on our Which Lamas are Trustworthy? page.

Physical, sexual, and psychological abuse are not teaching tools.’

Mingyur Rinpoche, When a Buddhist Teacher Crosses the Line

Tenzin Palmo recently wrote an endorsement for my book Fallout: Recovering from Abuse in Tibetan Buddhism, (coming out in July). In speaking of the ‘appalling behaviour and the subsequent efforts, by those who seek to maintain their power and control, to condone such conduct and meanwhile denigrate the victims,’ she says:

In this feudal outlook, both physical violence and sexual predatory behaviour towards dependents are viewed as acceptable. … This is a complete distortion of the impeccable Vajrayana path and creates much confusion, disenchantment and pain.

Jetsumna Tenzin Palmo

The vital point

Until Rigpa actually denounces Sogyal’s abusive behaviour and says that such behaviour has no place in vajrayana, they cannot be considered a ‘safe’ organisation relgardless of their code of conduct. Any organisation that, even if only at ‘advanced’ levels of engagement, gives a teacher absolute authority to do what he wants – especially if abuse is supported by their belief system – requires absolute obedience and gives the student no right to question is a potentially harmful cult. Rigpa may not demand these things at an entrance level, but they’re still there at the core of the organisation in the area they consider the most profound and important. Shambala is the same.

Making the vajrayana distinct from other levels of the path is a good move for clarity in the curriculum, but it’s also a way to encourage new membership by making people think they’re safe at the introductory levels. The trouble with this approach, however, is that if they don’t reveal to beginners what will be expected of them at a later level of engagement with the organisation, then they’re being deceptive, which is a method of cult induction.

How cult induction works in Rigpa

Once people enter the Rigpa organisation, if they follow the Rigpa path, which – even if the community recognises that not everyone has to take that path to be part of Rigpa – holds vajrayana and dzogchen as the ultimate teachings, that’s where people will likely end up, simply because that’s where the path leads.

In Rigpa, recognition of the nature of one’s mind is considered the answer to all our problems, the one thing that will lead us quickly to enligtenment. That message comes through all levels of the Rigpa curriculum. And according to Rigpa, you can only get that by having an introduction by a qualified vajrayana/dzogchen teacher. To get that, you have to sign up for the vajrayana/dzogchen ‘level of spiritual instruction.’ It’s supposed to be the fastest and highest path – and who doesn’t want that?

By the time students get to the point of giving their ‘consent’, they’ll be so indoctrinated with ideas of the validity and supremacy of that path, that they’ll take that step with all the same trust that we did and will be subjected to the same beliefs that kept students in an abusive relationship.

And then there’s the book which proclaims the same ideas – the importance of getting the introduction to the nature of mind and the necessity of complete devotion to a teacher in order to get it. The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying is what sent me off in search of dzogchen. I couldn’t get there fast enough! If Rigpa doesn’t want the TBLD to be considered a cult induction manual, then they need to be totally transparent, not just with those wanting to enter the vajrayana path but also with those entering their basic courses. They need to tell them where the path is leading and what will be expected of them at that point. Will they do that?

The bottom line

This latest statement makes it clear, once again, that Rigpa leadership apparently do not see what has occurred as abuse but as some sort of misunderstanding or failure to prepare students for the kinds of behaviors they deem appropriate in vajrayana – like hitting, slapping, knocking people unconscious, and sexual coercion.

Would you enter Rigpa or Shambala or any other organisation if you knew that at the ‘highest’ levels of their spiritual belief system, you’d be asked you to consent to an agreement that meant that the teacher could abuse you if he or she felt like it, and that you would not be able to complain or disobey? Does this coincide with what you know of the Buddha’s core teachings and values? What about common sense?

(The image of a path into darkness is by Lutz Peter from Pixabay)

You might also be interested to know that Patrick Gaffney has been disqualified by the UK Charity commission from acting as a trustee of any charity for a period of 8 years.


If you’d like a more private place to chat about your ongoing spiritual path after you’ve left an abusive community, you can join the Beyond the Temple Facebook group. This group is for people who don’t want to talk about abuse, but want to keep in touch and share their discoveries, inspiration and challenges as they move on with their lives.

If you want to talk about abuse, then Rigpa or ex-Rigpa students can join the secret What Now? groupApply via the contact form here, telling us about yourself and why you want to join the group. 

Students from other Vajrayana communities who need somewhere where they can talk about abuse and find survivor support can join the Survivors of Vajrayana Abuse and their Allies group.  

Note that you will not be added to these groups if you don’t answer the questions.

The Facebook page and You Tube Channel associated with this blog are called Living in Peace and Clarity. Click the relevant link on the side bar to ‘Like’ and ‘Subscribe’.

Time to Move On? Or not?

The idea of moving on as an indication of healing from a distressing situation can be applied to both individuals and to organisations. In this post I look first at how Rigpa is using the idea of Rigpa Moving Forward, and then at how a narrow view of the concept of moving on can be counterproductive to our personal healing.

Rigpa Moving Forward

Rigpa has a web page called Rigpa Moving Forward on which they list all the things they’ve done and plan to do following The Lewis Silken Independent Report on the allegations made in the July 2017 letter by the eight Rigpa students. Though it reads if all the right things are being done – and their transparancy is admirable – if they follow the pattern they’ve established so far in dealing with the abuse issues, the results are likely to fall short of their assurances, as they did with the Rigpa Code of Conduct, and what Rigpa are referring to as ‘apologies’.

What we see in their communications to the sangha is a desire to move on as soon as possible from a situation where the embarrasing issue of abuse in Rigpa is in the public spotlight. They want everyone to forget about it and get back to business, but isn’t it a bit premature to be pushing for moving on when the issues at the core of the problem haven’t been solved? Everything they have done, which they proudly list on the Moving Forward webpage, have been the equivilent of putting a Band Aid on a cancer.

Band Aid on a cancer

Why is it like a Band Aid on a cancer? Because their spiritual advisors apparently believe, as Sogyal did, that once a student has taken a lama as their tantric guru, they cannot criticise, must obey him or her without question, see their teacher as a living Buddha, and see his or her every action as the beneifical actions of a Buddha no matter what they do. These are the very same beliefs that created the Rigpa culture that enabled the abuse, and no matter what a code of conduct says and no matter how good they get at listening to their acolytes, while they still cling to these beliefs, nothing fundamental has changed. And just as cancer ignored will only fester, an organisation that makes only surface changes when the cause of the issue runs deep will never be truly healthy.

Ripe for reoccurance

It’s a situation ripe for reoccurance of abuse, even with a lama who has signed their code of conduct. How can that be? Because the code, though it sounds good on the surface, uses vague terminology open to different interpretations and does not catagorically rule out sexual relations between teachers and students other than during an actual teaching event. It does not rule out grooming a student during an event for a sexual relationship after the event nor does it define what kinds of actions constitute harm.

And the section of the Rigpa Shared Values & Guidelines document titled ‘Entering the Vajrayana Path’ says that when students make ‘a formal request for this level of spiritual guidance’ that constitutes ‘consent to this level of spiritual guidance.’ Given the beliefs mentioned above that are still in play about ‘this level of spiritual guidance’, that consent could mean consent to what some would call crazy wisdom and what others would call abuse.

Moving forward or putting on a good front?

The Moving Forward page is a handy resource for Rigpa management and instructors since they can point to it to assure anyone who raises the issue of Sogyal’s abuse that it’s all being taken care of. But is it?

The page says, ‘The teams managing Rigpa internationally and nationally, including the Vision Board, have been reflecting on the culture that enabled this situation to take place, and continue to do so. Workshops specifically addressing this topic will continue to take place in the coming months.’ This sounds wonderful –
as I pointed out above, getting to the root of the problem is exactly what they should be doing – however, sources inside Rigpa have told me that they have heard nothing about such workshops. But even if they do actually work out what beliefs enabled the abusive culture, will they be prepared to actually go against their advisors views and change them?

Given all this, isn’t the idea of Rigpa truly moving on from an abuse enabling culture at the vajryana level at the worst impossible and at the best premature?

When moving on is counterproductive

A popular idea is that healing from any distressing situation requires one to ‘move on’. Though some kind of alteration of one’s relationship to a distressing situation needs to occur for us to heal, the idea of the necessity of moving on as soon as possible can be misused. It can be a way of saying, ‘Shut up I don’t want to hear about it any more,’ or ‘the problem is solved, everything is now okay,’ even when it isn’t.

In the following video I talk about the importance of not moving on prematurely and not having a narrow view of what is meant by ‘moving on’. The ‘issue’ I refer to here is, of course, that of abuse in Tibetan Buddhism

Do you feel that you have ‘moved on’? In what way? And what does ‘moving on’ look like for you? Let’s talk about this in the comments.


If you’d like a more private place to chat about your ongoing spiritual path after you’ve left an abusive community, you can join the Beyond the Temple Facebook group. This group is for people who don’t want to talk about abuse, but want to keep in touch and share their discoveries, inspiration and challenges as they move on with their lives.

If you want to talk about abuse, then Rigpa or ex-Rigpa students can join the secret What Now? groupApply via the contact form here, telling us about yourself and why you want to join the group. 

Students from other Vajrayana communities who need somewhere where they can talk about abuse and find survivor support can join the Survivors of Vajrayana Abuse and their Allies group.  

Note that you will not be added to these groups if you don’t answer the questions.

The Facebook page and You Tube Channel associated with this blog are called Living in Peace and Clarity. Click the relevant link on the side bar to ‘Like’ and ‘Subscribe’.

Image by Stafford GREEN from Pixabay

Compassionate Anger and Why it Must Continue

This post is inspired by a blog post on compassionate anger by Sandra Pawla of the How Did it Happen? Blog and a recent post by Tenzin Peljor of the Buddhism Controversy blog

The power of compassionate anger

As Sandra notes in her recent article ‘Get Angry! The Dalai Lama on Compassionate Anger’, the Dalai Lama has spoken about compassionate anger in his books Be Angry and Beyond Religion, Ethics for the Whole World. The quotes she shares in her article are so wonderfully sane and bring much-needed common sense into a Buddhist worldview that usually simply declares anger bad. Thank you, Sandra for writing that helful article. (For a detailed look at the difference between negative and positive anger read the whole article and feel free to discuss it in the comments here.)

“There are two types of anger.  One type arises out of compassion; that kind of anger is useful.  Anger that is motivated by compassion or a desire to correct social injustice, and does not seek to harm the other person, is a good anger that is worth having.’

His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama

In assertiveness training, you learn how to recognise when a situation calls for a strong, clear response, and you learn to do that without getting angry. This, like compassionate anger, is using the pure energy of the anger – mirror-like wisdom – to drive your actions rather than getting caught in the destructive/unenlightened side of anger. Assertiveness can look angry to others, but no one other than the person being assertive can know whether they are consumed by anger or driven by the energy inherent in it. Dismissing people as ‘just angry’ is a particularly Buddhist and new age way of discrediting people that speak up about injustice, but those who continue year after year are more likely to be driven by compassionate anger – the other kind is far too exhausting to maintain.

His Holiness also makes it clear that it’s not enough to sit in our caves and meditate, rather that, ‘ When faced with economic or any other kind of injustice, it is totally wrong for a religious person to remain indifferent.  Religious people must struggle to solve these problems.’

When I learned what had happened to people in my sangha, I felt angry, but it was anger infused with a desire to protect the victims, support them in their healing and help make sure it would never happen again.

“To be angry on behalf of those who are treated unjustly means that we have compassionate anger.  This type of anger leads to right action, and leads to social change. To be angry toward the people in power does not create change.  It creates more anger, more resentment, more fighting.”

His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama

Compassionate anger and the bodhisattva vow

In the early days after the letter by the eight Rigpa students detailing Sogyal’s abuse came out, someone asked me why I was breaking my samaya and making myself a target by speaking publically ‘against’ my lama, and I told her that, as I saw it, such action was part of my bodhisattva vow. His Holiness agrees, and it’s wonderful to find a lama that understands this.

If one is treated unfairly and if the situation is left unaddressed, it may have extremely negative consequences for the perpetrator of the crime. Such a situation calls for a strong counteraction. Under such circumstances, it is possible that one can, out of compassion for the perpetrator of the crime—and without generating anger and hatred—actually take a strong stand and strong countermeasures. In fact, one of the precepts of the bodhisattva vows is to take strong countermeasures when the situation calls for it. If a bodhisattva doesn’t take strong countermeasures when the situation requires, then that constitutes an infraction of one of the vows.’

His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama

And in this situation, it goes far beyond Rigpa or Shambala. I continue to speak on these matters because of my concern for Tibetan Buddhism. If the lamas don’t address the issue of abuse in Tibetan Buddhism is will, and already is having extremely negative consequences for all the lamas and their sanghas. They are all tainted by association and, for most of them, by not speaking out against abuse.

Why we must continue our vigilance

‘Anger toward social injustice will remain until the goal is achieved.  It has to remain. ‘

His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama

Tenpel had given up writing for his blog, but something happened that inspired him to write again, and it reminds me of why we cannot stop our endeavours until our goal is achieved – which I assume is the same for all of us, to protect people from cults and abusive lamas and to remove abuse and the potential for abuse from Tibetan Buddhism. If we let things pass, we are allowing the situation to continue unabated, and instituting code of conducts doesn’t achieve this aim. Only examining and changing the abuse-enabling beliefs will do that.

In an article called ‘Buddhism is not a Cure for Mental Health Problems – or is it?’ Tenpel raises the issue that even after an abusive guru has been exposed and some response made, the cults of abusive gurus continue to exist and continue to draw in unsuspecting people.

The abuse scandals become history. They fade from the news and people who know nothing about them or don’t care because it was in the past and they believe the organisation has changed, go to the cult’s classes and are drawn in in the same way that all cults draw in their members. No one sets out to join a cult, but these organisations don’t look like a cult. On the outside they are glossy and sweet, and they do offer something of valuable – meditation . People’s first experiences with them are wonderful, and before they know it they have been subtley brainwashed into a belief system that eventually makes them slaves to the guru or gurus the cult follows.

Tenzin talks about an article in The Atlantic called “Why So Many Americans Are Turning to Buddhism] where the author goes to one of these cults and writes about her wonderful experience with no knowledge that her writing is promoting a dangerous cult. Tenzin says:

‘I want to highlight some of the dangers. I want to highlight a group which has such a toxic setting, that your mental health might very likely be harmed in the long run if you join this group. The group is the New Kadampa Tradition (NKT) – or more precisely, the “Kadampa Buddhism” movement. Yes, the group whose two meditation classes and the good experiences the author had joining these classes formed the beginning and end of The Atlantic article. ‘

So it’s important to keep organisations like Shambala, NKT and Rigpa in the spotlight so people know to stay away, because at the very least they’ll be supporting an organisation that fosters abuse-enabling beliefs, and at the worst, they run the risk of not only being abused themselves but also of accepting the abuse without complaint.

And so the compassionate anger remains and appears as action (such as Tenzin writing this blog post) when circumstances require it, and I hope it will continue until people are safe from dangerous TB groups and their gurus.

(Do read and watch the videos onTenzin’s blog post.)


If you’d like a more private place to chat about your ongoing spiritual path after you’ve left an abusive community, you can join the Beyond the Temple Facebook group. This group is for people who don’t want to talk about abuse, but want to keep in touch and share their discoveries, inspiration and challenges as they move on with their lives.

If you want to talk about abuse, then Rigpa or ex-Rigpa students can join the secret What Now? groupApply via the contact form here, telling us about yourself and why you want to join the group. 

Students from other Vajrayana communities who need somewhere where they can talk about abuse and find survivor support can join the Survivors of Vajrayana Abuse and their Allies group.  

Note that you will not be added to these groups if you don’t answer the questions.

The Facebook page and You Tube Channel associated with this blog are called Living in Peace and Clarity. Click the relevant link on the side bar to ‘Like’ and ‘Subscribe’.

Does Tibetan Buddhism Condone Abuse?

Does Tibetan Buddhism condone abuse? Let’s look at the information we have on this.

The crazy wisdom tradition

A favourite story of all teachers in the religion is that of Marpa and his student Milarepa. Milarepa had a lot of bad karma so in order to purify his karma, Marpa made him built towers of rock and then pull them down and build another. I think he built and demolished seven towers. Apparently this purified his negative karma and eventually he became enlightened, and a favourite saint of the Tibetan people. Marpa also beat him and this is seen as an acceptable teaching method for Milarepa because apparently he had great potential. Marpa is seen as a great master. However, Marpa also beat his wife and she didn’t become enlightened.

There are other stories of masters throwing stones and hitting students with sandals – shared by Sogyal in The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying – and these stories are told to show that unconventional teaching methods can wake students up if those students are ‘ready’ for some realisation and the teacher is a great master who knows that the student needs this.

Whether or not you believe there is some value to this kind of idea, and whether or not you believe teachers use the idea as an excuse to do what they want, it is a fact that this kind of behaviour is part of the tradition.

Sogyal certainly thought he was a crazy wisdom master and so do those students who are still devoted to him. In this video he tries to justify his actions to a student hes just hit. If you think this does actually justify it, then I’d say you’ve been brainwashed. The idea that hitting someone brings that person closer to their attacker is nonsense! And why would you want to be close to someone who hits people?

(If the You Tube video has been removed, the file is attached below.)

Of course, some lamas recognise that abusive behaviour isn’t crazy wisdom.

‘Unfortunately the term “Crazy Wisdom” has now become so popularised that people will use it to explain any kind of bad behaviour by gurus, as if “Crazy Wisdom” is some special Tibetan cultural practice which allows a Vajrayana guru to ignore all laws and vows, all of the Buddha’s teachings on ethical behaviour, and any consequences for their actions! …  The time for the misuse of “Crazy Wisdom” is over. “Crazy Wisdom” is not an excuse for breaking vows or for bad behaviour.’


Dr Nida Chenagtsang, Karmamudra:The Yoga of Bliss, Sexuality in Tibetan Medicine and Buddhism

A lineage of abuse

 ‘The people of Katok experienced Khyentse Chokyi Lodro’s arrival as something of a tsunami. They said he was like an “invading force” (they used the same Tibetan word to describe the advance of the Communist Chinese) because his sovereignty over them was absolute and indisputable. Monks were punished ten at a time. When a flogging was called for, Rinpoche insisted in four or five hundred lashes, never a mere hundred, and he always watched from the window of his residence as the punishment was meted out.’ The Life and Times of Jamyang Khyentse Chökyi Lodrö: The Great Biography by Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche and Other Stories. Dilgo Khyentse and others, Shambhala (July 25, 2017)

This is the man Sogyal talks about in the TBLD as a great master and saint.

During a talk at the Paris centre, Orgyen Tobgyal Rinpoche said about spiritual teachers, ‘Such great beings, whether it corresponds to western ideas or not, if they kill someone, it’s fine,’ and, ‘Beating hard increases wisdom.’

Abuse is widespread in Tibetan Buddhist monasteries. The young Kalu Rinpoche on You Tube talks about being gang raped in a video titled Confessions of Kalu Rinpoche. I saw a video of a monk beating a young monk—badly—and a friend told me of nuns she had spoken to in India who were regularly raped by the local monks, monastics who apparently have no concern over breaking their vows.

Sexual misconduct is very common amongst high level lamas.’

Dr Nida Chenagtsang, Karmamudra:The Yoga of Bliss, Sexuality in Tibetan Medicine and Buddhism

Teachings on how to follow a teacher.

Rigpa students chant the following in their daily Longchen Nyingtik Ngondro practice:

‘Towards the lifestyle and activity of the lama,
May wrong view not arise for even an instant, and
May I see whatever he does as a teaching for me.
Through such devotion, may his blessing inspire
and fill my mind!’

This idea that you have to see anything your guru does as a teaching (and therefore okay) is not helped by one commentary on this text used by Rigpa which adds another phrase to the last verse: ‘and may I see whatever he does, whether it seems to be in accordance with the Dharma or not, as a teaching for me.’ A Guide to The Words of My Perfect Teacher, another commentary on this Ngondro, expands this idea on page 261 by saying: ‘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.’

If you take these words at face value without the depth of understanding to moderate their apparent meaning, then what is it saying to those who chant it every day?

The Dalai Lama doesn’t agree with this, but then he’s from the Gelupka lineage. There are 3 other lineages and the heads of those lineages have not said a single thing about all this abuse.

As far as Gelugpa is concerned, Lama Tsonghkapa clearly mentioned; if a lama teaches something that is against the dharma it should be avoided and opposed. If the lama’s teaching is in accord with the dharma it should be followed, if it is in discord with the Dharma it should not be followed.

Dalai Lama, National Seminar on Buddhism in Ladakh, India on August 1, 2017.

The Words of My Perfect Teacher and a commentary on it A Guide to The Words of My Perfect Teacher are the two core texts of Rigpa on the Vajrayana preliminaries or Ngondro—the entrance into the Vajrayana path—and both books make it very clear that once you’ve taken a teacher as your Vajra master you have to do what he or she says, see them as a Buddha, see everything they do as enlightened activity, and never criticise. Many teachers use these books as a reference for how students should follow their teachers. The book is based on being a student of a perfect teacher, however, not an imperfect one! And these days, even the book in question (written a couple of centuries ago) admits that good teachers are rare:

‘All the qualities complete according to purest dharma are hard to find in these decadent times.’

Patrul Rinpoche. The Words of My Perfect Teacher

Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche

Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche is the only lama who has spoken extensively on the matter, and for that I am grateful, but he sees the problem of guru abuse in Vajrayana as being caused by student’s misinterpretation of Vajrayana Buddhism, not the guru’s behaviour. He is often ambiguous, but if you look carefully, you’ll see he does make the bottom line clear.

‘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.’


Dzongsar Khyentse, Guru and Student in the Vajrayana, Facebook 15t August 2017

In a teaching called Being Savvy at following the Guru , Part 2
Chile, January 20th 2019 he said:  ‘And what I have basically, among other things that I’ve said, if Sogyal Rinpoche had applied the correct procedure and if the students also knew what was happening, then if they had taken him as a vajrayana master, that’s it, then you have to continue with this practice of pure perception, but if SR haven’t taken the correct procedure, and I have said that that time and I say now, that I doubt that SR had taken the correct procedure. This is my personal thought. You know the correct procedure … and someone says you do my chores for 3 years, these are the correct procedures. If SR didn’t apply the correct procedures, students didn’t know what was happening and students also don’t know was happening, it is totally wrong for Sogyal to demand whole-hearted pure perception so that he can do what he likes; it’s totally wrong. Okay. ‘

In other words, abuse by a guru is only ‘totally wrong’ if that guru hasn’t taken the correct procedure to prepare you. He’s saying that the problem with Sogyal’s abuse of students was not the behaviour itself, but that he behaved that way to students who weren’t properly prepared. He doesn’t say that a teacher shouldn’t abuse students who were properly prepared – and some were.

In page 19 of his book The Guru Drinks Bourbon? he makes this even clearer. 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 says: ‘However, once you have completely and soberly surrendered, 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.’

There you have it. Vajrayana according to DZK does permit abuse just so long as
the guru has properly prepared you. Not only that, but if this is the case, then you can’t even complain about the abuse when you discover that that’s what’s happening to you. Ouch!

Failure of lamas to condemn abuse

In an attempt to encourage some more native Tibetan lamas to state their position on abuse, some of us got the letter by the eight translated from English into Tibetan and sent it, along with the Lewis Silken report and over 100 signatures to thirty-eight lamas, with a question. We asked: Do you think the behaviour of Sogyal Lakar/Rinpoche as described in the 2017 letter by eight close students and confirmed by the Lewis Silkin Report is ever an acceptable way for Tibetan Buddhist teachers to behave towards their students?

We received only two replies and one of them referred students to The Words of My Perfect Teacher for information about how to follow a teacher! Apparently no one wants to simply say that beating, promiscuity, humiliation, abuse, are not acceptable behaviours, not in the Vajrayana, nor in any Buddhist context. We explained how important it was that they respond, how their silence is seen as complicit, and still they did not respond. I understand that there are cultural reasons that make speaking out difficult for them, but to not do so after we made it clear in our email just how important it was shows a sad lack of concern for their Western students.

Where teachers in a religion do not denounce abuse when asked to, does it not indicate that they condone it?

The names and responses of those few lamas who have made a clear stance against guru abuse can be found on the ‘Which Lamas are Trustworthy?’ page on the Beyond the Temple website. Take a close look at those who received the letter and never replied. You may be surprised to find lamas you respected on that list.

Conclusion

It’s hard to talk about Tibetan Buddhism as a whole because each lama rules his own little kingdom and isn’t beholden to anyone else, so every lama has to be taken on his or her own merits. However we can discern generalities.

The Nyingma lineage clearly does condone guru abuse for the student who is properly initiated into vajrayana – at least according to DZK, Orgyen Tobgyal and Sogyal Lakar. Though Mingyur Rinpoche said that ‘abuse is not a teaching method’ in his Lions’ Roar article, the Kagyu is the lineage with the most ‘crazy wisdom’ masters in their history. I know nothing about the Sakaya’s philosophy because none of them have said anything, but I do know of at least one woman abused by a high Sakaya lama. The Gelupka lineage appears to be the only one where their leader has clearly stated that lama abuse is not acceptable.


This post uses some excerpts from my upcoming book Fallout: Recovering from Spiritual Abuse in Tibetan Buddhism

If you’d like a more private place to chat about your ongoing spiritual path after you’ve left an abusive community, you can join the Beyond the Temple Facebook group. This group is for people who don’t want to talk about abuse, but want to keep in touch and share their discoveries, inspiration and challenges as they move on with their lives.

If you want to talk about abuse, then Rigpa or ex-Rigpa students can join the secret What Now? groupApply via the contact form here, telling us about yourself and why you want to join the group. 

Students from other Vajrayana communities who need somewhere where they can talk about abuse and find survivor support can join the Survivors of Vajrayana Abuse and their Allies group.  

Note that you will not be added to these groups if you don’t answer the questions.

The Facebook page and You Tube Channel associated with this blog are called Living in Peace and Clarity. Click the relevant link on the side bar to ‘Like’ and ‘Subscribe’.

Abuse-Enabling Beliefs Remain

Someone sent me the latest Rigpa sangha news and it inspired another vlog. I know I said I was planning on not talking about Rigpa, but I did say that I would respond when something called for it, and this did. I find that the way Rigpa continues as if everything is solved or being dealt with when the core issue of their thinking on the matter remains unexamed kind of sleasy. It’s like car salesmen giving a speel on a car that’s had a new paint job but the engine is barely holding together. Buy at your own risk.

The vlog is about 20 mins.

If you’d like a more private place to chat about your ongoing spiritual path after you’ve left an abusive community, you can join the Beyond the Temple Facebook group. This group is for people who don’t want to talk about abuse, but want to keep in touch and share their discoveries, inspiration and challenges as they move on with their lives.

If you want to talk about abuse, then Rigpa or ex-Rigpa students can join the secret What Now? groupApply via the contact form here, telling us about yourself and why you want to join the group. 

Students from other Vajrayana communities who need somewhere where they can talk about abuse and find survivor support can join the Survivors of Vajrayana Abuse and their Allies group.  

Note that you will not be added to these groups if you don’t answer the questions.

The Facebook page and You Tube Channel associated with this blog are called Living in Peace and Clarity. Click the relevant link on the side bar to ‘Like’ and ‘Subscribe’.

Research Project Investigating Manipulation and Abuse in Buddhism

Miriam Anders is conducting a research project investigating manipulation and abuse in Buddhism with a focus on mental health and mental healthcare, funded by German Ministry of Education and Research. It’s great that this is happening, and I encourage anyone who has been abused in a Buddhist context to participate. The results will be used for education for prevention and providing information for treatment to medical doctors and psychotherapists. More details below.

Here’s the project website: https://www.en.transtibmed.ethnologie.uni-muenchen.de/survey/index.html

Miriam is using psychological questionnaires to investigate the impact of what people experienced. She sends these through E-Mail Links (and respective TANs) and they can be filled in using a pseudonym. The questionnaire is designed for people to describe their experiences and thoughts. It is especially useful for those who want to communicate their experience while staying protected through using a pseudonym.
She also conducts interviews with those who want to talk and offers them biofeedback. She can travel sometimes.

A few results from Germany can be seen here (in German language): https://www.transtibmed.ethnologie.uni-muenchen.de/zeitzeugenberichte/index.html 1.3.

Miriam has studied in a monastic context in Nepal for eight years and conducted interviews with doctors of Tibetan medicine thereafter, finished Buddhist Studies at Kathmandu University and Mag.phil. in Tibetology and Buddhist Studies at Vienna University. She’s analysing words, phrases and concepts used for manipulation and indoctrination and comparing this to what she’s learned in original language contexts, e.g. the concept of “karma-purification” used for manipulating people.

Based on her doctorates in psychology and psychotherapy science, the longterm goal is to understand the effects on people and to build therapeutic aid. She’s started this by informing medical doctors and psychotherapists on what happened to people.

She started the project last August (2018) and the time frame of this project is till July 2021 (3 years).

Another aspect of the project is preservation of knowledge of Tibetan medicine – She’s asking doctors of Tibetan medicine about diagnosis and treatment of mental health issues.

The results should go into teaching of university students (education for prevention), information to medical doctors and psychotherapists (information for treatment), open access publications and sometimes also to the research website. The original design was to compile books towards the end, but it seems the recent developments are much better covered with a more immediate response. Under the rubrique “law” at the project website one can see current investigations and links to current open letters and in this way people may (a bit indirectly) learn how to proceed if something is going wrong and which procedure worked.

I think this is an important study and I’m going to keep in communication with Miriram so we might have some updates over the next few years. I reckon my book, Fallout, will be useful for her research as well since it’s all about the effects of the abuse and group process in healing.

Will you participate?


If you’d like a more private place to chat about your ongoing spiritual path after you’ve left an abusive community, you can join the Beyond the Temple Facebook group. This group is for people who don’t want to talk about abuse, but want to keep in touch and share their discoveries, inspiration and challenges as they move on with their lives.

If you want to talk about abuse, then Rigpa or ex-Rigpa students can join the secret What Now? groupApply via the contact form here, telling us about yourself and why you want to join the group. 

Students from other Vajrayana communities who need somewhere where they can talk about abuse and find survivor support can join the Survivors of Vajrayana Abuse and their Allies group.  

Note that you will not be added to these groups if you don’t answer the questions.

The Facebook page and You Tube Channel associated with this blog are called Living in Peace and Clarity. Click the relevant link on the side bar to ‘Like’ and ‘Subscribe’.