Should a Spiritual Teacher Attack Your Hidden Faults?

Finally we’ve got to our examination of the beliefs we held without question. The first is one that we often heard from Sogyal Rinpoche, “A Spiritual teacher should attack your hidden faults” or other versions of that same idea. Looking back now, it seems like an attempt to justify abusive behaviour! And he did use it to calm people down if they’d just witnessed some form of abuse, and all of us who went to a retreat did see emotional abuse; we called it “training”. Ouch. Just what exactly was he training us to do? Witness abuse without reacting? How healthy is that? Is this what the Buddha would want his disciples to learn in the name of Buddhism?
So many questions arise when you start examining, but it’s very important that we ask them and consider the answers because this is what we didn’t do in Rigpa. We never questioned anything, and accepting everything I was told is why I remained in a cult for 20 years. I trusted that everything I was taught to belief was for the benefit of the students. Now I know just how badly many students were hurt, how these beliefs were used to justify and cover up abuse.
Anyway, the idea of our belief examination posts is for you to discuss what you think about the belief. Sogyal didn’t make it up. It comes from the introduction to The Words of My Perfect Teacher as something Patrul Rinpoche said.
This video is my contemplation on this one and it includes Sangye’s thoughts on the matter as well. Please share your thoughts on this belief in the comments. I look forward to a lively discussion.

Private discussion on this and other related topics can be had on our Secret Facebook Group. It is only for current and previous students of Rigpa, however, and we do moderate it closely. If you’re interested in joining, please contact us via the contact page and ask for an invite.
Ex-Rigpa students and their Rigpa dharma friends who want to move on from the discussion of abuse in Rigpa can stay in touch through the Dharma Companions Facebook Group.
The What Now? Reference Material page has links to a wealth of articles in the topics related to abuse in Buddhist communities. For links to places to assist in healing from abuse see the sangha care resources page.
Those of you who are interested in ‘keeping Buddhism clean’ could ‘Like’ the Dharma Protectors Facebook page.

Beliefs We Need to Examine

A major part of healing from the cult experience is deconstructing your experience in the cult to see how you were manipulated and examining the beliefs you subscribed to that kept you under the control of the leader and the group.
Below is a list of some of the beliefs that I and other devoted students of Sogyal Rinpoche subscribed to to some degree. I never examined those beliefs at the time, but now it’s important to do so.
This short vlog tells you why.

So basically, not examing the beliefs you held while in a cult is not good for your psychological health as you move forward with your life. And this is not just me saying it, it’s in the recovering-from-a-cult literature you can find by searching the web.
Here’s a list of beliefs that I and others will be examining in the coming weeks. We’ll also be looking at key teachings and asking whether or not we understood them correctly.

  • A great master acting in an unconventional (abusive) manner that would be unacceptable in normal circumstances can bring enormous spiritual benefit to the student;
  • A true vajrayana master points out your hidden faults and that’s what Sogyal Rinpoche is doing when he gives public dressing downs;
  • Everything a mahasiddha does brings benefit;
  • What appears as abuse is actually highly sort-after training that the students experience as love and find transformative;
  • You need a master in order to recognise the nature of mind;
  • Devotion is the key to ‘getting’ the nature of mind;
  • The degree of your devotion is a mark of your realisation;
  • Sogyal Rinpoche is Guru Rinpoche in the flesh;
  • You must see your master as the Buddha if you want the blessings of the Buddha;
  • Sogyal Rinpoche is a great crazy-wisdom master;
  • Great merit is gained by serving your master with your body, speech and mind;
  • You should never criticise your teacher;
  • To criticise your teacher is a breakage of samaya;
  • Breaking samaya is the worst thing you can do for your spiritual life;
  • If you break samaya you will go to hell;
  • If I see something the master does as wrong, it’s proof that I don’t have pure perception;
  • If I speak up about anything in his behaviour that I feel uncomfortable about, I prove that I lack sufficient devotion and so are unworthy of receiving the highest teachings;
  • Not having ‘risings’ (thoughts and emotions) about what I see is proof that the practice is working.
  • The intention behind an action makes it good or bad.
  • Sogyal is a holder of the prestigious lineage of masters in the Nyingma tradition.

Can you think of any other beliefs held in Rigpa that contributed to a situation where abuse could flourish? If so, let me know and I’ll add them to the list for examination. I think we have some interesting conversations coming up!
Here’s some additions that came to me privately or in the comments below:

  • The teaching ‘Let it go’ concerning your risings. Did this become repression of emotions?
  • Did we misuse the Lojong teachings?
  • If the teacher has been recognized as a tulku, they are, therefore, enlightened, and such a teacher’s behavior can only be beneficial, no matter how it may appear.
  • Sex between teacher and student is part of our lineage. Such sex is good for the lama’s health and for the woman’s spiritual advancement.
  • There is no truth, there is only individual perception.
  • The guru is the “face” of your enlightenment, so that if you doubt the guru, you doubt your own enlightened nature. And the paradigm behind this is: “You cannot trust your own perception, because you are deluded, neurotic, etc. I know better what is right for you than you. I know the way to your happyness, and therefore you must obey and trust me.”
  • Teachings on Karma such as:
    • If you don´t follow the master´s instructions you and your loved ones will suffer physical torture or even die.
    • Everything you perceive materially or in your mind is the result of your karma, the result of ripening karma.
    • When the teacher treats you badly it´s because of your karma.
  • devotion and pure perception mean blind faith
  • you can tolerate and hide breaches of the ethical conduct of a master for the better good of the propagation of the Dharma
  • any contact with the guru is beneficial

Private discussion on this and other related topics can be had on our Secret Facebook Group. Is is only for current and previous students of Rigpa, however, and we do moderate it closely. If you’re interested in joining, please contact us via the contact page and ask for an invite.
Ex-Rigpa students and their Rigpa dharma friends who want to move on from the discussion of abuse in Rigpa can stay in touch through the Dharma Companions Facebook Group.
The What Now? Reference Material page has links to a wealth of articles in the topics related to abuse in Buddhist communities. For links to places to assist in healing from abuse see the sangha care resources page.
Those of you who are interested in ‘keeping Buddhism clean’ could ‘Like’ the Dharma Protectors Facebook page.

Are Vajrayana Teachers Really Buddhas?

One of the core teachings of vajrayana is that we should see our teacher as a Buddha, because, in simple terms,  if we do so we will get the blessings (transformative power) of the Buddha rather than the lesser transformative power of an ordinary being.  But how are we to understand such an instruction when our teacher behaves badly or otherwise does not show the nine qualities of a Buddha?

How likely is it that our teacher actually is a Buddha?

True Buddhahood is not a single-bang event; it is a process of removing layers after layer of ever more subtle obscurations. The Buddhists with their love of enumertation have identified ten bhumis, or levels of enlightenment, and it’s unlikely that any teacher in this day and age has reached the tenth Bhumi of full enlightenment.

“As times have degenerated, nowadays it is difficult to find a teacher who has everyone of the qualities described in the precious tantras.” Patrul Rinpoche. The Words of My Perfect Teacher. P138.

And Patrul Rinpoche is not talking about enlightenment here, just the basic qualities of a reliable teacher.

Seeing purely

Of course if we see with pure perception (‘sacred outlook,’ where everything is seen and experienced purely in its true nature), everyone is a Buddha, the teacher as well as ourselves and everyone else; our Buddha nature is just obscured by our emotional, cognitive, habitual and karmic obscurations.

“The sole purpose of viewing the teacher as a buddha is so we can see these same awakened qualities in ourselves, in others, and in the world around us. It is a tool that helps us to gain confidence in the purity of our true nature.” Minguyr Rinpoche. Lions Roar, Sept 24th 2017

So if we see the teacher as a Buddha but not ourselves and everyone else, then we are not truly seeing purely. (Watch out for teachers who don’t make that clear!) The vajrayana path trains us to see purely, but if we don’t have some experience of emptiness/shunyata we may use the idea of pure perception as a kind of a white-wash; we might project our idea of purity onto conventional reality, rather than seeing the actual purity of the essential nature of phenomena directly.
Mistaking projection about a teacher for pure perception leads one to believe that the teacher actually has achieved full enlightenment whether or not his or her behaviour is in accord with teachings on the qualitites of an enlightened being. Clinging to any kind of belief can lead us to deny evidence that counteracts the belief, and if we choose belief about reality over actual reality,  we are increasing our delusion rather than reducing it.
On the other hand, if we focus only on the poor behaviour of a teacher, we will not see his enlightened qualities, and so will not get the best out of our relationship with him or her. (See a previous post on recognising the good and not so good qualities of a teacher.)

How do we avoid this confusion?

To help work this out, I’m returning again to Alexandar Berzin’s book Wise Teacher, Wise Student: Tibetan Approaches to a Healthy Relationship (Ithaca: Snow Lion, 2010), to the chapter on  “Seeing a Mentor as a Buddha” ch. 11
Reading the whole chapter (and the chapter that follows) is vital to truly understanding this directive to see your teacher as a Buddha, so I recommend you do read it. But I’ll give some quotes here. The first one gives a perspective we were never taught in Rigpa – the Madhyamaka distinction between contingent and ultimate existence – and it’s one that will make the instruction to see your teacher as a Buddha a great deal easier to relate to:

In A Commentary on [Dignaga’s “Compendium of] Validly Cognizing Minds,”Dharmakirti stated that the defining characteristic of a phenomenon that arises from causes and conditions is its ability to perform a function for a specific audience. Because of this ability, the phenomenon is what it is. Thus, for instance, a watch that performs the function of a toy for a baby is not simply a watch functioning as a toy: it is a toy, for the baby.
The Madhyamaka explanation clarifies this point: the object is only contingently a toy, not ultimately a toy. It is not the case that the watch contains a concrete, findable defining characteristic, like a genetic code, that by its own power makes it ultimately a watch. Nor is it the case that the item here is an object that has two such characteristics in it, which by their own powers make it ultimately both a watch and a toy, either simultaneously or alternatively. Nor is it the case that the object itself is ultimately something undefined, which is neither of the two. It is a watch or a toy contingent on its ability to function validly as a watch for an adult or a toy for a baby, without ultimately being a watch, a toy, both, or neither.
The confusion here is that the four logical inferences cited in the graded-path texts demonstrate that spiritual mentors function as Buddhas for their disciples, while the scriptural quotations state that they are Buddhas. By the above explanation, the two statements are equivalent, but only in the sense that mentors are contingently Buddhas, not ultimately Buddhas. Westerners who are unaware of the Madhyamaka distinction between contingent and ultimate existence find the entire presentation totally baffling. Their confusion becomes even more perplexing because a magnifying glass does not need to be the sun in order to act as a medium for the sun. Therefore, when the texts recommend seeing that a mentor is a Buddha, we need to understand this to mean seeing the person only contingently as a Buddha, inasmuch as he or she validly functions as a Buddha for disciples.

Sakya Pandita explicitly made this point in The Divisions of the Three Sets of Vows. There he wrote, “The Prajnaparamita texts state that disciples need to regard their mentors as if the teachers were Buddhas. They do not claim that the mentors actually are Buddhas.”

Berzin goes on to say that there are many levels of understanding, and he looks at the “additional deeper meanings specific to highest tantra practice.”
“The Sakya master Ngorchen clearly stated in A Filigree for Beautifying the Three Continuums that in the context of highest tantra, the tantric master is not merely like a Buddha; he or she is a Buddha.”
He also tells us that a skeptical attitude to this deprives us of realizing the deepest insights to be gained from the teaching.
And yet, he also says:

“Some spiritual seekers take the highest tantra statement to have a literal meaning. Consequently, they view all their tantric masters’ actions, words, and emotional states as perfect. This frequently happens regarding dzogchen masters, since dzogchen supposedly means that everything is perfect. In Ascertaining the Three Vows, however, the Nyingma master Ngari Panchen made the situation clear. He explained that, in private, dzogchen masters may occasionally need to act in contradiction to the norms of generally accepted behavior. However, when in the public eye or in the company of beginners who may lose faith, dzogchen masters need to uphold strictly the liberation and bodhisattva vows. Thus, if popular spiritual teachers act improperly with students at Dharma centers, they are violating the basic Buddhist principles. Naivety over this point may open spiritual seekers to possible abuse.”

Confused? Not surprising. The answer to not taking it literally and at the same time not depriving ourselves of the deepest insights to be gained from the teaching is a correct understanding of the idea of seeing purely.

“The usual human appearance of the body of a tantric master and its simultaneous appearance as the enlightening body of a Buddha, particularly during an empowerment, are two facts about the same attribute of one phenomenon (ngowochigngo-bo gcig; “they are one by nature”). The phenomenon here is a tantric master; the attribute is the appearance of his or her physical body; the two facts about that attribute are that the appearance can validly be as a usual human and as the enlightening body of a Buddha.

The two appearances are two facts about the physical body of a tantric master and, in this sense, our tantric masters are Buddhas – although, of course, not inherently and ultimately Buddhas.”

He goes on to say that “our tantric masters are inseparably ordinary humans and Buddhas.” Then he deepens our understanding of this point by going into the three levels of significance of inseparable impure and pure appearances.
Remember the Heart Sutra? Form is emptiness; emptiness is form; form is no other than emptiness; emptiness is no other than form. When we see like this, there is no contradiction between seeing a Lama who exibits abusive behaviour as a Buddha because on the absolute/pure appearance level of existence he is, as we all are, indeed a Buddha. This isn’t an easy perspective for our dualistic minds to hold, however, and as Berzin and many other Buddhist teachers say, the idea that our teacher is a Buddha must not be taken literally on a conventional level to mean that he or she is actually enlightened and that everything he or she does is enlightened action and therefore acceptable. (“Naivety over this point may open spiritual seekers to possible abuse.” Berzin.)
I think it is always helpful, no matter what level of understanding we are considering, to remember the initial angle Berzin presents that the Lama is a Buddha only in so far as he or she functions as a Buddha for us in terms of teaching and practice.
His Holiness puts this in perspective in a statement during the Conference with Western Dharma Teachers in 1993:

“I have had many teachers, and I cannot accept seeing all their actions as pure. My two regents, who were among my sixteen teachers, fought one another in a power struggle that even involved the Tibetan army. When I sit on my meditation seat, I feel both were kind to me, and I have profound respect for both of them. Their fights do not matter. But when I had to deal with what was going on in the society, I said to them, “What you’re doing is wrong!” We should not feel a conflict in loyalties by acting in this way. In our practice, we can view the guru’s behavior as that of a mahasiddha, and in dealings with society, follow the general Buddhist approach and say that that behavior is wrong.”

Berzin concludes by pointing out the reason why we practice seeing our Lama as a Buddha and why seeing the flaws that obscure his or her clear light mind (Buddha nature is also important:

“In short, the deepest basis for mentally labeling a tantric master as a Buddha is the master’s clear light mind. The basis for labeling is not the fleeting stains that may or may not be obscuring that mind. Nor is the basis the strength of the manifest qualities of that mind. Thus, the mental labeling of a tantric master as a Buddha based on clear light mind is always valid.
… Seeing that the flaws that appear in our external gurus are dependently arising fleeting stains enables us to see that the flaws that appear in our internal gurus – our clear light minds – are also dependently arising and fleeting. This insight is essential for actualizing the Buddha-qualities of our own clear light minds.

Click here to read the whole chapter. This is only part one of his teaching on this topic; at the end of the page, in the right hand corner, you’ll find a link to part two where Berzin goes even more deeply into seeing the Lama as a Buddha in Tantra.  I highly recommend both chapters.

Have you broken Samaya? If so, what does that mean?

Sogyal Rinpoche is not well. He hasn’t been well for many years, but now it’s known that he has colon cancer, has had an operation and is facing chemotherapy. Orgyen Tobgyal, a lama who often taught at Lerab Ling recently gave a message to the Rigpa sangha asking students not to break any more samaya as it affects Sogyal Rinpoche’s health. It’s a simple statement, but it’s loaded with assumptions and ammunition for those who hold the kind of fundamentalist views that have polarised the sangha. He could have called for a healing of the rift in the sangha, something that would have a positive effect on the situation, but no, he had to call out the ‘samaya breakers’, an angle that only fosters the view point of those who blame their personal distress on those who have spoken out. Now they may blame their lama’s poor health on those who speak out – conveniently ignoring the fact that the cancer will have been there long before the end of July 2017. On top of that, he could also be seen as ‘laying a guilt trip’ on those who have spoken up and spoken out. This shows how little this lama understands the situation and the Western mind with its tendency for carrying guilt – something that is highly damaging for one’s psychological health. He seems to only be able to see the situation through the lens of Tibetan superstition. Either that or he simply lacks compassion for those who have been harmed.
For those of you who saw something helpful in Orgyen Tobgyal’s words, before you jump on the samaya breaker bandwagon and repeat the phrase like a war cry, consider that a better way of contributing to Sogyal Rinpoche’s recovery would be to heal the rift in the sangha, to reach out to those you may have maligned and offer them love and compassion instead of judgement and blame. Love and compassion sounds like dharma to me; blame doesn’t sound like dharma at all.
But rather than dwell on this man’s words, I’d like to reassure students that they have nothing to fear, that they don’t have to buy into a guilt trip.
First understand that this is just a belief system, one that you do not need to subscribe to. It is just a bunch of beliefs with no inherent reality, and you can choose to believe them or not. Even if their aim is to help you on your spiritual path, when used as a method of control (as in “shut up or go to hell”) they are not being used in a dharmic way, so have no qualms about ditching the whole lot. If beliefs have no meaning for you, then they will have no effect on you. Beliefs are only relevant to you if you believe in them. Do not confuse reality with beliefs about reality.
However, if the idea of samaya is not one you can’t or don’t want to simply discard (and I’m not saying you should, just that it is an option) then remember that samaya only applies to you if you have received empowerments from a lama, if you had a choice, and if you understood the commitment BEFORE you had the empowerment. (See Erick Pema Kunsang’s article.) For this lama, his speciality was giving the ultimate empowerment of the nature of mind, and that was often given before a student heard any mention of the concept of samaya. Also there was never any ‘if you don’t want samaya, leave now option’. If you never ‘got’ an introduction by not becoming certain of the nature of your mind, or you don’t have any idea of what samaya is all about, then you have no samaya with Sr. Many of us do, however, and many of us who maybe aren’t sure do ‘feel’ as if we have samaya, so let’s look a bit further into what this means for us.
Samaya is one of those concepts in Vajrayana Buddhism that can be quite complex and so easy to get confused about, but SR taught it quite simply. He said that in the context of Dzogchen it is simply your heart connection with your lama, and that for so long as we kept that connection pure, we were keeping our samaya. If you are a student of SR concerned about your samaya with him, I suggest that this is the meaning you should take, because this is how he would have explained it to you.
Under this interpretation, no one can say what your heart connection with your lama is, no one except you. Only you know whether or not you still appreciate what you received from him. On the matter of breaking samaya when speaking out about a lama’s unethical behaviour, His Holiness the Dalai Lama in the conference for Western Buddhist teachers in 1993 said:

“It is essential to distinguish between two things: the person and their action. We criticize the action, not the person. The person is neutral: he or she wants to be happy and overcome suffering, and once their negative action stops, they will become a friend. The troublemaker is the afflictions and actions. Speaking out against the action does not mean that we hate the person. For example, we Tibetans fight Chinese injustice, but it doesn’t mean we are against the Chinese as human beings, even those who are ruthless. In meditation, I try to develop genuine compassion for these people while still opposing their actions. Thus, we may criticize a teacher’s abusive actions or negative qualities while we respect them as a person at the same time. There are still some beneficial aspects of the guru. A mistaken action doesn’t destroy their good qualities. If you criticize in this way, there is no danger of hellish rebirth as a result. Motivation is the key: speaking out of hatred or desire for revenge is wrong. However, if we know that by not speaking out, their bad behavior will continue and will harm the Buddhadharma, and we still remain silent, that is wrong.”

That’s how you keep your samaya pure. It’s quite simple. It’s not speaking out that breaks samaya; it’s speaking out of hatred or a desire for revenge; it’s rejecting the good along with the bad. The instruction to keep samaya shouldn’t be a way to stop us speaking up about a lama’s bad behaviour, surely it’s supposed to help us to remember to value what is valuable, because that is beneficial for us. So even while we discard some aspect of the lama that is not valuable, if we still value what is valuable from our time with them, then we have not broken samaya. All it really means is that we are walking away with a balanced view, one that, surely, is healthiest for our sanity.
You can examine his lack of qualifications for teaching madyamika (which would be why he never taught it) at the same time as recognising that he did an excellent job of teaching Dzogchen, and at the very least introduce you to dharma. Separating the man’s Buddha nature from his confused nature, also helps. The benefit you received came when he was in the nature of his mind, the bad behaviour came when he was in his confused mind.  We can respect the Buddha nature in everyone, even in the perpetrators of abuse. That is the dharmic way.
What is this vajra hell we’re supposed to end up in if we break samaya, anyway? Surely it is merely the anguish of being in the mental state of hatred. Worse would be rejecting your experience of the nature of your own mind. That would probably set your spiritual path back a bit.
If you look at yourself and admit that you hate Sr through and through and can see nothing good about anything he has done at all, then you could simply drop the whole belief system, and move on with your life, unsubscribe from the belief that samaya exists or has relevance in your life. But if you keep picking at the wound over and over again, it’s not healthy for you; it simply hurts you over and over again. (This is not just dharma, it’s basic psychology.) If you can’t manage to unsubscribe completely, then remember that samaya can be repaired. Reparation does not require shutting up or apologising for speaking out, it simply requires accepting whatever benefit you got as still being valid. Perhaps you might also learn one day to see him as a victim of his own upbringing and circumstances and learn to forgive.
Though some Tibetan lamas seem to use the idea of samaya in an unhealthy way, I doubt that control was the original intention. I certainly aren’t buying into any guilt trip!
If you scholarly types are looking for references for this understanding, try putting aside what you think you know, look into your heart and ask yourself if this perspective makes sense, or if it is not in accord with what His Holiness says. Do we need a reference for everything we believe, anyway? Can we, many of us after 20 or more years in the dharma, not look at things as they are for us directly and have some trust in that?


Confessions of a Devoted Student – Part 1

Samaya, Devotion & Beliefs that Alter Perception

The love in the room is palpable. It flows directly from the man on the dais at the front into my heart, and into the heart of the other 300 people sharing this experience. He swivels on his chair and scans the room, looking at each of the students in turn. He does not rush. He holds us all with his wisdom mind. He looks at me and our minds connect. Heart-mind in one. Transformative power flows through him from his masters and from their masters before them. He is a light bulb plugged into the socket of devotion, and the blessings of the lineage flow through him into me. He is all the lineage masters in one. He is Guru Rinpoche. He is also a mirror. He mirrors and evokes my own wisdom mind. I recognise it and smile. His eyes twinkle and the corner of his mouth rises just slightly, then he turns to the next person. I remain in spacious awareness.
In that moment, I hear and see all and every single sound and sight in its own place all at once, in one glance—panoramic awareness—and I hold it all in my heart, aware of every interconnection that brings it all into being and keeps it always changing. The world is luminous, alive with being. Like my lama, my Vajra brothers and sisters are perfect in their primordial nature. This is without a shred of doubt the perfect time, the perfect place, the perfect teacher, the perfect teaching and the perfect students. It still is. It always is. Continue reading “Confessions of a Devoted Student – Part 1”