What is the Point of a Spirituality Divorced from the World?

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.

Self-focused spirituality

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.

Christians tend to do all sorts of charitable activities. Social engagement in order to help those who are struggling is part of the Christian way. But Buddhists are not known for social engagement or charitable works. They build temples and monasteries, not homeless shelters, and they spend years in retreat completely cut off from the world, focused on their own mind and their own spiritual development.

The effect of the monastic ideal

This idea that spiritual progress cannot happen without being separated from the world is a hang-over from the traditionally monastic nature of Tibetan Buddhism and of Buddhism itself. Buddhism began as a monastic religion – the Buddha’s followers renounced the world, shaved their heads, donned robes and took to the forest – and monasteries have remained an important part of Buddhism in all areas of the world. Ordinary householder Buddhists go to the temples to pray and meditate, but the attitude in Asian cultures is that if you’re serious about enlightenment, you become a monastic. You separate yourself from worldly life. You can practice meditation at home, of course, but the householder’s life is seen as inferior to the monastic one for those wishing to gain enlightenment.

Vajrayana is supposed to be a way to remain in the world while progressing spiritually, but completing the practices requires a huge commitment to retreat, to separating yourself from the world, in some form or other – even if it’s just spending several hours a day in meditation while otherwise trying to earn an income.

Spending time each day in contemplation or meditation is a wonderful thing, and so is taking time for a retreat, it’s one’s attitude once back in the world that can be problematic. If, while living in the world, one’s main focus is on one’s own spiritual progress – even if it’s supposedly for the sake of all beings – then one’s ability to engage with the world and to help those who need assistance will be compromised to some degree.

The effect of the bodhisattva ideal

Of course, we were all supposed to be trying to be Bodhisattvas. We were taught that wanting to achieve enlightenment for the sake of others was the ideal, and that to seek enlightenment for ourselves alone is an inferior and slower path that leads not to enlightenment but rather some look-alike state from which we still need to progress in order to gain full enlightenment.(As if the Buddha wouldn’t have taught a path to full enlightenment!) But in practice, how many of us truly, despite saying our bodhichitta prayers, were focused anywhere other than on ourselves and our own spiritual development? I didn’t see it until I stopped trying so hard to be a good little Buddhist.

The compassion practices are supposed to be focused outwardly, supposed to be caring for others more than ourselves, and many of us spent hours doing the compassion practices, but they all involved sitting on a cushion doing mental gymnastics rather than going onto the street and taking a homeless person out for a meal.

Don’t get me wrong, the mental gymnastics are a great preparation for acting with compassion in the world. The issue is that practitioners tend to not take their training in compassion that step further and actually use their supposedly opened hearts to bring benefit to the world beyond their prayers and practices.

Those who make the decisions in Rigpa at the international level, for instance, have shown themselves quite incapable of acting with genuine compassion towards those who Sogyal abused. Everything they try with the aim of ‘reaching out’ keeps them safely in their bubble of beliefs with no need for them to actually look at themselves or open themselves up to the reality of those they think they are ‘helping’. Their actions come from a sense of superiority, as if they are grandly doing something ‘to help’ the victims. But they have proved themselves incapable of hearing what Sogyal’s victims and their supporters have been saying to them.

The bodhisattva idea is a noble one, but if you’re fooling yourself that you have bodhicitta when you’re really just concerned with your own spiritual progress, or you use that ideal as an excuse not to engage with the world, then you’ve failed to understand – let alone realise – the teachings on compassion.

Can we wait until we’re all enlightened to lend a helping hand?

One doesn’t have to be enlightened to see that the first step in helping others is to actually ask what they need, and then provide that, not just deliver something you think will help. In order to help others, you need to understand their needs, and in order to do that, you have to engage with that person, to hear their concerns, open your heart to them and put yourself in their shoes as much as possible. Believing that you can best help others by working on yourself keeps you remote from others and gives you a convenient excuse not to get your hands dirty.

What a copout!

Right now, our world and all the beings in it need us all to get our hands dirty. We all need to pitch in and do what we can to right the growing injustices, to clean up our act, and to help people prepare for an uncertain future.

One doesn’t have to be enlightened to help out with any of the charities in our areas, to join in a protest for the sake of the future. People are in need now. Our planet is in need now. What is the point of focusing on our own ‘spiritual’ development while the world falls apart around us?

Spirituality grounded in the world

The option is to turn our attention to working in the world, to using life itself, with all its challenges, to facilitate our spiritual awakening, rather than remaining outside of the world as we were while in our cults. And this is what I’m seeing in my friends that have left Rigpa and other Tibetan Buddhist groups. They are using all sorts of ‘in the world’ activities as their spiritual path –  work with homeless people, domestic abuse victims, children in disadvantaged areas and so on; growing bonsai as an aid to healing; environmental activities and activism; being advocates for those with disabilities; developing a permaculture farm and so on. And though these things can be a spiritual path, that’s not why they’re doing it; they’re genuinely doing these things for others and for the future of the world.

And then there’s the things we do in order to refresh ourselves and stay healthy; things such as walking in nature, exercise, yoga and gardening. My meditation these days has a large component of physical yoga in it. It helps keep my mind and awareness grounded in my body, something left out of the Rigpa version of spirituality.

Grounded Spirituality requires us to engage with what life presents to us, to act in as wise and compassionate way as we are able as well as spending some time in self-reflection. It needn’t be an either/or situation. The challenge those who are going beyond the temple have taken up is acting in the world while seeing with the vast awareness afforded us by our contemplative practice – be it in the past or the present.

One of the stories of the Buddha is of him telling a woman, an ordinary householder who could not become a nun because of her family responsibilities, to be aware of her every action as she did her work, and she became enlightened. Just by doing that. No removal from the world was necessary.

So there is no need to feel that by giving up your hours of Buddhist practice that you’re giving up your shot at enlightenment. If the ideal of enlightenment still matters to you, you can work on it every moment of the day just by focusing on what you’re doing in the present. You don’t need to separate yourself from the world.

And of course, the more you can look at your own awareness and peel away the layers of misperception caused by your beliefs and concepts, the more you’ll see your link to everything and everyone.  Once you realise that you’re not separate from anything, when the knowledge that we are all one in essence is a constantly lived experience, then acting in the world becomes akin to tending to our own sore toe. It simply becomes necessary. In the meantime, before we have that realisation, the job is the same – tending to the sore bits.

How has your focus changed since leaving your cult? Are you engaging with the world? In what way?

Image by Sasin Tipchai from Pixabay

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

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

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

Finding a teacher

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And what if you’ve been abused?

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

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

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

Going public

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dr J Perez   Goodreads Review

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

Image by Jan Alexander from Pixabay

The King is Dead: Long Live the King

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

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

The King

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The true nature of the king

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

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

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

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

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

Is Dead

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

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

Our personal relationship to death

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cultural perspectives on death

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

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

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

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

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

Funeral procession of Thai King Bhumibol Adulyadej_2017

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

Cambodian King Norodom Sihanouk’s Coffin

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

Corpse preservation

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

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

Long Live the King

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

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

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

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

An opportunity for change.

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

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

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

The king is dead: Long live the king.

Tsoknyi Rinpoche shows a way for other lamas

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.

He made a comment on Sogyal’s death that is not an accolade; it has no bullshit about what a wonderful guy he was. Just excellent instructions for his students, and these instructions also work for his ex students as well because it bypasses the nirmanakaya or embodied level of one’s relationship with a guru. His instructions suggest a way in which we can honour our deepest relationship with our root guru (as Sogyal actually is for many of us) without having to relate to the person we have come to see is a seriously flawed human being.

‘The essential link between student and teacher is the teaching. Now, the connection is no longer with the embodied Lama, but rather with the pure dharmakaya Lama.’

Tsoknyi Rinpoche

This is only part of what he says here

With these words he suggests a way even for ex-students to approach their relationship with Sogyal, to see him not as a man, but as a way to ‘the pure dharmakaya Lama’ and to see their essential link to him as through the teachings (suggesting that it isn’t via his personality). This is really helpful for those who no longer can take Sogyal as their teacher, but still acknowledge some deeper relationship with him – a link that can never be broken and is difficult to understand or explain for those who have rejected him as a person but still feel this link.

As I say in my book Fallout, my connection was always with the pure dharmakaya lama, never with the man. And that connection has never been broken, hence no samaya break with the ultimate lama – how could there be once you have that connection. The ‘pure dharmakaya Lama’ is just a metaphor for the nature of mind and reality.

He also acknowledges those who have left by saying ‘everyone has a right to choose their faith’ and that this advice is on a traditional practice of Tibetan Buddhism.

Everyone has the right to choose their faith, and based on that faith, there are many traditional practices we can do at this time—practices for ourselves and practices for the teacher.

Those of us who have left after years, sometimes decades, of training on what to do at the time of death of one’s root guru still have that knowledge with us. We know that merging our mind with the lama’s wisdom mind is the whole basis of dzogchen, so what do we do now? How do we do the dzogchen practice of merging our mind with a lama we no longer respect? I don’t know of anyone who can do guru yoga now, certainly not with Sogyal as the focus, and for most, the practice itself reminds them of Sogyal and so they cannot do it. Tsoknyi Rinpoche, though he is primarily speaking to those who are still Sogyal’s students, shows a way for even his ex-students to do this dzogchen practice. His advice speaks of the absolute meaning not the relative and so it bypasses personality.

It is a potent time to allow your own unborn nature and the Lama’s dharmakaya essence to mingle together and merge.

Merging our minds with Sogyal’s mind might be impossible for us – probably for many of us the very thought of it raises a host of feelings about his betrayal – but allowing our own unborn nature and the ‘lama’s dharmakaya essence to mingle together and merge’ might be something we could actually do. He’s chosen his words well because this sentence makes our unborn nature and the lama’s dhamakaya essence equal. We can do this, not to gain something for our self, but to help him.

For some of us, even those who have left Rigpa or even left the religion, this kind of merging of ‘minds’ would have been an automatic response to his death. It’s a merging of minds that has nothing to do with religion or with personalities. It’s merely using the idea of merging wisdom minds to help us enter a state of awakening where we actually see the true nature of reality. For some of us, this kind of ‘merging’ wisdom minds has never ceased, regardless of what we feel and what we say about the man. But since this state is beyond personalities, beyond any idea of a self to merge with, it transcends the whole debacle. Tsoknyi’s words remind me of this.

I appreciate the way he has handled this with sensitivity and given guidance that hits the essential points without the devotional garbage that is now such a turn off for those who have left Rigpa. Thank you Tsoknyi. You lighten my heart, shown me that some lamas can step outside their cultural conditioning and actually genuinely care about everyone, not just the party faithful.

Tsoknyi Rinpoche also was one of the few lamas who responded to our requests for a statement on the abuse. His response is here http://beyondthetemple.com/tsoknyi-rinpoche-responds/

We should also note the lamas who have said nothing about Sogyal at this time – Mingyur Rinpoche, His Holiness the Dalai Lama and Dzongsar Khyentse. They haven’t joined in with the accolades. I expect Dzongsar will say something – he is one of Rigpa’s spiritual advisors after all. It looks like he’s taking time to think before he speaks.

Can you get a Dzogchen Transmission from an Unrealised Teacher?

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?

Clearly we did learn Buddhism. Reading any book on Buddhism confirms that, and the Rigpa Shedra scholars would know if we weren’t getting the real ‘information’. To suggest that Rigpa students learned nothing of worth, is basically saying that Buddhism, vajrayana and dzogchen have no worth. It also does a huge disservice to thousands of students.

The big issue, however, is the dzogchen teachings because doesn’t a dzogchen teacher have to have some realisation before he can introduce a student to the nature of their mind?

Let’s, for the sake of this investigation, take the position that Sogyal didn’t actually have any realisation. If that’s true, where does that leave us? Deluded?

Erik Pema Kunsang seems to think so. In an article called CLUB NONDUALITÈ, he says:

‘Patrul Rinpoche wrote 150 years ago, that there are many Dharma teachers who point out the thoughtfree state of the all-ground as being the nondual nature of mind, and that is why people who believe it may train ten, twenty, thirty years without becoming stable in nonduality. Why? They have instead trained in the very basis for dualistic mind…. When someone is being told, without being checked, “you have now received the pointing-out introduction,” it’s at best wishful thinking and, at worst, a direct lie. … Often a meditator is told by the teacher that nonduality is a quiet thoughtfree state of mind that holds no focus. This may or may not be true, because there is another state of mind that looks like it, just like a rhinestone may look like a diamond’

Erik Pema Kunsang

Or is it possible that he could still have given a genuine dzogchen transmission?

Was it really the nature of mind?

How do we check whether or not we got the ‘real thing’? Taking teachings and introductions from another teacher is a good way. Examination in light of the detailed instructions in books such as Clarifying the Natural State by Dakpo Tashi Namgyal is another, and then there is the certainty in oneself that can’t be denied – a knowledge beyond knowledge. If we don’t give a damn whether or not we’ve recognised the nature of our mind, then we’re less likely to fool ourselves. If the answer is important to us, especially if the answer reflects on how we feel about our self, then we are in danger of deluding our self. And if we’re not sure if we have or haven’t glimpsed the nature of our mind, then we probably haven’t.

So let’s assume that some of us did have a genuine glimpse of the nature of our mind under Sogyal’s tutelage. (And if you say that’s not possible because Sogyal doesn’t have any realisation, then out of respect for those who know beyond a shadow of doubt that it is possible, please suspend that idea just long enough to follow this examination.)

Would accepting that some of his students experienced a genuine introduction to the nature of their mind mean that Sogyal did, despite appearances, have some realisation? Or did Sogyal transmit dzogchen despite his lack of realisation?

Isn’t there some transformative power in the words of the teachings themselves?

Rely on the message rather than the messenger.
In the message, rely on the meaning rather than just the words.

In the meaning, rely on that which is really true rather than seemingly true.
Rely on the really true, not with dualistic mind, but realize within nondual wakefulness.

Every long-term Rigpa student knew this teaching, and given that a lot of us didn’t particularly ‘like’ our lama, a lot of us followed this. We looked to the words, to the meaning, to the truth we recognised in our bones.

Take any of the dzogchen teachings on mind. Is there not some degree of transmission in those very words? Not if you just read them in an ordinary mind, of course, no. But if you are in a meditative state, having done all the prerequisites and having truly worked with them, relying on the ‘really true’ meaning, surely, there is some power to transform in them alone. Or am I just the sole weirdo who senses the immense transformative power in such words?

Yes, the religion says we’re supposed to get a ‘lung’ or oral transmission in order to unlock the power of such texts, but is that really so important? Or is it just another way to keep the gurus employed? Isn’t reading it slowly aloud in your own language better than hearing it raced through at a frantic speed in a language you don’t understand?

The three authentics

According to The Words of Tenpai Nyima: Notes on the Ground of Trekchö: The Concentrated Essence Distilled from the River of the Whispered Transmission by Khenpo Ngakchung, in order for the introduction to the nature of mind to take place, the three authentics must come together. These three are: the authentic blessing of the master, the authentic devotion of the student, and the authentic instructions of the lineage.

Note, however, that this teaching doesn’t say ‘authentic realisation’ but rather ‘authentic blessing.’ The word ‘blessing’ means transformative power, not realisation as such. Could Sogyal, through his devotion for his masters, have had the blessing even without the realisation? Isn’t devotion a prime key to transmission in dzogchen?

Devotion and blessings

Before he gave dzogchen teachings, Sogyal stared at the images of his masters, his eyes moist with devotion, hands in prayer position. He aroused his devotion and taught from that state. Aren’t blessings passed through devotion? It’s said that it’s through the student’s devotion that they receive the blessing to enable them to recognise the nature of their mind, if that’s the case, then Sogyal received the blessing of his masters through his devotion to them, and we received the blessing of his masters through our devotion to him.

Wouldn’t this fulfil the requirement of the ‘authentic blessing of the master’? Sogyal may not have had any realisation, but he did have the blessing of his masters—many saw evidence of that—and he did have devotion to them, and according to this teaching on the three authentics, that is enough.

In the Tibetan story of the dog’s tooth, a woman is given what she thinks is a relic of the buddha, but it’s only a dog’s tooth; nevertheless due to her devotion to the dog’s tooth, she receives blessings from it in the form of ringsels (spontaneously produced pearl-like phenomena found in the ashes of great masters.) The teaching in this story is that if a student has true devotion, they will get blessings, even from a dog’s tooth!

Last year, I emailed Tenzin Palmo and asked the following:
‘Can one gain some measure of genuine realisation through relying on an unqualified teacher? This is referring to a situation where the student has given complete, unquestioning devotion and fulfilled their obligations as a student and then only later they discover that the lama was not worthy of that devotion.’

Her reply was:

‘Yes, it is possible to gain genuine realisation even when the teacher later proves to be unqualified. If the student has a direct realisation of the nature of the mind, then that is so, whatever the status of the lama who gave the pointing out instruction or facilitated this insight. Some teachers have the ability to open the minds of the students even when in other ways the conduct and wisdom of the teacher may be questionable. This is one reason for the confusion nowadays with lamas who have helped so many students yet have been shown to be unworthy of their role. Still these students were helped….’

Jetsumna Tenzin Palmo

Empowerment and disempowerment

And let’s not forget that the teacher, no matter how realised, is not giving us something we don’t already have. He or she is merely a catalyst that helps us recognise the nature of our mind, something that is not owned, given or even truly shown by anyone—it can only be pointed towards. If we have studied and practiced the dharma, then once our mind and heart are truly open, anything can be a catalyst for recognition—even a barking dog.

And let’s not fall completely under the spell of a guru-centric religion. The key factor in recognising the nature of our mind is actually our awareness, our openness, our qualities as a student, not those of our teacher or the religion’s sanctioned method. To believe otherwise goes against the very foundations of Buddhism, the essential point that seeing through the veil of ignorance is entirely up to us. No one else can do it for us, a point made clear in the Buddha’s life story where he had to leave his teachers in order to discover the truth for himself.

So even if we believe the teacher a fake, let’s not presume that his or her students’ realisation is also fake. That idea diminishes the importance of the quality of the student, and further disempowers students of a cult that has already disempowered them enough by teaching them to mistrust their own instincts. Instead, let’s empower students to trust themselves to know their own mind.

The only true empowerment is self-empowerment.

‘If you discover what you thought was the state of nonduality is actually just a dualistic state of open, calm and clear panoramic awareness, there is no need to blame anyone, neither the teacher, the friends or yourself. Understand that the person who taught you that was not a primary master, but a meditation instructor, and you’re allowed to pursue authentic wisdom wherever you can find it. Within the Buddhist Vajrayana context, how can there be a samaya bond to a root guru, if you haven’t yet found the true nature of mind? To keep the dharma pure and make sure it will last for a long while, the most important is honesty. Be honest to yourself. Don’t believe in myths. Test everything.’ 

Erik Pema Kunsang

So what do you think? If you think Sogyal couldn’t have transmitted dzogchen due to his lack of realisation, then are you saying that those who feel they received genuine dzogchen transmission are fooling themselves? Or is it possible that, as the teaching on the three authentics suggests, blessings are more important than realisation? Or, as I feel right now, is it all a load of hogwash, anyway, and it’s time to make a cocktail.

Cheers!

Image by bridgesward 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

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’.

Vajrayana Buddhism Issues – Arrogance

Vajrayana Buddhism issues abound and if you’ve been around a Tibetan Buddhist sangha for any time, you may have heard a teacher talk about the supremacy of the Vajrayana, how it’s the fastest path, has the most skilful means, is for students of the greatest capacity and so on. If we heard someone from another religion talk like this, we’d probably scoff, so is this kind of arrogance something we should buy into? And if we do, what are the results, apart from soothing our ego by making us feel that we’re on the one right path?

The following quote, written by one of the members of the Beyond the Temple Facebook group, inspired this post.

I’m going back to so-called Basics. The 4 Noble Truths, the Noble 8 fold path. I’ve already decided it’s well worth focusing on that for me. The Noble Eight Fold Path is full of suggestions and statements that are more than enough for me to validly follow and see how that works (not just read about and then move on to ‘posher’ ‘clever’ stuff.)

Surely it’s all meant to be about doing It – walking your talk. And if anyone tries to tell me I’m not Buddhist because I reject the clever, complicated Vajrayana practices etc, that’s their problem. I wonder if sometimes people simply (not that simply) just try to do too much and get scattered and forget the really crucial stuff like right speech etc etc. It leads them away from the well-being of all, including themselves, despite their good motivation. And teachers should help remind them when they go down a wrong, time-wasting or unkind side alley. I am not trying to tell a teacher what their remit is, but surely that is blindingly obvious.

Beyond the Temple member

These kinds of thoughts and approach to their spiritual path moving forward are shared by many ex-students of abusive vajrayana teachers and their cults. Below I pull out the main points and expand on them.

Many paths, all valid

  • The Buddha taught many paths to suit different kinds of people. All are complete paths and all lead to liberation – why would he have taught anything less? If you look closely, you’ll see that all the Buddha’s teachings are contained in the foundation yana in an implicit way if not explicit. Later teachings – if they are genuinely Buddhist – simply build on what’s there. Any Buddhist path is as good as any other Buddhist path.
  • The idea that the vajrayana is somehow better than other forms of Buddhism is just arrogance, and yet that’s what we were taught. Such elitism – the idea that vajrayana is the best/fastest/most skilful path – is common in cults, and is as ridiculous as saying that the Christian or any other religion is the best one. The idea that it’s faster is misleading since if it isn’t the right path for you, then you may just be wasting your time, and if you have an abusive guru, then vajrayana will bring you more harm than good.
  • Vajrayana arrogance leads to people not paying enough attention to the foundation teachings on which vajrayana is supposedly built. They skip over it or give lip service to it, but don’t actually study and put into practice things like the 10 negative actions to be avoided. If they had done that work, they would be able to discern right from wrong action and never consider that the kind of abuse we saw in Rigpa was anything other than wrong action. A house without a strong foundation will eventually fall down, and isn’t that what we’ve seen here with this massive failure of vajrayana to uphold even a basic ethical stance?
  • What use is the study and practice of a path that supposedly teaches wisdom and compassion if it doesn’t lead to followers living the teachings and becoming genuinely good people?
  • Isn’t it better to follow a simple path that leads you to be a genuinely good person than to follow a complex one where you get confused about what is right conduct?

Is vajrayana Buddhism truly Buddhism?

After the rose-coloured glasses fell from my eyes in the wake of the revelations of Sogyal Lakar’s abuse, I saw how wafting off into vajrayana land of rainbow light and mantras had resulted not in wiser and more compassionate people, but in minds and eyes closed to the truth of what was actually happening before them. Like the commenter above – and many others – I decided that the most important thing in life was not to follow a complex spiritual regime, but to actually be a good person.

It seemed bizare to me that teachings full of compassion and wisdom could have led to such a result, and I wondered just how far Rigpa had departed from what the Buddha actually taught. To find out, I spent some time looking at the Buddha’s earliest teachings, and some of what I found made it look as if vajrayana wasn’t even Buddhist. Certainly the Tibetan emphasis on unquestioning devotion and ritual seemed the opposite of what the Buddha taught.

The Buddha before Buddhism

One of the books I read was The Buddha before Buddhism: Wisdom from the Early Teachings by Gil Fronsdal. It’s a translation of one of the earliest of all Buddhist texts, the Atthakavagga, or Book of Eights, which comes from the earliest strain of Buddhist literature, before the Buddha came to be thought of as a ‘Buddhist’. The approach to awakening laid out in the Book of Eights is incredibly simple and free of adherence to any kind of ideology. Instead of doctrines to be believed, it describes means for realizing peace that bring genuine results to those who live by them.

What may be perplexing to many is that the Book of Eights does not espouse a religious doctrine that exists in opposition to other doctrines. Nor does it put forth a teaching that is meant to be seen as superior to other teachings. In a manner that challenges the religious beliefs of many people – including many Buddhists – the test explicity denies the role of ultimate religious “truth” and “knowledge” in attaining personal peace.

Gil Frondsdal. The Buddha before Buddhism

Truth or arrogance?

Of course those who like to maintain that the Mahayana and Vajrayana are superior to the early teachings of the Buddha on the basis that the attainment of ‘peace’ is not full enlightenment will scoff at this simply for the use of the word ‘peace’, but really, why would the peace the Buddha referred to in the first turning teachings be anything other than the peace of full enlightenment? If he was enlightened, why would he teach a path that lead anywhere less than the full state of enlightenment? That idea simply doesn’t make sense. And the Buddha would agree that we shouldn’t accept something as truth just because some lama says so!

Nothing basic about the basics

How does following the ‘best’, ‘the fastest’, or the ‘most skilful’ path that requires us to sit on our bums for hours spacing off in a rainbow realm help us if we can’t even follow the noble eightfold path? ( Right view, right resolve, right speech, right conduct, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, and right meditative absorption.) And let’s be honest here, can you? Do you? I certainly don’t. I have plenty to work on without falling for the ‘enlightenment-in-one-life-time’ hook. I’m not saying I didn’t benefit from vajrayana, I did, a lot, but I still have to come back to earth and live the teachings in the real world, and what does that come down to? Following the eightfold path!

There is nothing basic about the Buddhist basics and nothing simplistic about their simplicity. The point is that you can have the teachings and practice the practice without all the bullshit. These days, there are so many books and talks and videos around, that you don’t even need to go anywhere near a physical teacher. Like with husbands, you’re better off with none than with a bad one.

I find it very useful to have a valid, real-live teacher, but if I feel a need to see him/her too often, that may be a danger sign – for me anyway. It shouldn’t be necessary really.

Beyond the Temple member

What do you think?
Leave your comment below.


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’.

Victim Blaming Disguised as Dharma

Bob Thurman recently did a podcast on abuse in Buddhism, and though he said some  things that some may find helpful in the examination of the issues raised by abuse in Buddhism, I think we need to talk about the part where he fosters one of the ideas that enabled abuse and victim blaming in Rigpa. By talking this way, Bob has shown that he has no idea of the toxic culture that arises around abusive lamas or how some teachings/beliefs/ideas can be misued to enable abuse and so need a very careful balancing of polarities if they are to be taught responsibly.

The problematic idea

Below is a rough transcript of the section in question. It is not word for word, but close enough for you to get the gist of what he was saying.

Someone who was more or less ready for the teaching and it was given by someone who was somewhat abusive but not perfectly enlightened and gave it to a disciple enough that the disciple was able to go beyond that teacher, then that disciple will still be using that lama who had faults as if he were a Buddha in order to transform their own faults. So we can say that it is still okay for that disciple that they don’t have to join in on rejecting that lama. In their mind they could stick with that guru, and they actually might go beyond.
What was harm to one might not be harm to another because they had an advanced level of something from something they obtained from previous lives such that it is possible that they could use something dished out to them from an impure vessel to go beyond. It is possible. It isn’t so black and white.” Robert Thurman  https://bobthurman.com/abuse-in-buddhism/

What teaching?

“Ready for the teaching’? What teaching? We’re talking about abuse here. Is Bob suggesting that abuse is a legitimate teaching method? Unfortunately it appears that way.
“Given by someone who was somewhat abusive but not perfectly enlightened.” Not perfectly enlightened? Is Bob suggesting that someone abusive could be even a little enlightened?

Actual harm and feelings of harm

“What was harm to one might not be harm to another …” This is subscribing to the idea that harm cannot be objectively determined, that if you don’t ‘feel’ harmed then you actually haven’t been harmed. But when someone has been knocked unconscious, pulled by the ear until it bleeds, beaten so that you can see the bruising, or punched in the stomach such that they have a hematoma, it’s clear to anyone that the vicitm has been harmed, and certainly a medic could attest to that in court because the evidence of harm is clear to see.  Anyone who experienced such things and then said that they didn’t ‘feel’ hurt, indicates that they have not only been physically harmed but are also so under the sway of trauma bonding and gaslighting by their abusive lama that they protect him and fully subscribe to his version of reality. Not feeling harmed in these circumstances most likely does not indicate some advanced spiritual level, but rather that the poor person is trapped in a web of lies and delusion created by their abuser for the purpose of control and exploitation.
Bob either doesn’t understand or simply neglects to point out that not feeling harmed doesn’t mean that you weren’t actually harmed – not where blood, bruises, scars, and ptsd are concerned. Not recognising or admiting to the symptoms of ptsd in yourself, for example, doesn’t mean that you don’t exhibit those symptoms for the objective observer to see.

Advanced level?

“… because they had an advanced level of something from something they obtained from previous lives …” Advanced level, really. You’re going with that? This idea did so much harm in Rigpa. One of the reasons students stayed and kept taking the abuse was because they wanted to be at that ‘advanced’ level, and they wanted to prove to themselves, other students and their lama that they were such an ‘advanced’ student. How did they prove it? By not complaining about the abuse, by trying really hard to “use something dished out to them from an impure vessel to go beyond.”
When they finally saw the abuse as abuse, this idea that if you’re at an advanced level you can use abuse by your lama to benefit you spiritually was used by others to blame the victim. That the victim ‘felt’ hurt was seen as their fault, not the fault of the lama who actually hurt them. Sogyal said he felt sorry that people ‘felt hurt’. He never said he was sorry that he hurt them. This idea that a good/advanced student would be able to ‘transform’ the suffering they experienced at the hands of the lama allows abusive lamas to not take responsibility for the harm they have caused – something that is karmically inadvisable – and it also results in some students continuing to see abuse by lamas as an acceptable teaching method.
It’s true that people can use all sorts of difficult situations in a way that contributes to their spiritual growth, but what Bob neglects to make clear, and what needs to be made clear in relationship to abusive lamas is that this does not give anyone the right to abuse people with the expectation that that abuse be used for spiritual growth.

Physical, sexual, and psychological abuse are not teaching tools.” Mingyur Rinpoche https://www.lionsroar.com/treat-everyone-as-the-buddha/ 

Correctly identifying responsibility

The major issue with this kind of thinking is that it takes the responsibility for harm away from the lama and places it on the student, making the issue a perception of harm, rather than actual harm that can be seen by an objective person. And so it bypasses the issue of the lama’s wrong doing, but actually the lama’s wrong doing is the issue here, not whether the student can ‘handle’ it or not.
They shouldn’t have had to ‘use something dished out to them from an impure vessel’. The kinds of behaviour Sogyal regularly exhibited should never have occured – especially in a spiritual setting – and the fact that he hurt people was his fault, not theirs. Abusing students is not teaching them dharma. It’s teaching them how to be a bully and get away with it by twisting the teachings such that they lay the responsibility for the harm on the student for their perception of harm rather than on the lama for causing actual harm.
We shouldn’t be judging the student here. It’s the lama we should be judging – preferably in a court of law. He’s the one in a position of power with a responsibility to his students to do them no harm.
This is what Bob Thurman neglected to make clear and what other proponents of this idea also forget, so the idea that students can use abusive behaviour to ‘go beyond’ becomes a justification of the lama’s behaviour, but even if there is some truth to the basic concept, justification of the lama’s behaviour is not a logical inference.

Different responses

Certainly in any shared situation people will respond differently, some will be more bothered than others by being yelled at by their boss for instance, but that doesn’t mean that their boss should yell at them, thinking that he is giving them a great opportunity to not let it upset them. The boss is still a bastard and abuse is never an acceptable or effective management method.
Also the person who yells back might actually be handling it on a more healthy way for that person than the person who walks away thinking to themselves ‘I will not let him get under my skin’ or ‘he’s just a really unhappy person.’ To assume that one person is somehow more spiritually advanced than another because they ‘handled’ it better is simply not true, because the guy who yells back may have seen that the boss needs to be yelled at for his own sake, or for him yelling back might be exactly what he needed for himself for his own psychological health at that moment. And the person acting all meek may be simply enabling behaviour that is very bad for everyone and increasing their own sense of worthlessness. Of course, if the guy who yelled back yells at everyone, then it’s a different matter, but either way, it’s a toxic situation those people should never have been put in in the first place.
Could someone being in a bomb blast and seeing all that carnage use that as a means of liberation? I doubt that very much. There is a point at which a situation is just too toxic for people to be able to avoid some kind of trauma, no matter how well they ‘handle it’ and trying to ‘handle it’ well, thinking that means not showing any signs of trauma can be highly counterproductive for their healing, a repression rather than a facing of the reality of their feelings.

Similarity to abusive families

And when the abuse is coming from someone who professes to love you, the situation becomes even more traumatic. This is where the situation of those who were abused in a Buddhist community cannot be compared to those of the yogis incarcerated and tortured by the Chinese. Their tormentors never professed to love them or be torturing them for their benefit. And they didn’t betray any deep spiritual trust, because the yogis hadn’t  placed any trust in them. The yogis still had their devotion to their own guru to sustain them, but the abused students were abused by the very person in which they had placed their trust.
The sense of betrayal and confusion that comes from being abused by a spiritual teacher adds a whole other layer of trauma. The inner circle culture in Rigpa had all the dynamics of a family with an abusive father, so the closest situation that can be used for comparison is that of domestic abuse, not incarceration in prison. The more the spiritual seeker in this instance relates to their lama in a way similiar to how a child relates to their father, the more traumatic the situation would be for them, and a child-like adoration of and complete faith and trust in Sogyal was definitely encouraged in Rigpa. The betrayal of trust and neglect of duty of care is similar to that experienced by the child of an abusive father.
An abusive husband makes his wife feel like it’s her fault, but we all know it isn’t. She loses her self esteem in such an environment, which makes it hard for her to leave and keeps her always trying to do ‘better’ (even to the degree of apologising for causing him to hit her), and it was the same in Rigpa, just replace ‘husband’ with ‘lama’. But the situation in Rigpa is worse because the general culture is supportive of the abuser by giving a philosophical, so-called spiritual, reason to blame the student for their trauma. This attitude only increases the trauma, and anyone who professes any kind of idea that contributes to this culture of victim blaming is enabling abuse, just like the neighbour of a family where she knows there is excessive violence, but instead of reporting the abusive father to social services, she tells herself that it’s just a parent disciplining their child.
Even if adults have been given tools to make the most of an abusive situation, having those tools does not take responsibility for the abuse away from the perpetrator. And it certainly isn’t an excuse or a reason for a lama to abuse people with impunity thinking he is giving them an opportunity to grow. And that applies regardless of the lama’s level of realisation. Permiting someone to hurt someone else on the grounds that it is good for their spiritual development is just twisted thinking that allows violence to be perpetrated in the name of teaching dharma.

Not a failure

My understanding of how it was for people is that they tried for years to transform the abuse into something beneficial for them, but eventually they saw the situation for what it was – a culture of abuse – and then they left. That was the point where their wisdom kicked in. Any suggestion that leaving, or ‘feeling abused’ was some kind of failure on the student’s part is simply a cult control mechanism, thought manipulation, nothing more. It is most certainly not true.
It’s like in family abuse where speaking up or leaving is seen as a betrayal of the family. The idea just keeps family members stuck in the cycle of abuse. In Rigpa fear of being seen and treated as a failure was one of the things that kept people stuck in that toxic situation.
That people struggled for years under the expectation that they transform the abuse into something beneficial, just made the whole situation more toxic and more traumatising.

Misplaced attribution

One can separate oneself and ostracise a lama who abuses the sacred trust of being a spiritual teacher to abuse students using spiritual things as an excuse and method. It is ethical to do that. It protects yourself and protects others, but if there was some genuine learning, then one cannot hate that miscreant. One works with compassion towards people we hate, so why not apply that to the lama as well. So we still love even the bad gurus if we learned anything from them. We love the teachings, we love them, we consider them no longer qualified and we ask them to try to rehabilitate themselves, and if necessary we use law and media and reason to do that.” Bob Thurman. Abuse in Buddhism podcast.

Bob suggests that we remember the benefit we gained from a lama and honor him for that even while we reject them. This is the usual dharma teacher’s response to leaving a teacher,  and being good little Buddhists, we immediatly assume that any benefit we gained from our time as an abusive lama’s student is due to the qualities of the lama.
But what if it was all a performance? All of it. Even what we felt as love. The idea that Sogyal was nothing more than a consumate performer is something that has been suggested to me by many of the people I’ve spoken to who were directly abused – and they should know better than anyone. What if the good qualities we see in our disgraced lama are just a projection of what we want to see? What if by holding onto the idea that he did have some good qualities we’re just making ourselves feel better about the situation? I guess that’s an okay reason, but we should be willing to accept that it may only be wishful thinking on our part, and if we are to see truth directly we need to drop all our attachment and aversion related to our seeking out the benefit.
I’m not saying that we shouldn’t try to see some good in our experience, or that some of us didn’t gain some beneift – clearly we did or we woudn’t have stuck around – just that we need to be careful that we don’t attribute that benefit all to the lama or hold onto our idea of benefit as an excuse not to examine our ‘realisation’.
Those who remain, still thinking they weren’t abused, and those who did feel some shift from something Sogyal did are likely not more advanced spirituality, but rather more able to manufacture or convince themselves of ‘results’, blind to the truth of the dynamics that keep them trapped, ignorant of the teachings on what a crazy wisdom master actually is, and are erroneously laying the benefit they gained on the lama, not on themselves, which is where they should be placing it. It is their devotion, their openess and trust that allowed understanding to arise, not any quality of the lama. Anything they experienced in a positive way was because of them, not him. The point we should not forget here is that the lama was not fit to be in his position.
Anyone who honours Sogyal for any transformation they may have felt from being abused by him (or taking teachings from him) is actually misplacing their attribution of benefit. Given his almost complete lack of qualificiation for the role he took on, any benefit we received was more likely to be despite Sogyal than because of him. It is more realistic to attribute any benefit we gained from our time in Rigpa to the variety of causes and conditions present rather than to one man.

Tough love?

The idea that a student should be able to transform abuse into some kind of realisation also contributes to the idea that tough love is part of vajrayana, and if you can’t ‘handle’ the tough love then you shouldn’t be a vajrayana student.
Is this really the kind of idea we want to propagate for Tibetan Buddhism? A religion where abuse is seen as part of the deal?
No matter from where this idea came, it was used in Rigpa, and can be used in future for so long as its propagated by lamas such as Dzongsar Khyentse, as a cult control mechanism to keep students taking the abuse and in slavery to the whims of the lama. Though some people may need to be treated firmly sometimes, we’re not talking about a sharply given reprimand here, we’re talking about what Karen Baxtor called ‘serious abuse’. There’s a huge difference between the loving parent who shouts at a child to stop them running onto the road in front of a car and then explains why they had to yell and the parent who grabs the child by the hair, drags them off the road and then beats them while they scream, leaving them bruised and traumatise. The second is abuse. The parent is merely releasing his frustration on the child. In the first instance the child learns not to run onto the road without looking. In the second instance the trauma of the beating obliterates the intended learning. They learn only to fear their father, not to take responsibility for checking for cars before stepping into the road.
Physical, emotional and sexual abuse is not love, is never skilful, and is not a teaching method. It’s been proven through educational studies that people learn better in an environment where they are rewarded for learning, not punished for their failures. That Sogyal did not see and apply this is another indication that he is certainly not enlightened, and that he went so far as to inflict this extreme behaviour on his students indicates that, despite whatever benefit anyone gained from their time in Rigpa, Sogyal and other lamas who hit, humilate, or ask sexual favours of students are not fit to teach. That’s the main point, and it should never get lost in talks on abuse in Buddhism.

Personal realities and community responsibilies

Trauma arising from abuse by a lama is NOT the student’s fault – even given their role in their perception of harm – and anyone who suggests that it is by using this idea that an advanced practitioner could benefit from an abusive lama shows a lack of understanding of the dynamics of the situation – particularly that the lama has broken his part in the teacher student relationship and therefore the required dynamics for transformation in a teaching sense are not present. They are also particularly ignorant on how such ideas have been distorted and used as a cult control mechanism.
The idea that students of any capacity can benefit from violent behaviour on the part of the lama must be discarded from Vajrayana, or at the very least, not emphasised and where it is mentioned, taught with a warning for how the idea is not an excuse or justification for harmful actions on the part of the lama. It does not bypass the lama’s responsibility to behave ethically and should not be used to make a student feel that they are a failure if their lama abuses them and they feel hurt by it.
Spiritual abuse is the worst kind of betrayal. To not feel hurt by it, rather than indicating some kind of realisation is more likely to indicate spiritual bypassing and supression of normal healthy human emotion. So don’t assume that feeling blessed rather than harmed, or experiencing what you interpret as a transendent state, indicates some kind of advanced spiritual capacity, it may just brainwashing and the kind of dissasociative state people commonly enter as a response to trauma. Or it may not.
Only one thing is certain in this play of personal realities: whatever you believe will be what you experience as truth, and only by dropping all beliefs will you have any chance of seeing reality directly. If you are brave enough to drop all beliefs and look directly at what actually is, rather than assuming that the truth is what you want it to be, then you are a true dharma practictioner.
Stopping abuse requires community participation. If we are to root it out, it is up to all of us to become educated, and Robert Thurman is not behaving responsibly by propagating this victim blaming disguised as vajrayana.
However, to his credit, he did also make some good points about teaching tantra and made it clear how unscrupulous lamas use the teachings on pure perception to faciliate abuse:

So lamas dish out initiations and then use the aspect [of the teachings] that ‘I’m now a Buddha in your eyes, and anything you see about me that doesn’t look like a Buddha, you have to imagine it is’, and then they abuse you. And worst of all they cripple your learning ability, they make you helpless.” Bob Thurman. Abuse in Buddhism podcast.

So watch out for any lama who suggests that anything you see about them that doesn’t look like a Buddha, you have to imagine it is. That’s a misuse of the pure perception teachings.

Helpful Words on Devotion, Samaya and Pure Perception from Jetsunma Tenzin Palmo

In June 2019, Damcho Dyson, Tahlia Newland and Jacki Wicks are delivering a paper together on Sogyal Rinpoche’s abuse and the fallout it caused as part of the  Sakyadhita International  Association of Buddhist Women’s 16th International Conference. Jacki emailed Tenzin Palmo asking about an aspect of the conference and also asked what her  thinking was on things like samaya and guru devotion in the context of abusive teachers. I found Tenzin Palmo’s reply refreshingly sensible and direct and asked if I could post it here. She gave her permission, so here it is:

Samaya goes both ways:  the student has samaya to the teacher but the teacher also has samaya to the student.  The student’s samaya is to cultivate devotion, trust and openness in order to receive the mind blessings of the guru.  The teacher’s samaya is, through their knowledge and compassion, to develop the spiritual potential of the student. Therefore we must ask, do the actions and words of the guru lead to the students’ well-being, advancement on the path and general feeling of enrichment – or not?

Spiritual teachers cannot use the Dharma as an excuse for licentious or abusive behaviour.   Tantra isn’t about coercing vulnerable women into having sex.  Where is the compassion in exerting your position of power and authority to betray the very people who trust and obey you?  Where are basic ethics and kindness?

If the students (usually -but not always – female) as a result of a sexual relationship with the guru, do feel enhanced, empowered and confident, then that was skilful means on the part of the teacher.  But if the result is humiliation, confusion and disillusionment, then where is the wisdom and compassion in that?  Where have they been helped?

Clearly the manipulative nature of these encounters causes so much distress.  It all seems so egocentric and devoid of empathy. How can these teachers justify such behaviour to themselves?  Although it is a mixture of power, loneliness, emotional immaturity and so on, still this does not excuse the kind of behaviour that would be condemned by anyone anywhere.  That these teachers do have problems is one thing, but that they cannot use their own training to deal with these issues (or even acknowledge them) is really a problem!  Actually, it is pathetic.  Gurus need to observe the same ethical standards as doctors, psychologists, teachers and so on in order to be trusted and respected and not to drag down the reputation of Buddhism.

As Mingyur Rinpoche pointed out, we cultivate pure perception towards everyone, not just the guru. Nonetheless, present day lamas are not Guru Rinpoche or Tilopa, any more than the student is Yeshe Tsogyal or Naropa.  Is the student benefitted? Good. Is the student psychologically harmed?  Not good.  It is so simple.

Tibetan Buddhism is based on a feudal system of total authority (however corrupt) and abject obedience.  We do not need to go backwards to outdated social attitudes in order to be good practitioners. One troubling aspect is the effort to ‘cover up and defend’ by lamas who really should know better.  Part of the ‘Old Boys Club’ syndrome. To try to defend indefensible behaviour by quoting tantric texts and accuse the victims, is to equate Tantra with violence, over-indulgence and sexual predatory activity, which hardly speaks well of that method as a valid path to Enlightenment.

When students are instructed to never question the teacher and to do everything to please them, then of course it leaves the doors wide open to exploitation.  This feudal thinking has to be tempered with common sense and common caution.  If it feels wrong – don’t do it, no matter who asks you.  It is not breaking Samaya to say No.
As someone said: ‘…the happiness of the privileged is based on never starting the process towards becoming accountable…… the revelation of truth is tremendously dangerous to supremacy.’

So be grateful for what teachings the Lama has given and appreciate everything that has been helpful.  But do not feel guilty about seeing and acknowledging where the boundaries have been overstepped by the teacher.  The fault is with limitations and wrong conduct of the guru.  Better luck next time.
All good wishes in the Dharma,
Tenzin Palmo


NB: Tenzin Palmo was NOT a student of Chogyam Trungpa. Read her biography here: http://tenzinpalmo.com/jetsunma-tenzin-palmo/
If any of you would like to donate a little something to help Damcho and Tahlia get to the conference to deliver the paper in person click here.