I was inspired to write my take on how to follow a spiritual teacher in a healthy way when someone directed me to a long post on Facebook by Dzongsar Kyentse (DJK) in which he offered the tantric (vajrayana) Drubthab Kuntu cycle of teachings and initiations. He said, among other things, “For those in limbo, wondering whether or not they should do this, I suggest following the tantric prescription to do a thorough background check on me. There are plenty of websites you can consult, and you might particularly want to read posts by Tahlia Newland, Matthew Remski, Joanne Clark and others.”
What do I think about that?
He’s being quite open about what he expects from the students who take up his offer, and that’s refreshing. And yet – as a cynical ex-Tibetan Buddhist – I can’t help wondering if it is genuine openess or a subtle manipulation to make the teachings and relationship with the teacher more ‘special’ and so more appealing to those who relish being the ‘chosen few’. It’s a common dynamic in spiritual groups that lures people into the cult’s ‘inner circle’. Such manipulation may be quite unconcious, and someone – be they the teacher or the student – is only free of it if they are aware of the lure of it from both sides. This is why both teacher and student need to be educated in cult dynamics to ensure a healthy relationship.
“In our practice, we may view the guru’s behavior as that of a mahasiddha, but in the conventional world we follow the general Buddhist approach, and if a certain behavior is harmful, we should say so.”
HH Dalai Lama, The Foundation of Buddhist Practice
Leaving the Boat Too Early
In Dzongsar’s recent publication, Poison is Medicine, which is based on teachings that he gave in Rigpa Centres following the revelations of abuses by Sogyal Lakhar, his intention is to clarify “the misunderstandings and misapprehensions about the Vajrayana that were exposed by the Vajrayana guru-related scandals of the 2010s.” (Poison is Medicine; vii) By “scandals”, I presume he means “abuses.” However, with statements such as the following, I question what clarity can result:
We all have hidden beliefs. They’re ones we take as truth because they seem to be part of who we are. We don’t question them because we’ve always believed them or we’ve believed them for so long that we don’t doubt their truth. And we don’t see them because we don’t look for them. It’s like being in a cage and looking through the bars rather than at the bars. You don’t see the bars; you see through the spaces between them, so you don’t know you’re trapped, caged by your hidden beliefs.
You can find your hidden beliefs by asking yourself what you think about all kinds of things – women, men, marriage, science, religion, different races and so on. Whenever you ask yourself what you believe about something, you might uncover a hidden belief. But if they’re a core belief, they won’t be revealed by your first answer, not if you’ve held them since childhood. You may have more recent beliefs pasted on top, but core beliefs will always compromise the more recent belief because they’re stronger. A new belief, if it conflicts with a core belief, just won’t really stick. So you might think that you believe that all races are equal, for example, but deep down a belief in inequality might remain from childhood or from time in a cult. Until you uncover that hidden core belief and expose it to examination so it can fade away in the light of your adult or cult-free self, you’re holding conflicting beliefs and that will always bring some mental discomfort.
The Tibetan Buddhist teachings warn that where there is the greatest potential for enlightenment there is also the greatest chance of delusion. If you embark on the spiritual path without correct understanding of the subtle concepts involved, your desire to ‘wake up’ to your true self could lead you deeper into delusion. This is why they say that Vajrayana and Dzogchen should only be undertaken with a qualitied teacher who can make sure that the student doesn’t misunderstand the subtle teachings. But it also applies to any level of spiritual study and practice.
We see reality though the filter of our thoughts, emotions and beliefs. When beliefs don’t align with reality, they distort perception. This is why, according to the Buddhist teachings, one of the obscurations we need to dissolve if we are to be enlightened – i.e., see reality directly – is the cognitive obscurations, the area of beliefs.
It’s why when we meditate, we train in not labelling or thinking about what we perceive, we simply see, simply hear, simply be without engaging our conceptual mind. But even those who practice this in their meditation find it hard to practice in daily life, especially if they hold tight to beliefs that aren’t in alignment with reality. And sometimes those beliefs are the very beliefs that were designed to point them in the direction of reality.
Look at those in the US who believe that Trump won the election.
I’ve noticed that just about everyone I know who has left a
Tibetan Buddhist cult has moved more into the world than they did while a
Tibetan Buddhist. During our decades of Tibetan Buddhist study and practice, we
focused very much on ourselves and our own ‘spiritual progress’, despite the
teachings on love and compassion where our focus was supposed to be on others.
The ‘logic’ behind that was that we can’t really help others until we have sufficient wisdom and compassion ourselves to know what is the wisest course of action. This makes sense to me to a degree, but I saw the result of taking this attitude to its extreme point just after the truth of Sogyal’s abuse became public knowledge. A friend, who is still a Rigpa devotee and who remained faithful to the idea of Sogyal as a Mahasiddha, told me that though he felt sad for those who ‘felt’ they’d been hurt, he couldn’t do anything to help them at the moment because his focus was on gaining enlightenment ‘for the sake of others’. He felt that at some time in the future, once he’d gained enlightenment, then he would be able to do what was wise and compassionate. In the meantime, he just carried on with his self-focus. This is the epitome of a spirituality that is so inwardly focused that it is completely divorced from the world.
This video is an interview with Karma Yeshe Rabgye (a Western monk in the Tibetan Buddhist tradition) in which he gives good advice for students of Tibetan Buddhism looking for a teacher and particularly for those being abused by their lama. He is, of course, talking from a Western perspective, and we’ve hit the wall of cultural differences here when trying to get lamas to make public stances against misconduct, so I don’t think he’ll get far with his call for lamas to speak out. But his advice for Western students is basically: you’re a Westerner, you know it’s wrong, so don’t be bound by the fear tactics (samaya) of a feudal culture that has no relevance to you as a modern Western person, and report all incidences of criminal behaviour to the police. Lamas in the West must abide by Western law and should be given no special treatment just because they and you think they’re someone special.
A reflection on Sogyal Rinpoche’s death and feudalism in Tibetan Buddhism.
The first thought I had on hearing of Sogyal’s death was ‘The king is dead: long live the king.’ I ignored it, thinking it was one of those useless bits of mind vomit that invade our minds, but the phrase kept popping up during my quiet times, during my morning walk or meditation, along with a sense of what unpacking that phrase might mean in the present circumstances of Sogyal’s death. Wanting to retire into anonymity, I resisted writing about it, but eventually the insistence with which the phrase kept reoccurring made me accept that, like it or not, I had to write about Sogyal’s death in light of this phrase. So here it is:
Rigpa would have asked all those lamas who left accolades to Sogyal to say something, and tradition dictates to them that it be nice. They are culturally bound not to criticise another lama, to only talk about the good. That’s why in Mingyur Rinpoche’s Lion’s Roar article on the abuse, he never actually mentioned Sogyal’s name.
Tsoknyi Rinpoche has shown the lamas a way to say something to satisfy any request from Rigpa (which it would be difficult for them to refuse, especially given that Tsoknyi still teaches there) without glorifying Sogyal.
People hold different viewpoints on the question of whether or not Sogyal was qualified to teach as he did, and since people don’t all accept the same ‘evidence’ as relevant, no agreement will ever come to pass. So we will have to agree to disagree or accept that we will likely never know for sure. But a question relevant for all those students who stuck with Sogyal and Rigpa for years is how his lack of qualifications affected our learning. Was it all just a waste of time?