The Dalai Lama and the Empowerment of Students

His Holiness the Dalai Lama’s recent meeting with some survivors of abuse by Tibetan Buddhist lamas led to some articles emphasising that he had known about abuse in Tibetan Buddhism for decades. This led to a rise in anti-Dalai Lama sentiment, particularly the accusation that he should have done more to stop it. On fact value, that’s a reasonable reaction, but when we understand the reality of HH’s position within the Tibetan cultural and religious system, we see that in actual fact, in terms of Tibetan culture, that he has been very outspoken.
Tseten Samdup Chhoekyapa, a representative of HHDL in Europe, said during his European tour that the Dalai Lama “has consistently denounced such irresponsible and unethical behaviour”.
At the conference with Western Buddhist Teachers in Dharamsala in 1993, HHDL spoke quite clearly about the need to publically expose lamas who acted unethically. It was due to his responses on the matter then that the 8 close students of Sogyal Lakar wrote the letter exposing his abuses. The importance of HH’s words then cannot be overemphasised. Without them, that letter would never have been written. 
If you accuse the Dalai Lama of not doing more to counter the abuse, you need to understand that he bears the weight of cultural and religious expectations, such as supporting the building of temples, and that he actually has no power over the lamas; even in his own school of Tibetan Buddhism, he can only make suggestions. It is up to the lamas whether or not they pay attention to what he says. And that aside, as this post by Joanne Clark explains, there is more compassion and wisdom in the way he has handled the abuse issue than appears on the surface. 
Thanks Joanne for sharing your perspective.

The importance of empowering abuse survivors

The cause of abuse of all kinds, and particularly sexual abuse, is misuse of power. This fact is widely accepted amongst therapists. When I worked as a counselor for survivors of sexual abuse on a university campus in Massachusetts, we used the “Empowerment Method.” In this method of counseling, power that has been violently taken away from a survivor is given back. We don’t advise any survivor on their course of action. We give them options and information and support them in whatever choices of action they want to take. This—and providing safety—are the two essential tools we used as we sat beside survivors in the hospital or police station or received their calls in the middle of the night.
In this context, if one views the actions the Dalai Lama has taken over decades, they are all focused on empowering survivors and empowering students to prevent abuses. Yes, one could criticize him for not stepping in sooner and speaking out over what he had heard about Sogyal Lakhar’s abuses. However, this might simply have resulted in another big power figure taking charge of an already top-heavy situation—and further disempowered students. Instead, he waited for survivors themselves to make the move—and then spoke out in support of their actions.

Challenging power stuctures in Tibetan Buddhism

In fact, it has been now almost four decades since His Holiness first began challenging certain power structures within the institution of Tibetan Buddhist culture—specifically, the very power structures that have allowed abuses to occur. In a publication on Lamrim dated 1982, he stated clearly and categorically that the practice of seeing the guru as a perfect Buddha is a dangerous practice, particularly for beginners, and that it should not be emphasized. The reaction against these statements from within his own lineage was strong, with people claiming that His Holiness “did not understand Lamrim”.
Then in 1993, the Dalai Lama met with Western teachers to discuss problems within Western Tibetan Buddhism and dramatically added a caveat to an instruction that insured lamas of absolute power—the instruction to never criticize one’s Vajrayana lama. At this conference, he stated clearly and unequivocally that in order to stop harm, students may speak out, even if they are tantrically bound to a teacher. Further, he advised students to make abuses by lamas public, saying that this is the only way to stop them.

Support for speaking out

In the context of Tibetan culture, speaking publicly about someone’s harmful actions is an extreme measure. In the West, it is more commonplace—and the media is set up for it. By suggesting this as an approach towards stemming lama abuses, the Dalai Lama is skillfully navigating cultures and acting dramatically to empower Western students. He is handing Western students a powerful tool.
When the eight ex-Rigpa students wrote their letter of disclosure, they used the Dalai Lama’s instructions from 1993 as support for their actions. The response from most in the Tibetan Buddhist establishment has been either silence or to condemn the eight for this letter. Some have claimed that they are doomed to hell. One has claimed that they are possessed by demons. However, the Dalai Lama has spoken out in support of their actions. He is the only Tibetan Buddhist leader to speak out in support of the eight. (Mingyur Rinpoche’s Lions Roar article did not mention Sogyal by name.)
He is the only Tibetan Buddhist leader to even acknowledge that there is a serious problem of abuse within Western Tibetan Buddhist organizations—and he has spoken about this frequently and consistently in teachings and conferences over decades. All of his comments target the institutional power structures that have allowed abuse to occur and all have empowered survivors. He even spoke once in dramatic ways about toppling old Tibetan feudal systems and compared this situation to the French revolution.

Steps in reformation

In fact, much of his life has been devoted towards democratizing Tibetan culture and reforming institutional structures. He voluntarily relinquished his position as “god-king” of the Tibetan people in 2011, after years of initiating democratic reforms within the government. He has helped establish the Mind and Life Institute, which is devoted to seeking better understanding between contemplative practices and science. The result of this has been to challenge aspects of blind faith within Tibetan Buddhism, such as a belief in Mt. Meru as the center of a flat world and many other erroneous facts of cosmology in the Abhidharma. He has brought science into the monastic curriculum and consistently encouraged students to be ‘21st Century Buddhists” by being better educated and more discerning. Practices that promote blind faith over critical discernment are another means of dis-empowering students in ways that can lead to abuses. This is what he has worked to undermine.
In a text published this year, co-authored by Thubten Chodron, His Holiness writes candidly and realistically about the problems with abusive lamas in the West and in Taiwan. Throughout fifty pages devoted to the topic of reliance on a spiritual master, he suggests possible reforms, identifies specific problems and reiterates his call for Western and Taiwanese students themselves to take action and take their power. At one point, he suggests that the West could initiate a certification program for all who teach in the West.
Here is a quote from that text:

“Because students are new to Buddhism, they may have blind devotion and obedience to spiritual mentors. Hearing about the great merit gained from making offerings to spiritual mentors, they may give them many donations and gifts– things that someone living in India would not have. The teacher becomes spoiled by the gifts and esteem of the students and if he is not careful, this could lead to his taking advantage of well-meaning students.
“I have received many letters from people in other countries asking me to do something about this, but it is not in my control. Tibetan Buddhism is not organized like the Catholic Church with a pope and Vatican administration. I cannot make someone return to India or force him to stop wearing robes. When I teach, I give clear instructions about suitable behavior for teachers, both monastic and lay. If people do not listen to me then, it is doubtful that they will heed instructions from my office or the Department of Religious and Cultural Affairs…” (2018, The Dalai Lama and Thubten Chodron, The foundation of Buddhist Practice, p. 119)

“Tibetan Buddhism is not organized like the Catholic Church with a pope and Vatican administration …” This is certainly now being demonstrated in the context of Rigpa’s current position. Rigpa leaders are not interested in hearing anything he has to say! After declaring years ago that His Holiness was one of his “principal teachers,” Sogyal Lakhar, with the full support of Rigpa management, is now acting as if His Holiness has no advice to give and is no part of his or the Rigpa landscape. Rigpa has now changed its mission from “Rime” to “ancient Nyingma.” It’s hard to imagine that if His Holiness had refused to attend the Lerab Ling inauguration ten years ago, that this would have changed anything either. It would have been a good political move perhaps—but not an effective one.

A precarious balance

At the same time in the text quoted above, His Holiness upholds traditional teachings on the preciousness of the student-guru relationship. For those who want to move forward out of abusive relations with a lama and remain within the Dharma itself, his perspective is hugely beneficial and empowering. Abuse within a spiritual domain has a twofold impact, one from the abuse itself and the other from the harm to one’s spiritual path. For many, being able to retain that spiritual path is important and empowering and very healing.
It is probably this precarious balance he is maintaining that causes people to criticize him for not doing more. He is deeply invested in the survival of the Tibetan Buddhist tradition. That is clear. He sees the extraordinary, precious features of this tradition, established over centuries by brilliant scholars and realized yogis and is working tirelessly to preserve them. However, right now, the silence from leaders of all four lineages is palpable. It is clear that the Dalai Lama does not have the support of many Tibetan lamas in his advice on ending abuse. It appears that only Mingyur Rinpoche and Tsoknyi Rinpoche openly agree with him on whether students can speak out to stop harm. This also must be factored in, when we judge how His Holiness has chosen to act over the years. He is acutely aware that words from him are not going to move the dial very far in terms of changing lama behavior—while knowing that actions from students themselves have greater power in moving the dial in dramatic ways.

An ally

So I think we want to be careful and not forget that His Holiness is our ally. He wants the abuses to end certainly as much as we do and probably more. And he wants to help us heal. And I think that he has a lot to offer as advisor but not as power figure as we move forward towards safety in Western Dharma Centers. Truly, the ball is in our court now, we can take our power.
Thanks Joane. 
And now a post script from Tahlia.

A clarification of recent comments

A transcript I received of the exchange between reporter Nicole le Fever (NOS) and the Dalai Lama during the Meet & Greet in the Nieuwe Kerk in Amsterdam today (15 September 2018) says that HH said, “So, these people, they don’t care about Buddha’s teaching. So, now the only thing is: make public, these things. Then people may be concerned about their shame, their embarassment. So, I told, so yesterday also I mentioned, since many years ago I already mentioned that: ‘Now you make things clear, so very good, I don’t care.'”
The “I don’t care” means that if a lama abuses students and it is publicized, he doesn’t care that the information gets out and makes them look bad. He didn’t mean that he didn’t care about the situation. 
A good article on His Holiness’s position from a Tibetan Perspective is this one from the Tibetan Feminist Collective.

The next step

I have since heard that he is definitely placing abuse on the agenda for his meeting in Dharamsala in November with all the important religious leaders of Tibetan traditions. And in that interview with Nicole le Fever he told us what our next steps should be: “So at that time, you see, they should appeal, I suggested. So, I think the religious leaders, I think, should pay more attention, like that.”
So he feels that that is the time, during this meeting in November, for students to petition the lamas, that there they (the lamas) should pay more attention. I sure hope that someone is arranging to go there and speak to the lamas directly. Anyone? Anyone sending a letter to them all?

Current and previous students of Rigpa can participate in private discussion on this and other abuse-related topics on our What Now? Facebook Group. If you’re interested in joining, please contact us via the contact page and ask for an invite.
People from any Vajrayana sangha can join the Survivors of Vajrayana Abuse and Allies Facebook group for support. Click the link to request to join.
Anyone who has left a Buddhist sangha that had an abusive teacher can join the  Beyond the Temple Facebook Group. The focus in this group is not on the abuse, but on ourselves and our spiritual life as we recover from our experience and look to the future. Click here and request to join.
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, which posts links to related articles as they come to hand.


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?


His Holiness the Dalai Lama again mentions Sogyal Rinpoche.

In contrast to the comments by Khenchen Namdrol we discussed in our last post, His Holiness the Dalai Lama during day 1 of his two day teaching on Kamalashila’s “The Middling Stages of Meditation” and Tsongkhapa’s “Concise Stages of the Path to Enlightenment” at Skonto Hall in Riga, Latvia on September 23rd, 2017, again questioned Sogyal Rinpoche’s level of practice (making an unprecedented four times). He was speaking on the qualities of spiritual teachers.
Some relevant quotes to provide a context for the mention are as follows:
“The Four Noble Truths are the basis of the basic teachings in the all the teachings of the Buddha and that the teachings of Mahayana, Hinayana on and so forth and so this is how you also should lead your disciples, your students, on the basis of the teaching of the Four Noble Truths. So otherwise the teachings of the Buddha would also be like other traditions where, the other traditions such as the theistic religion say that, if you don’t believe in God you’ll go to hell. It would be similar to that and then we also come across mention of all the different kinds of the hell realms, say eighteen different layers of hell and so forth if you don’t practice well you’ll go to hell and so forth. And so this what these teachings would be like: scaring people without giving them good understanding of their teaching as a whole. “
And later:
“With regard to the teaching of the Dharma we are not telling stories we’re not going through some history or anything like. We are talking about disciplining one’s own minds, taming one’s own minds.

Therefore, someone who claims to be a Dharma teacher, must become tamed themselves.
And therefore, master Tsongkhapa mentioned that, and with regard to taming the mind, you cannot just have anything that it comes across that you come across as a practice, but, you actually should follow the pattern that is found in the general teaching of the Buddha itself.
And so what that means is this one should be actually tamed through the three trainings: – the training of morality – the training of concentration and through – the training of wisdom.
And so master Tsongkhapa’s writings are quite, they’re comprehensive. He says you cannot just have any kind of practice, and any kind of experience, but, you should actually go through the training based on the three trainings, and the general teaching of the Buddha. …
And so a lama must be someone who has all these qualifications mentioned in the Sutra Alamkara in in short the lama must be a learn-ed, as well as experienced. So we have in the Kadam tradition, the scholarly Kadam tradition, studied these texts, the six different texts so such as <lists six texts @ 2:22:45>.
So these must be used as texts for study. Of course you could be really learning, but if you don’t have experience and practice that doesn’t make you a qualified teacher as such, Dharma teacher as such.
And therefore you must be experienced, while being scholarly, learned ones.
And therefore you should also be someone who is learned.
That learning, that scholarship does not actually undermine or kill being disciplined and [having] humility.
So Sogyal Rinpoche was disgraced recently in America. And so he maybe learned, but without any practice and experience of the teaching, therefore, abusing disciples, deceiving them.
And so there were people in Taiwan and other places in Tibet also this happen.”

Dalai Lama Speaks Out About Sogyal Rinpoche

Recently, author and journalist Michaela Haas asked the Office of His Holiness the Dalai Lama for a statement about the current situation in Rigpa, in particular the allegations of abuse made by 8 former and current students.
In response, they referred to the following remarks the Dalai Lama gave at the Inauguration of Seminar on ‘Buddhism in Ladakh’ on August 1, 2017.
This is a transcript of his remarks.  There’s a video clip of this part of his address at the end of this post.
It can be helpful to listen to the video in addition to reading the transcript so you can hear the emphasis the Dalai Lama gives certain points.  For example, he’s quite adamant when he says, “That’s totally wrong,” in reference to following a spiritual teacher blindly.
Continue reading “Dalai Lama Speaks Out About Sogyal Rinpoche”

Confused or Conflicted? What the Dalai Lama Says About Teachers and Unethical Behavior

Feeling confused or conflicted?
You may have received teachings that tell you to see the teacher as a Buddha and all his actions as skillful means, enlightened activity, or crazy wisdom.  On the other hand, you may have experienced, observed, or heard about behaviors on the teacher’s part that seem outrageous and perhaps, even unethical.
Is it crazy wisdom?  Is it abuse?  Should you stay silent?  Should you question?  Should you speak out?
These kinds of questions can silently torment a student for months and even years.  The deep appreciation you feel for all that you’ve received — teachings that may have brought meaning to your life in inexpressible ways — pulls you in one direction.  The questionable behavior pulls you in another.  And fear of repercussions, like criticism, exile from your community or the threat of vajra hell, can keep you paralyzed.
Let’s look to the Dalai Lama for guidance on how to approach what appears to be unethical behavior by a teacher.   The Dalai Lama gave very clear instructions about this at the 1993 Western Buddhist Teachers Conference.
Continue reading “Confused or Conflicted? What the Dalai Lama Says About Teachers and Unethical Behavior”