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.

Dangerous Ideas that Support Abuse

Orgyen Tobgyal promotes violence

In Paris last year at the Rigpa Centre, Orgyen Tobgyal Rinpoche publicly said about spiritual teachers, “Such great beings, whether it coresponds to western ideas or not, if they kill someone, it’s fine.Whatever they do is for the benefit of sentient beings” and “Beating hard increases wisdom.” Click here to see notes on the full talk. The quotes above are are in question 3.
His talk fostered beliefs that support Sogyal Lakar/Rinpoche abusing his students and details examples of other such behaviour from spiritual teachers that he holds up as something to emulate. He doesn’t believe Sogyal did anything wrong. In saying that he saw “nothing extraordinary” in the back scratcher, he was referring specifically to regular beatings Sogyal Lakar/Rinpoche gave students using his back scratcher. These assualts were verified by the Lewis Silkin Independent report into the abuse.
Is this a teacher you should be supporting, following, inviting to your centre or listening to? Are these ideas ones you want to believe? Are they healthy for society and individuals or harmful? Should you be part of an organisation that invites such a person to their centre?

The Buddha taught people to use their intelligence and not follow anyone who preached ideas that caused harm.

And yet Rigpa takes the advice of this man

Orgyen Topgyal is one of Rigpa’s “spiritual” advisors and he is about to undertake a major visit to Australia (details here: https://www.rigpa.org.au/orgyen-tobgyal-rinpoche/).
But I suspect that many in Rigpa in Australia and elsewhere are not aware of what he said in Paris and that he is a man who publically supports Sogyal’s abuse of his students. I think they need to  know this, and they need to be encourged to really think about whether these are ideas they should be taking on board. So please share this information with your Rigpa friends and ask them if these are healthy ideas to be taking on board.
Of course his full talk to Rigpa Paris is indoctrination that supports the power structure that allowed Sogyal to abuse his students for decades, so by the time they read down to question 3 where he makes clear his view that abuse by teachers is perfectly acceptable, they may have lost their ability to see what he says clearly, so you’ll need to get them to read question 3 or quote it to them.
Dangerous beliefs are the core of the problem here and until we make it clear that such beliefs are not healthy and not acceptable in the West, abuse can still happen in Tibetan Buddhism.

 
 


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.

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. http://www.tibetanfeministcollective.org/2018/09/18/dalai-lama-statements-refugee-abuse/

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.

 
 

Why Rigpa Students Find it Hard to Challenge Sogyal Rinpoche’s Abuse

When Rigpa students study Ngondro, they are indoctrinated with teachings that make it very difficult for them to challenge their teacher’s abusive behaviour. Below are some of the key ‘teachings’ that supported the idea that we had to do whatever Sogyal asked of us and that everything he did, even if it didn’t ‘appear’ to be in accord with the dharma was for our benefit. These ideas were drummed into our heads through daily repetition. Those of us who did our 100,000 recitations of the Longchen Nyingtik Ngondro Guru Yoga were well and truly brainwashed into believing that following these ideas would bring us to enlightenment.

Problematic beliefs

The quotes and page references below are from: A Guide To The Practice Of Ngöndro – The Brief Dudjom Tersar Ngöndro and the Longchen Nyingtik Ngöndro with commentaries and guidance on how to practise them. 2nd edition – January 2007, published by Rigpa.
“You should rely upon your vajra lama, the ultimate master whose mind is emptiness and compassion and who accomplishes the benefit of self and others, cherishing him as though he were your very eyes. Follow his instructions to the letter, and take to heart the profound practices he gives, not just now and then, but with diligent and constant application. Practise with unflagging diligence for as long as you live. Pray that you may become worthy of the transmission of his profound wisdom mind, so that your realization becomes indivisible from his.” Commentary Page 210
“Towards the lifestyle and activity of the lama, may wrong view not arise for even an instant, and may I see whatever he does, whether it seems to be in accordance with the Dharma or not, as a teaching for me.” In this respect, you should remember the story of Captain Compassionate Heart killing Black Spearman, and Brahmin Lover of the Stars forsaking his vow of chastity for the brahmin girl.”  Commentary Page 221. (Note 101: See The Words of My Perfect Teacher (revised ed.), p. 125 – Read it here. It explains why negative actions performed by a Bodhisattva are in fact positive, in some circumstances)
“May I rely upon my vajra lama meaningfully,
as though he were my very eyes,
Following his instructions to the letter,
and taking to heart the profound practices he gives,
Not just now and then, but with diligent and
constant application,
May I become worthy of the transmission
of his profound wisdom mind!”
(Root text. Page 273)
“Towards the lifestyle and activity of the lama,
May wrong view not arise for even an instant, and
May I see whatever he does as a teaching for me.
Through such devotion, may his blessing inspire
and fill my mind!”
(Root text. Page 278)
Wrong view here refers to seeing the teacher as an ordinary being. You can see how steeped in blind devotion this tradition is.
If the teacher was actually enlightened, or even just a decent human being who actually cared about his students, these ideas wouldn’t be so harmful, and in terms of the pure perception teachings of Vajrayana might even be helpful for students who truly understand what is meant by pure perception – very few do, though! HH Dalai Lama said in Dharamsala in 1993 about the practice of seeing one’s lama as a Buddha, “If it is misunderstood, and thus gives the guru free license, it is like poison, destroying the teachings, the guru, and the disciple.”
The assumption that a lama is worthy of the responsibility of being a guru is unrealistic these days and giving him or her this kind of trust is just not healthy. And in a situation where the lama is only concerned with his own worldly success and gratification, these ideas make a community a destructive cult.
If you think the ‘destructive cult’ label is a bit extreme, take a look at this quote from the Zindri, which you can find on page 261 f. (printed version) under chapter (1) Common Activities (of the teacher). The whole chapter is very revealing. It culminates in the statement:
“His (the teacher´s) charisma may attract men and women alike, but even if he were to seduce a hundred girls daily, see it as the activity of bringing under control. And when he causes trouble, stirring up disputes and so on, even if he slaughters hundreds of animals every day, regard this as the activity of fierce subduing.”
In other words, your teacher can do what he likes and you have to see it all as good! This is the kind of belief that fosters abusive cults – beliefs that put the leader above norms of ethical behaviour. Maybe all Tibetan Buddhist sanghas were actually cults according to our present understanding of the term. I have it on good authority that there is no word for destructive cult in Tibetan, not in terms of a lama and community that is controlling and manipulative. Why is that? I bet it’s not because all their lamas were perfect! More likely it’s because Tibetans were well and truly indoctrinated in this way of thinking. Not so in the West. Here we call a spade a spade, and an abuser an abuser – that is, if we’re not brainwashed into thinking the abuse is enlightened activity.

Is The Words of My Perfect Teacher a relevant text for modern times?

The Words of My Perfect Teacher and The Zindri, a commentary on it, are the two core texts of Rigpa along with The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying, and both books make it very clear that once you’ve taken a teacher as your Vajra master you have to do what he or she says, see them as a Buddha, see everything they do as enlightened activity, and never criticise. These teachings were often emphasised in Rigpa. Pure perception was the whole purpose of vajrayana, we were told, and to many people that meant actually thinking that Sogyal was really enlightened. They forgot that pure perception means seeing everyone as enlightened, yourself included, not just the teacher!
The trouble with following these books comes if these aspects are stressed over other sections that moderate them, and in Rigpa, the section on the qualifications of the teacher ( p 138 – 143) was rarely mentioned. Why? Because our teacher clearly did not meet the qualifications!

“He should be pure, never having contravened any of the commitments or prohibitions related to the three types of vow … He should be learned and not lacking in knowledge of the tantras, sutras and shastras. Towards the vast multitude of beings, his heart should be so suffused with compassion that he loves each one like his only child. He should be well-versed in the practices … He should have actualised all the extraordinary qualities of liberation and realization in himself by experiencing the meaning of the teachings. He should be generous, his language should be pleasant. He should teach each individual according to that person’s needs and he should act in accordance with what he teaches …”
Later Patrul Rinpoche says, “Not having many disturbing negative emotions and thoughts, he should be calm and disciplined.”

Sogyal’s negative emotions weren’t hidden; most people who went to a Rigpa retreat saw him yelling at his students, sometimes sending them into tears.
I remember being disturbed at just how much Sogyal didn’t fit the list of qualifications, but I ignored my concerns because I’d already accepted him as my teacher and been told that since he’d given me an introduction to the nature of mind I was now ‘stuck with him as my teacher’. What I failed to realise is that since he didn’t meet the requirements of a qualified teacher, the instructions for following a teacher simply didn’t apply.
No emphasis was given in Rigpa to the section on choosing a teacher – we read the section through as part of our Ngondro study, but that was the extent of it. Whereas we said the above passages daily. But those instructions ONLY apply to a student of someone who meets the requirements for a qualified teacher as laid out in the WMPT, and since Sogyal does not meet those qualifications, the rest of the book isn’t applicable to him or his students.
The whole book is based on being a student of a perfect teacher, not an imperfect one!
I don’t think this text is appropriate in an age where, in the words of the book in question, “All the qualities complete according to purest dharma are hard to find in these decadent times.” As we’ve seen in Rigpa, the result of applying these teachings to an imperfect teacher can be an abusive cult, and the numbers of lamas accused of similar behaviour makes it quite clear that we cannot blindly trust that any of them have our best interests at heart. Some do, yes, but we need to be very sure before we take them as our Vajra guru, and I suggest that, even then, we never ever give up our right to say, “No,” our right to criticise, and our discernment in ascertaining what is harmful and what is helpful.  Any teacher who asks you to give up those rights is one to avoid, but be careful, some teachers will say one thing in public and expect something else in private.

Is knowledge a sufficient qualification?

Since Sogyal never did Buddhist high school, his lack of classic Buddhist studies is an obvious place where he lacks the necessary qualifications for the instructions in the book to have any relevance to him or his students, but just because a lama has done his Buddhist training doesn’t mean he or she is qualified to be a vajra master. Why? Because the requirement is that the teacher’s “heart should be so suffused with compassion that he loves each one like his only child”, and “He should have actualised all the extraordinary qualities of liberation and realization in himself.” In other words, knowledge is not enough. Compassion and realisation are necessary attributes of a true Vajra master. Without those two qualities knowledge can be easily manipulated to meet the teacher’s agenda.
In light of this, it’s clear that any teacher who shows no compassion for those traumatised by their guru’s behaviour is not worthy of your devotion because they lack the necessary compassion. Any guru that protects their religion over and above protecting and caring for those damaged by their religion is not a qualified teacher. Let’s be clear on this: having a Buddhist degree, tulku status, a sharp mind, a quick wit, an entertaining manner and enthusiastic followers is not the compassion and wisdom required to meet the definition of a qualified Vajrayana teacher.
And it goes without saying that anyone who abuses anyone doesn’t meet the requirement for wisdom and compassion either – Chogyam Trungpa and the Sakyong included.

“On the level of our personal spiritual practice, it is important to have faith in and reverence for our guru and to see that person in a positive light in order to make spiritual progress. But on the level of general Buddhism in society, seeing all actions of our teacher as perfect is like poison and can be misused. This attitude spoils our entire teachings by giving teachers a free hand to take undue advantage. If faith were sufficient to gain realizations, there would be no need for qualified teachers.” HH Dalai Lama. Dharamsala 1993

What do you think?


Private discussion on this and other related topics can be had on our Secret  What Now 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.
People from other sanghas can join the  Beyond the Temple Facebook Group . It’s a support group for anyone who has left their Buddhist sangha after hearing revelations of abuse by their teacher or after experiencing such abuse. It’s for people who see ethical behaviour, love, compassion and introspection as the core of their spiritual path. The focus is not on the abuses, but on ourselves and our spiritual life as we recover from our experience of spiritual abuse 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.

Seeing the Master as a Buddha, an Examination

This week we have a post by Joanne Clark.
One belief on Tahlia’s list of “Beliefs We Need to Examine” has spoken particularly strongly to me:
You must see your master as the Buddha if you want the blessings of the Buddha;
 This belief pervades Tibetan Buddhist culture. I had received that instruction myself, first from Sogyal Lakhar and later in a Kagyu monastery, years before I had even received a teaching on the Four Noble Truths. I had also heard the story of the woman who achieved realization as a result of praying to a dog’s tooth while believing that it was the tooth of the Buddha. Both teachings convey the idea that faith alone is sufficient to attain blessings and even realizations, that Buddha has that power through faith alone, like the power of Jesus Christ.
But this does not seem consistent with the Buddha’a  teachings. In Vajrayana, seeing the master as a Buddha has a specific meaning and purpose, one that is profound and never divorced from discerning wisdom. However, when it is practiced without the necessary understanding and wisdom of discernment, then all of that meaning and purpose are lost—and dangerous abuses can easily occur.
About ten years ago, there was a big earthquake in Tibet. Some monasteries were destroyed and lives were lost. It was a terrible tragedy. During a broadcast interview of a Tibetan woman at the scene, she repeated several times the idea that they were waiting for the “living Buddha” to arrive and help. In her grief, that anticipation seemed to be the one thing that mattered to her. “The living Buddha is coming,” she said.
Shortly after, I heard that a teacher I knew had travelled to the scene. He was a renowned lama connected to one of the monasteries. Here in the West, some thought he was a crazy wisdom lama. There were stories about his unusual antics. The first time I met him, he smelled of smoke and alcohol and he could be pretty brutal to some of us as well. I wondered if he was the living Buddha?
Certainly, in the midst of tragedy, faith is a tremendous help, so I would never want to suggest that this woman’s faith was misguided. Nor can I judge who is and who isn’t a living Buddha. Faith gives us hope. I also have prayed simple prayers of faith to the Buddhas during my journey through trauma. But how far do we let simple faith go?
Some years ago, I visited a website of a well-known lama. There was a banner running across his homepage which read “If you see the lama as a Buddha, you will receive the blessings of a Buddha. If you see the lama as an ordinary being, you will receive the blessings of an ordinary being.” In light of the fact that this was the first page someone would find who might be just exploring the dharma for the first time, this was strange. It seemed no different than visiting the homepage of a Christian leader, with a banner that instructed followers to take Jesus Christ as their savior—except that Jesus Christ isn’t a man who could enter one’s bedroom some night.
When Milarepa was giving parting advice to his chief disciple Gampopa, he had this to say about seeing the lama as a Buddha:
“You can start to teach and spread the Dharma when you behold and stabilize the realization of Mind-Essence. In time you will see it more clearly, which will be quite a different experience from those you are having now. Then you will see me as the perfect Buddha Himself. This deep and unshakable conviction will grow in you. Then you may start to teach.” (The Hundred Thousand Songs of Milarepa; translated by Garma Chang; p. 490-491)
In Milarepa’s perspective here, the experience of seeing the guru as a Buddha is the result of advanced realization and wisdom—not as something taken on as an early, naïve belief, not something separate from practice and wisdom—Milarepa doesn’t even present it as an instruction, but as a realization. This is an important distinction.
In Precious Garland, Nagarjuna wrote:
“4. High status is considered to be happiness,
Definite goodness is liberation.
The quintessence of their means
Is briefly faith and wisdom.
 
“5. Due to having faith one relies on the practices,
Due to having wisdom one truly knows.
Of these two wisdom is the chief,
Faith is its prerequisite.” (Precious Garland, First Chapter)
 
Nagarjuna is clear. We cannot have faith in the absence of wisdom and it helps to know the purpose for having faith. We can have beliefs and they are necessary, as long as they do not compromise our discernment, wisdom and practice, as long as we aren’t blinded by them and led astray by them. Simple, yes, but I think in practice it is not so simple, especially in the Vajrayana and for those of us who come from Judeo-Christian cultures. There is very little space between the instruction of seeing the master as a Buddha and the born-again experience of a Christian.
In a recent publication, HH Dalai Lama referred to the story of the woman who prayed to the dog’s tooth in a discussion on excessive faith. He wrote:
“It is easy to conclude from this story that blind faith is necessary on this path. This is clearly contrary to the Buddha’s emphasis on developing discriminating wisdom. I do not see much point in this story and propose, replacing it with the following, a more suitable account to illustrate the benefit of having confidence in the Three Jewels.
“Two or three centuries ago, a great teacher and sincere practitioner named Togyen Lama Rinpoche lived in Tibet. He had a small clay image of Tsongkhapa on his carefully tended altar. One day, due to Togyen Lama’s genuine practice and heartfelt aspirational prayers, that image of Tsongkhapa actually spoke and gave teachings to him. This came about not from the side of the statue but mainly due to Togyen Lama’s excellent practice. Due to his spiritual experiences and confidence in Tsongkhapa, this clay image became the real Tsongkhapa and spoke to him. However, for ordinary people who lack that kind of spiritual experience and faith, the statue just looked like clay.” (The Dalai Lama and Thubten Chodron, Approaching the Buddhist Path; p. 140).
Once again, in this story of strong faith, it is not separated from practice or discernment. Faith strengthens the practitioner’s wisdom—the statue is perceived to give teachings, not just blessings.
Thirty years ago, HH the Dalai Lama made a strong statement about the dangers of instructing students to see the guru as a perfect Buddha and sacrificing discernment to do so. These words are still relevant:
“It is frequently said that the essence of the training in guru-yoga is to cultivate the art of seeing everything the guru does as perfect; but personally, I myself do not like this to be taken too far. Often we see written in the scriptures, ‘Every action seen as perfect,’ but this phrase must be seen in the light of Buddha Shakyamuni’s own words: ‘Accept my teachings only after examining them as an analyst buys gold. Accept nothing out of mere faith for me.’ The problem with the practice of seeing everything the guru does as perfect is that it very easily turns to poison for both the guru and the disciple…” (Essence of Refined Gold, Commentary by Tenzin Gyatso; p.54).
And later, he made an ominous warning:
“As for the guru, if he misrepresents this precept of guru-yoga in order to take advantage of his naïve disciples, his actions are like pouring the liquid fires of hell directly into his stomach.” (p.55)
And he spoke about pure perception:
“The disciple must always keep reason and his knowledge of the Dharma as principal guidelines. Without this approach it is difficult to digest one’s Dharma experiences. Make a thorough examination before accepting someone as a guru and even then follow him within the conventions of reason as presented by Buddha. The teachings on seeing the guru’s actions as perfect should largely be left for the practice of highest tantra, wherein they take on a new meaning. One of the principal yogas in the tantric vehicle is to see the world as a mandala of great bliss and to see oneself and all others as Buddhas. Under these circumstances it becomes absurd to think that you and everyone else are Buddhas, but your guru is not!” (Essence of Refined Gold; Commentary by pp. 55-56)
So these beliefs do serve a purpose, as with the woman after the earthquake described above, but more particularly in the Vajrayana and even more so in Dzogchen. When we sit on the cushion, there is a purpose to viewing the lama as the Buddha, a purpose that increases the power of devotion and does not skew our critical awareness. There is a purpose to pure perception off the cushion for the practice of highest yoga tantra. There are many statements from Dzogchen masters about the importance of strong devotion in order to practice Dzogchen. It is essential for the introduction to the mind’s nature.
The vital point being made in all of these statements is that the practice of seeing the lama as a Buddha is an advanced Vajrayana practice and it does not mean that we give away our capability of seeing truth clearly as a result of that practice. It is not a blinker. If the lama is abusing students, then these are not the practices of a Buddha. To say that they are the practices of a Buddha—because we are training to see the lama as Buddha—is to sacrifice our discernment and decency. That is blind faith and never a Buddhist practice.
Blind faith is a linear perspective, which sees reality in black and white, simplistic terms. Blind faith cannot allow for troublesome conflicts of interest or complicated realities. For example, how can Rigpa students account for the fact that the lama they perceive as Buddha himself, the lama who has brought them teachings and profound experiences, is behaving like a cruel criminal? Blind faith would say to simply deny reality, blinker the truth.
But Rigpa students can only truly account for the situation through a discerning wisdom capable of seeing a many dimensioned, complex and murky reality—difficult as that is. The challenge of balancing the perception of Sogyal Lakhar, a deeply flawed man who has abused students and must account for his misdeeds in courts of law, with the perception of Sogyal Rinpoche, the lama who brought the Dharma into their lives and whom they have perceived as a Buddha, is huge.  Certainly, to acknowledge these two realities in one mind is difficult or impossible for most. But for Rigpa students who have been practicing Vajrayana for many years with Sogyal Lakhar, discounting those years of practice is not tenable either—but nor is it tenable to ignore the harm being caused to themselves and others. I think everyone is seeking their own way of moving forward through this murkiness. For myself, like many other ex-Rigpa, cautions about devotion and viewing the lama as a Buddha are burned into me after years of struggle. In my opinion, teachers and students of Vajrayana in the West must acknowledge the murky terrain we are on if Vajrayana is to survive in the West.
Thanks for your thoughts Joanne.
Another post on the topic of seeing one’s teacher as a Buddha  can be read here https://whatnow727.wordpress.com/2017/10/04/are-vajrayana-teachers-really-buddhas/  
In that post I draw on Alexander Berzin’s writing on the matter, writing that I highly recommend.https://studybuddhism.com/en/advanced-studies/lam-rim/student-teacher-relationship/seeing-the-spiritual-teacher-as-a-buddha/is-the-guru-really-a-buddha

“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

The instruction that we should see our teacher as a buddha if we want the blessings of a buddha is clearly problematic in a world where teachers cannot be trusted to behave as decent human beings, so how are we to practice this under these cricumstances?


Private discussion on this and other related topics can be had on our Secret  What Now 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.
People from other sanghas can join the Dharma Friends Beyond the Temple Facebook Group . It’s a support group for anyone who has left their Buddhist sangha after hearing revelations of abuse by their teacher or after experiencing such abuse. It’s for people who see ethical behaviour, love, compassion and introspection as the core of their spiritual path. The aim of the group is to support each other in our spiritual journey wherever it takes us. 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.
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Is a Master Needed in Order to Recognise the Nature of Mind?

Today’s post has two videos in it, one by me, Tahlia, and the other by Sangye, but we’re both talking about the same topic. We are examining whether or not a master is needed in order to recognise the nature of mind. The videos compliment each other, and I hope you will watch both and that they will encourage you to examine the question for yourselves. The literature on recovering from a cult says that it is important for cult survivors to examine the beliefs they held, and so this is what we’re doing.
We are not trying to teach anything or convince anyone of anything, or even suggest that we have some definitive answer to the question, these vlogs are simply how we see the situation from our present viewpoint.
As Sangye says in the description of his video:
“A personal investigation, applying critical intelligence to the topic. Looking at the broader truth in and around all the constituent elements and implications of this belief that “The master is needed to recognize the nature of mind”. Beliefs are risky formations that often masquerade as knowledge and proven truths. Investigation can benefit one to improve, confirm or disprove part or the whole of the belief.”
In this video (it’s about 19 mins) I try to use logic to evaluate the belief that you need a master to introduce you to the nature of your mind, and I make a clear distinction between experiencing the nature of mind and being introduced to it.
Warning: possible Dzogchen blasphemy. Don’t watch if you’re inflexible in your beliefs.
 
 

Sangye goes into the topic in more depth and makes some points I didn’t, for example that once you have recognised the nature of mind, you don’t need to be close to a master anymore. You just need to work on stabilising what you’ve recognised.
In Rigpa we became dependent on the ‘master’ continuing to go to retreats in the constant hope of ‘getting it’, even if we’d already got it. We became like junkies hooked on having the kind of spiritual experience we experienced with Sogyal which actually may have been nothing more than a trance state.
Sangye raises doubt as to the real nature of the introductions we were given. Staring without a focus as we were taught as part of our meditation instructions in Rigpa creates an experience recognised by psychologists as the Ganzfield effect, something that induces altered states and even hallucinations. Sogyal also asked us to stare into this eyes when introducing us to the nature of mind, and Giovanni Caputo from the University of Urbino did an experiment in which he discovered that staring into someone’s eyes for ten minutes induces an altered state of consciousness. None of the people in that study were masters, and yet “The participants in the eye-staring group said they’d had a compelling experience unlike anything they’d felt before,” Christian Jarrett wrote for the British Psychological Society’s Research Digest at the time.
Sangye’s examination is broader than mine and compliments it nicely. It’s about 40 mins long.
 
 

What are your thoughts on this? Can you step outside of the Tibetan Buddhist belief system and examine it from a different perspective?


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.

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.