Vajrayana Buddhism in the Modern World.

Dzongsar Kyentse’s talks in Europe have begun. The first, in Berlin, was titled “Vajrayana Buddhism in the Modern World” and it has been uploaded unedited to the Rigpa videos You Tube channel in both English and German. It also appears on the Sidharta’s Intent channel.
It’s 3 hours, so quite a committment to watch, so my house got cleaned from top to bottom while I listened on my phone.  Depending on how you feel about DZK, you might feel some aversion to the idea of listening at all, but I found it well worth listening to. He did make some important clarifications and needed critical commentary on the issue of the translation of Tibetan Buddhism into the West.

How to listen

I feel I do have to mention this, since my last post could be interpreted to mean that we listen only to see what isn’t true, which wasn’t my intention. In it I reminded you to not believe everything you hear out of respect alone, but to use your wisdom of discernment. Today I remind you to listen without ‘poison in your cup’, without hatred or aversion in your heart, but rather with the intention of trying to understand his points. As he points out, if we watch with a positive mind we will see the positive, if we watch with a negative mind we will see only negative. Our challenge is to listen with an open mind, not obscured by any assumptions or projections and with the intention of understanding what he is saying and whether it rings true for us or is helpful in light of the present situation.
I suggest you don’t expect anything either, because if you expect anything, you will probably be disappointed.
[Some of the following was edited and republished on March 1st 5.37pm AEDST]
I don’t want to say too much about it, because it’s better you consider it for yourself, but I feel I need to warn you about the begining or some of you you may not get past it, and the edifications and criticisms of how lamas teach come later. So stick with it. There are some good dharma teachings here; the issues in my mind are not the varjayana when correctly understood, but our attitudes towards it and how we apply it.

Stuff to wade through

Something that might scream at some of you is that in the first hour he appears to denigrate the teachings of the shravakayana and Mahayana by calling them Cinderella teachings, teachings the Buddha didn’t really mean. He referred to the vinyana as for babies with a lot of desire and equates the Vajrayana with the real thing, the teachings the Buddha meant, the ones equated with wisdom. I looked past his inflamatory use of language, but if you don’t find that so easy, note that he does later say that all the shravaka and mahayana teachings are the basis of vajryana and cannot be discarded. The perceived arrogance could just be a poor choice of words.

He claims to care about the ‘alleged victims’ a lot, but that he cares beyond emotional or physical hurt; he cares for their seed of enlightenment and continuous spiritual path. He cares about the doubts they have about the Buddhadharma and Vajrayana. ‘I care so much,’ he says, then he adds: ‘By caring you just don’t want to lend your shoulder to cry upon, you want to do something more.’

Victims could find this an ignorant denigration of their situation and sufferings because he appears to belittle their immediate needs for care as just needing a pat on the back and a shoulder to cry  on, and he seems to denigrate any comforting form of compassion as irrelevant to the bigger picture of their spiritual path. I expect after being abused to the degree that some people have here, their spiritual path is the least of their worries, and despite his best intentions, this kind of attitude can come across as cold and uncaring. Christian missionaries attend to the needs of their communities for food, shelter and clean water, why can’t Buddhists also attend to the immediate needs of those suffering, especially when the suffering has occured at the hands of the Buddhist they were supposed to revere. Also to use the words ‘alleged’ at this stage does not even acknowledge the truth of their suffering. Worse, this is the exact attitude that caused them so much pain when trying to get help within Rigpa.
This really is a major point that DZK and those running Rigpa need to understand. Spouting absolute doctrine does not help someone suffering from post traumatic stress syndrome from trauma caused, in part, by people’s belief in and misguided application of that very doctrine. And it’s not a matter of changing the doctrine, but of making sure it is taught completely so it does not deny relative existence.
It seems to be a case of placing absolute doctrine over the actual needs of a person, a hallmark of a fundamentalist attitude (a strict literalism applied to an ideology). And yet, right at the end, he describes how we should deal with a situation where a sangha member comes to us saying they are in fear of being raped by the guru, and you might find his advice surprising.
I absolutely do not want to appear negative here, and so I mention this only  to encourage you to watch past the bits you might take issue with. And note that these are things that were insinuated by word choice and lack of clarification, not things he stated outright, and so may possibly be only your own projections.
He does say some very useful things that should provide food for thought for Tibetan lamas as well as vajrayana students and Rigpa management.

The nature and responsibility of the guru

I didn’t want to say much, damn it, I need to get on with an editing job for which I’m actually being paid, but in the interests of balance and of encouraging you to watch the whole thing, I also want to mention his important clarifications on the nature and responsibilities of the guru, and the issues of how vajrayana has been taught in the West.
DZK reminds us of a vital point, that of the outer, inner and secret aspects of the guru, and of the point of guru yoga. He clarifies what a tantric guru actually is, and the difference between that kind of relationship and the relationship you have with the head of an organisation. They are not the same thing, and confusing the two has caused a lot of our problems. He even admits that Tibtan lamas are severely lacking in their understanding of Western people and have misused the guru ‘system’.
Despite the issues raised previously (which I point out not in order to criticise, but because for the sake of the dharma DZK needs to be made aware of them) there is much of worth in this talk and we must remember that it is only the beginning of a series of talks.
This is a talk about vajrayana, not about applying it to the situation of abuse by a guru. Rather than talk about the guru’s behaviour, he talks about the guru’s responsibilities. Only at the end where questions are read out do we get closer to the issue.
When asked if a guru has the right to beat his students, DZK replies, “If the guru’s actions damage even a little bit the seed of bodhicitta, pure perception, guru devotion, the guru will have to take the responsibility more than the student because he should know better.”
He gives some interesting insight into OT as well.
So here’s the video.


There’s a lot in this talk that could be discussed, like the point that DZK really does need to talk to His Holiness the Dalai Lama and Mingyur Rinpoche. Joanne Clark goes into this point in a post on the Buddhism Contraversy Blog.
And here is a short video that was posted on the Sogyal Truth Channel by someone who was clearly expecting more than they got. I have no idea who made it, and I feel it’s a bit mean in that it does not give any credence for the fact that DZK does actually say some very useful things, and that the talk was about vajrayana in the modern world, not specifically on abuse. However, I include it because it may bring some humour to the situation, and I think their point is that we are still a long way from addressing the actual issue of abuse in Tibetan Buddhism. Even so, I suggest that when watching DZK’s talk that you look for what he does say, not at what he doesn’t say.

The question that won’t go away

DZK also talks about secrecy and admits that it’s a difficult word. He explains to some extent its meaning in the context of vajrayana, but it still affirms the ‘don’t criticise’ dogma. After reports from DZK’s talk to the sangha in Berlin (which will be shown only to the Rigpa sangha) one point becomes glaringly obvious.
When students are silenced by a code of secrecy, such that they are not allowed to tell others what their teacher does to them and others, we can’t know what a teacher’s private ‘methods’ are, in which case how can we evaluate him or her? It’s not possible.
This is where the injunction against not criticising your teacher falls down – could vajrayana students not be ‘permitted’ to tell someone, ‘He hit me,’ with the good-hearted motivation to assist others in making an evaluation (as I believe the 8 letter writers did). Do we not have a responsibility to others to make sure that they have the information they need to evaluate fully?
And if we do decide that we are willing to take a lama as our guru and in true tantric fashion we are willing to ‘accept that anything can happen’ (quote from the talk), how can we trust that the teacher will not abuse our open acceptance and by their actions ‘damage the seed of bodhicitta, pure perception, and guru devotion’ in us?

The core of the cult issue must be addressed

Note – this section is not a commentary or criticism on the talk or an opinion on it. It’s just noting a topic that I would like to see DZK address in the future.
Since DZK has taken the role of advisor to Rigpa, he needs to tackle the core reason why in the eyes of some Rigpa slips over the line between a beneficial religious organisation and a cult that causes harm. I believe that it lies in the way that some Rigpa members have and still do use the vajrayana teachings to judge, denigrate, blame, manipulate and ignore the suffering of others (not to mention defending their own little kingdoms) all in the guise of being true to the vajrayana. According to some reports, this behaviour is so entrenched in the higher levels of the organisation that they are probably not even aware that they are doing it. I doubt they intend to do it, either, but it’s what some have experienced and why many do not trust those who stood by and allowed the abuse to flourish and continue. So as well as clarifying the meaning of vajrayana, what is needed in Rigpa is to examine how beliefs in samaya, pure perception, devotion and the very nature of vajrayana have been used as weapons against others – and note that I have seen this kind of judgement and condemnation in an email from someone in the highest level of management to one of the 8 letter writers.
For example; judging those who thought that Sogyal had caused people harm and declaring that they lacked pure perception, didn’t have enough devotion, didn’t understand vajrayana, didn’t have the capacity to be a vajrayana student and were samaya breakers who would go to vajra hell. Take a look at the comments on some of my You Tube videos and on the Dharma Protector’s Facebook page to see the kind of vehemence with which these kinds of ideas can and have been be wielded.
Whether or not the statements are true or not for any individual person is not the point, the point is that such statements have been used in Rigpa to legitimalise all sorts of sordid behaviour and to silence those who saw it as wrong. Anyone can believe what they want, but if they use their beliefs in a way that causes harm, it is not only the mark of a cult but also, as the Buddha said in the Kalama Sutta, something we should abandon.

So, as I said, Kalamas: ‘Don’t go by reports, by legends, by traditions, by scripture, by logical conjecture, by inference, by analogies, by agreement through pondering views, by probability, or by the thought, “This contemplative is our teacher.” When you know for yourselves that, “These qualities are unskillful; these qualities are blameworthy; these qualities are criticized by the wise; these qualities, when adopted & carried out, lead to harm & to suffering” — then you should abandon them.’

Please note that I am not talking here about the vajrayana as something to abandon, or about DZK’s talk, but about the teachings of the vajrayana being used in a harmful (and presumably wrong) way. Despite all attempts at change, and despite some recent indications of positive moves in the right direction in Rigpa,  in some parts of the world people are still leaving Rigpa because this is what they see, so if Rigpa is to ever be truly healthy, this kind of thing must be addressed.
Of course, let’s not forget that there are some pretty mean comments flying towards Rigpa as well, often from people who were victims of abuse there themselves – that’s karma for you! But DZK is not in the role of advisor to those people, and if they have given up Buddhism all together, how they behave does not reflect upon it, and so is not his concern.
We are all unenlightened beings struggling with our own projections so I do not expect anyone to be perfect (their true nature excepted), and I have certainly not always acted skillfully myself, but anyone running a spiritual organisation needs to look very closely and honestly at their own hopes, fears and motivations, particularly in light of how they might be using their beliefs to judge, denigrate, blame, manipulate and ignore the suffering of others, for surely this is not the sort of application of the teachings that the great masters invisaged.

Just the start

The Berlin talk was, however, only the first in a series of talks.
Here’s the Lerab Ling talk.

I’ve listened to some of it, and I wonder if DZK realises that by saying that ‘Buddhism is above the law’, he has said that practictioners are exempt from the law, that the law does not apply to us. In other words that we can murder, rape, steal and abuse with impunity. I hope that is not his meaning, but unfortunately, that is what is meant by saying it is ‘above the law’.  Such a statement waves a red flag to a cult investigator. It’s also in direct contradiction to what HHDL and Mingyur Rinpoche have said. I really wish he would speak to them, for they are both very clear on the importance of staying true to the teachings, but both of them have said we must abide by the laws of the land. To say that we are ‘above the law’ is so extreme, so dangerous an idea, (remember the tantric practitioner Charles Manson? That’s what he thought), that I can only hope he does not really understand the full English meaning of what he has said. I don’t think the French police will be happy to hear such a statement.
Anyway, people have told me that there are many gems in this talk and that it is well worth listening to. I respect DZK for tackling the problems, but I think he needs an English language advisor – just to be sure he knows what he’s saying.
May all those who were harmed be healed. Tahlia.

Current and previous students of Rigpa wanting private support are welcome to join the What Now? Facebook group. Please contact us via the contact page and ask for an invite.
Ex-Rigpa students and their 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.

Is Vajrayana Buddhism a Cult Religion? Part 1

Does Vajrayana fit the definition of a cult?

‘Cult’ is a word that has different definitions, but the definition that concerns us here is the negative one. According to the Google Dictionary a cult is “a system of religious veneration and devotion directed towards a particular figure or object, in particular a relatively small group of people having religious beliefs or practices regarded by others as strange or as imposing excessive control over members.” Also a “misplaced or excessive admiration for a particular thing.”
‘A system of religious veneration and devotion directed towards a particular figure or object’ does apply to vajrayana as a whole but also equally to Christianity, so that aspect of the definition is not the key point here, neither is the fact that TB is strange to many in West. The aspect that makes the difference between religion and cult is ‘imposing excessive control over members,’ and ‘misplaced or excessive admiration.’
So what is ‘excessive’ and what is ‘misplaced’? To answer this we have to look further.
The Family Survival Trust has a succinct checklist for cults that is useful for separating a religion from a cult:

  1. Cults are dissociative, separating members from families, friends and colleagues—this is not a requirement for vajrayana practice since it can be done alone (caves are the traditional place) or within one’s own society and family, but when a lama keeps a group of attendants or people he relies on around him and doesn’t permit them to engage in normal social and family relationships or leave at will, or tells them what they can and can’t do particularly in terms of their personal relationships, then they have slipped into cult territory.
  2. Cults tend to be psychologically manipulative or abusive in order to exploit and control members commercially or sexually—this is pretty clear. There are plenty of vajrayana communities around where the lamas do not abuse their students, therefore abuse and psychological manipulation are not part of the religion. If anyone is being abused by a lama and members don’t see it as abuse (when it is quite clear to anyone outside the group that the behaviour constitutes abuse), then the members are being psychologically manipulated and the group has become a cult. (Abuse is NOT crazy wisdom—as Mingyur Rinpoche said in his article on the Lion’s Roar, “The results of genuine “crazy wisdom” are always positive and visible.”) If members’ money is not being used for the purpose for which is was given, those members are being commercially exploited and the group has slipped across the line into cult territory.
  3. Some cults can also be physically abusive—also clear. If the lama is regularly hitting or punching people, it’s a cult. Vajrayana does not require students to be hit or punched. It can be practiced without the lama abusing his students in any way. Even if you believe the abuse is ‘crazy wisdom’, even if you believe it is transformative, that is irrelevant when determining cult status. A cult is determined by how it acts, not what it believes. If your lama regularly hits and punches people and the beliefs to which you subscribe make his or her hitting and punching (or any other abusive behaviour) acceptable, your vajrayana community can be called a cult.
  4. The guru and/or upper ranks of the cult are supported in a relatively comfortable lifestyle by the exploitation of lower ranking members—a comfortable lifestyle is not necessary for vajrayana practice, in fact a humble lifestyle and generosity to others are more in line with the marks of a great practitioner. A lama who has his feet massaged by two women while another massages his back and two others work on his hands has slipped into cult territory since one masseur is quite sufficient. Other signs are such things as demanding better food than others in the household, expensive accommodations and so on.
  5. Cults are totalitarian in structure and thrive on master-slave dependency—certainly Tibetan Buddhism is totalitarian and the master-slave roles are embedded in the feudal system in its history. The feudal system is cultural, however, not religious. Vajrayana can be practiced without either of these. Not all lamas treat their students as slaves. Institute a democratic model where the lama is ‘employed’ by the board and remove the ‘obey or else’ emphasis that some lamas subscribe to, and the issue is solved. The lama will still have spiritual authority, but not temporal authority. There is a good reason why the church is separated from the state in Western democracies. This point pinpoints the area in which Tibetan Buddhism as a whole must make changes.
  6. Cults are “socially addictive” and the harm they cause is similar in some ways to other forms of addiction such as gambling, and even drug or alcohol abuse—I guess people could become addicted to Vajrayana—all those beautiful images and sounds are very alluring—but few practice diligently enough to get ‘hooked’ on the actual practice, and, if they did, such an addiction is not harmful in the worldly sense, though it wouldn’t help one spiritually to be stuck in practice that is contrived. Dependency on a lama to the extent that members cannot make decisions for themselves, however, is harmful. Though the magic of it is alluring to some, vajrayana itself is not inherently addictive, and it is only harmful if people feel that their lama can do anything they want irrespective of the laws of the land.

My conclusion in terms of this checklist is that vajrayana as a religion is not a cult, but that a vajrayana community can become a cult in the same way that a Christian community can. But this list doesn’t give much weight to the ‘religious veneration and devotion directed towards a particular figure’ aspect of our original cult definition, and this aspect is particularly relevant in terms of vajrayana, particularly in ascertaining what turns a vajrayana community into a cult.

Devotion to an abstract principle or an individual?

As I quoted in the article titles Is Rigpa Cult? Margaret Thaler Singer, Ph.D, a cult expert, says “the difference between cults and religions is that in religions the devotion goes to an abstract principle whereas in a cult the devotion is to an individual. … The follower turns over their decision-making and give complete obedience in return for having secrets revealed to them.”
Though vajrayana may look as if the student’s devotion must be to an individual rather than an abstract principle, my understanding is that this is not the most transformative way of understanding the object of one’s devotion in vajrayana, at least not in these times. The idea that our devotion is to the personality of the teacher, the person, rather than to the teacher principle that he embodies can, especially if he or she is not a qualified teacher and demands that the students have only one lama, bring the vajrayana community into cult territory.
When teachers were more reliable, and in a society where the word ‘cult’ in its meaning as an abusive community employing manipulation tactics and excessive control over its members did not (and still doesn’t) exist, there would be no need to make a distinction between the teacher as he represents the teacher principle and the teacher as a person, but now, in the West, I believe there is. The Words of My Perfect Teacher is about how to relate to a perfect teacher, but should we take those teachings literally when our teacher is more likely to be imperfect?

Even Patrul Rinpoche said on page 138, “As times have degenerated, nowadays, it is difficult to find a teacher who has every one of the qualities described in the precious tantras.”

I had an imperfect teacher. I always knew he was not perfect, so for myself, for my own practice I had to work this point out. Maybe I got it wrong, but I completed my Ngondro and two of my three roots with my devotion to my teacher in his role as teacher, not to the person, and for me it was the only way I could feel the transformative power of the practices. Specifically my devotion was to my teacher when, in the state of devotion to his masters and resting in the true nature of his mind, he was a Buddha, and in that state he introduced me to the nature of my mind. I distinguished this Sogyal from the one that came late to teachings, made us wait hours for lunch, yelled at people, and, as I discovered last year, much worse.
Some may question this separation of man from teacher, but the Dalai Lama appears to have taken the same approach in his practice.

“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. … have had many teachers, and I cannot accept seeing all their actions as pure. My two regents, who were among my sixteen teachers, fought one another in a power struggle that even involved the Tibetan army. When I sit on my meditation seat, I feel both were kind to me, and I have profound respect for both of them. Their fights do not matter. But when I had to deal with what was going on in the society, I said to them, “What you’re doing is wrong!” We should not feel a conflict in loyalties by acting in this way. In our practice, we can view the guru’s behavior as that of a mahasiddha, and in dealings with society, follow the general Buddhist approach and say that that behavior is wrong.” HHDL Dharamasalla 1993

Rigpa Wiki explains the four kinds of teachers as taught to us in Rigpa:

  1. the individual teacher who is the holder of the lineage
  2. the teacher which is the word of the buddhas
  3. the symbolic teacher of all appearances
  4. the absolute teacher, which is rigpa, the true nature of mind

On page 148 of the TBLD Sogyal says: “Remember that the master—the guru—embodies the crystallisation of the blessings of all buddhas, masters, and enlightened beings.”
So who should our devotion really be to? The individual teacher or the teacher principle which is a much broader concept? It would be nice if it could be both, but isn’t it ultimately not to the person who gives the teachings but to something more profound?

“The guru is the nature of our mind.” Dilgo Khyentse. Primordial Purity

Guru Rinpoche (not our physical teacher) is who we invoke in Guru Yoga, and he ‘is the universal master’ who ‘embodies a cosmic timeless principle.’ (TBLD p 149). When understood this way, our devotion in practice is to an ‘abstract principle’ not an individual and therefore does not fit the cult label, but in Rigpa, devotion to the person of Sogyal was emphasised. This is the point at which vajrayana can become a cult. Beware if your teacher suggests you visualise them in your practice rather than the embodiment of the wisdom and compassion of all the enlightened beings in the form of the representative of the teachers of your lineage, such as Guru Rinpoche or Vajradhara.

“Once we have realized the nature of our mind, it is no longer necessary to search for the guru outside. If the view of the mind is maintained beyond meditation and post meditation, the guru is present beyond meeting and parting.” Dilgo Khyentse. Primordial Purity

It seems important to me that to avoid slipping into cult territory we need to separate the teacher as a representative of an abstract principle from the human being with their human deficiencies.

In an article about Buddhism Dagyab Rinpoche said, “We Tibetans are aware of some Western followers who believe that Tibetan lamas are enlightened buddhas and infallible gurus, despite their all-too-human deficiencies. It is disillusioned Westerners, who in the course of their lives have experienced the total collapse of their ideals, and who cling to the wishful image of a holy and healing Tibetan tradition. Wherever angst, insecurity, and despair are strong, there is a corresponding desire for something superior, and Westerners project fatherly power upon the lamas. A false understanding of Buddhist teachings, especially that of the Vajrayana, has impelled these projections.”

Hopefully our lamas can give us the true understanding of the vajrayana teachings, not teach a ‘false understanding’ that does nothing for the student, only makes the lamas kings of their own kingdom with slaves that do their bidding without question. If we misunderstand, it is because we were not taught correctly or our lama did not clear up our confusion. Perhaps some of our lamas are confused themselves. In giving talks to the modern world that adhere slavishly to possibly provisional teachings given for people in ancient feudal cultures, rather than teaching from a definitive understanding of the teachings, they may be harming the dharma they think they are protecting.

Chatral Rinpoche said “Support and take refuge in those spiritual masters who focus their practice in solitary retreat. Before one attains enlightenment, one should also enter into solitary retreat to focus on one’s practice under his or her close guidance and mentorship. If not, it will be just like now, where everywhere is flooded with Khenpos who give empty talks. Those ignorant ones, who run after fame and fortune, and establish their own factions, will cause people to have aversion for Buddhism and lead to the extinction of Buddhism sooner or later. Hence, it is said that the authentic Dharma is not in the monasteries, it is not in the books and not in the material world, but within the mind. There is a need to awaken it through practice and to realise (actualise) it, in order to be called the continuation or preservation of the Dharma.”

Misplaced or excessive devotion

An article in the Buddhist Controversy blog gives traditional teachings on teachers to avoid, but  Lifehacker in their article on what constitutes a cult gives a helpful modern perspective on teachers to avoid if you want to avoid a cult.
“Cults are formed around strong leaders, so take a serious look at the motives and personality of the person in charge. According to Morantz and other cult experts, control-freak cult leaders are nearly interchangeable.

  • Narcissistic personality: Dangerous cult leaders usually hold grandiose notions of their place in the world.
  • Ability to read others: “A guy like Charles Manson had the ability to spot who, at a party, that he thought he could control. It just seems to be in his personality,” Morantz said. Cult leaders “have the ability to size you up, and realise your weaknesses and get to your buttons”.
  • Claims of special powers: If a leader claims he’s smarter, holier and more pure than everyone else, think twice about signing up.
  • Charisma meets anger: Dangerous cult leaders can be extremely loving, charming and affectionate, but often turn angry and abusive with no warning. This mercurial presentation keeps members off balance.”

In the hands of someone with this kind of personality, vajrayana is dangerous indeed. Certainly such people are not a healthy focus for one’s devotion. Especially if one forgets that devotion should not be mindless adoration. On p 140 in the TBLD Sogyal says, “It [devotion] is not an abdication of your responsibility to yourself, nor undiscriminating following of another’s personality or whim. Real devotion is rooted in an awed and reverent gratitude, one that is lucid, grounded, and intelligent.”
Wise words, but in practice this is not the kind of devotion I saw in Rigpa.
The take away here is that the temptation for someone with this personality profile to use vajrayana for his or her own personal gratification would likely be too hard for them to resist. If they also allow their students to think and act as if pure perception means that the teacher is pure and the student is not, and if they also have a nihilistic view of emptiness, we have even more likelihood that such a teacher will abuse their power.

Minguyr Rinpoche in his Lions Roar article on Sept 24th 2017 reminds us of the essential points of samaya and pure perception. “Many people misunderstand samaya and think it refers only to seeing the teacher as a buddha, a fully awakened being. That is part of samaya, but it misses the key point. Samaya is about seeing everyone and everything through the lens of pure perception. …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.”
And on the nihilistic view, Traleg Kyabgon in Moonbeams of Mahamudra. (Pages 272,273) says. “Meditators who take emptiness as an object of conceptual understanding abstract the concept of emptiness from their immediate experience of the phenomenal word. They deny the validity of karma because of this misunderstanding. They think ultimate reality must go beyond our normal concepts of good and bad, since it is empty and therefore, anything goes. This delegitimises the whole notion of morality. This fixation on the concept of emptiness leads to a denial of relative reality in the empirical world.”
And from HHDL from 1993 in Dharamsala, “Emptiness is not nothingness. On one side, a thing is empty; on the other it arises dependently. Emptiness is not empty of existence; it is empty of independent existence. So it must depend on other things. It is important to make sure one has the correct understanding of emptiness. Those who understand emptiness correctly as meaning dependent arising see that if they misbehave, they will have to face the consequences. Thus they will refrain from acting in an unethical manner.”

In part 2 of this topic, I look at unquestioning obedience, removal of the right to criticise and respect for worldly law in relation to vajrayana and cults, then I provide a conclusion to the two posts.
Post by Tahlia Newland, editor and author

Current and previous students of Rigpa wanting private support are welcome to join the What Now? Facebook group. Please contact us via the contact page and ask for an invite.
Ex-Rigpa students and their 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. 

Karma, Impermanence and suffering in Action

“The world is afflicted by death and decay. But the wise do not grieve, having realized the nature of the world.” The Buddha (From the Sutta Nipata)

The story of what has been built up

For roughly forty years Sogyal Rinpoche built his community and worldwide network of Rigpa centres with the help of a band of devoted students which grew considerably after the success of his book The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying. Over the years many students worked up to 7 days a week with no or little pay to build this network. Believing that he could do no wrong and that serving him without question was important for their spiritual development, those closest to him rushed to attend to his every whim, and accepted behaviour that an ordinary Westerner would see as abusive as a method of transformation that would speed up their spiritual development and even bring them to enlightenment in this lifetime. It was a successful formula for gaining students and keeping those who experienced hitting, public humiliation, and sexual coercion from seeing it as harmful. Instead of abuse, they called it a blessing. Add the Vajrayana instructions on not criticising your teacher – especially not in public – for fear of going to hell and Sogyal was set up to be able to do whatever he liked with impunity. And he did exactly what he liked, with, he assures us, the very best of intentions.
Sogyal Lakar/Rinpoche did a great deal to help establish the Tibetan Buddhist tradition in the West, and from the outside, apart from his lack of concern with being on time, his growling at students in public, questions about his fondness for young attractive women, and his fussiness over the placement of objects around him, he seemed to be a genuine teacher who brought benefit to a great number of people. Certainly, he introduced thousands to Buddhism through his book, and his teachings were conversational and so easily accessible by people who might not have sat through a formal teaching by a traditional Tibetan teacher. The majority of his students, including those now disenchanted with him, acknowledge the benefit they gained from their years as a student of Sogyal. He taught genuine Tibetan Buddhism, had the patronage of the Tibetan Buddhist community, and brought in other teachers to teach what he did not have the qualifications to teach himself. The list of achievements includes things like the Rigpa Shedra and the Rigpa Wiki. It’s no wonder Tibetan Buddhist teachers respected him.
But all this had a shadow side. Negative karma was also accumulating and karma cannot be escaped.

Why it is collapsing

Over the years many students who had worked at high levels in Rigpa for decades left and were never mentioned within the organisation again. Often they spent months or even years regaining their health after suffering either emotional or physical breakdowns or both. With the advent of the internet, some people did speak up publically about their experience of abuse at the hands of Sogyal, one even brought a court case, but the organisation always managed to weather the storm and carry on as usual. Students were told that those who spoke up publically were people with ‘an agenda’ an ‘ax to grind’, ‘unbalanced’ and so on. Anything that would dismiss their claims as having any truth. And yet there was truth there. Regardless of whether or not people thought anyone was being harmed, clearly some were being harmed. Their physical and emotional break downs attested to it.
Some of these students before they’d left had brought the abuses to the notice of those in management, but management did nothing to support those who felt abused or to stop it from happening again. Teaching the dharma builds good karma, but harming people builds negative karma, and you can’t outfox karma.

“Even an evildoer may see benefit
As long as the evil has yet to mature.
But when evil has matured,
The evildoer will meet with misfortune.”
“Don’t disregard evil, thinking,
“It won’t come back to me!”
With dripping drops of water
Even a water jug is filled.
Little by little,
A fool is filled with evil.”
The Buddha, v 119 & 121 Dhammapada. Gil Frondsal translation

6 months ago, 8 students who had worked closely with Sogyal realised that they and others had been the victims of abuse and decided it was time to let the community know exactly what was going on behind the scenes. They wrote a letter that detailed the kind of behaviour they experienced out of sight of the main student body and sent it to the community and associated lamas. This act began the decline of Sogyal Rinpoche and Rigpa as a respected teacher and organisation, and threw a spotlight on unhealthy interpretations of feudal-orientated teachings. Sogyal’s cancer had already been eating away at him for years, of course – a direct result of him not looking after his health properly.

The cause of suffering

The events that then unfolded are now being referred to by some as the Rigpa soap opera, due to the anger, hatred, infighting, denial, lies, fundamentalism, defensiveness, personal attacks, and, from some, an almost fanatical commitment to either singing Sogyal’s praises or bringing about the destruction of Sogyal and Rigpa.
And yet all of these human reactions come from attachment, aversion or denial of what is (ignorance), the three things that according to the Buddha’s teachings cause our suffering. The clinging is to fame, to livelihood, to being ‘right’, to known structures and so on, and to emotions and beliefs, even though events indicate that those beliefs may not be correct interpretations of reality. Much of this clinging is also denying the truth of impermanence, an aversion to those who are agents of change and to change itself. For some the aversion is simply to the person and institution that committed and supported the abuse, and a denial that they brought any benefit. For others ignorance/ignoring takes the form of denying, despite evidence to the contrary, that any harm has been done.
We are all in this soap opera together. And we all have our roles to play. I think it would help if more of us could step outside the play and so gain some freedom from it.


“What is born will die,
What has been gathered will be dispersed,
What has been accumulated will be exhausted,
What has been built up will collapse,
And what has been high will be brought low.”
Sogyal Rinpoche. Tibetan Book of Living and Dying.

Because impermanence is a fact of existence, trying to keep something the same, clinging to how things were or are now, or even to how you would like them to be, is a recipe for suffering – Sogyal himself made it quite clear in his book – and pretending to change is not the same as accepting real change and flowing with it. It’s not just a matter of instituting a code of conduct and setting up an investigation, it’s a matter of accepting that the truth has been exposed, that the West does not accept the behaviour as allowable, and that the beliefs that contributed to this gross misconduct by a teacher must give way to a deeper and healthier understanding of the teachings.
“The world is afflicted by death and decay. But the wise do not grieve, having realized the nature of the world.” The Buddha.
Post by Tahlia Newland

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Are Vajrayana Teachers Really Buddhas?

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

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

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

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

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

Seeing purely

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

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

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

How do we avoid this confusion?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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.”

A Healing Contemplation for Students of Problematic Teachers. Berzin. Part 2

This is the second installment of our blog posts referencing Dr Alexander Berzin’s  Wise Teacher, Wise Student: Tibetan Approaches to a Healthy Relationship. Ithaca: Snow Lion, 2010.  Part one on historical and cultural factors affecting the student teacher relationship in Tibetan Buddhism can be found HERE.
The chapter on Dealing with Problematic Teachers includes a contemplation that could be used in centres to help students balance the ‘good’ and the ‘bad’ and focus on the good for the purposes of their spiritual practice, while also acknowledging the ‘bad’.  I think this could help a lot of students to heal.
Though he calls it ‘sutra-level’ guru meditation and it’s from the Gelupka school of Tibetan Buddhism, do not make the assumption that that means it’s not relevant for Rigpa students. It’s extremely relevant.
The contemplation is for all students of problematic teachers, not just those who felt emotionally, physically or sexually abused. This debacle has hurt us all in one way or another.

“For thorough healing, spiritually wounded disciples need eventually to be able to view their mentors’ faults and mistakes clearheadedly, free of naivety, anger, or recrimination. … Guru-meditation does not ask us to deny the accurate conventional appearances of what our mentors’ faults or mistakes may be. … Such an understanding allows us to see how our mentors’ faults and mistakes have arisen dependently on an enormous number of complex factors.”


The topic headings are:

The sections in bold can be used as a contemplation for general students. The last two sections are most relevant to those who have felt the full force of a teachers abusive behaviour and are having trouble seeing the positive aspects of the teacher.

  • Applying Sutra-Level Guru-Meditation to a Faulty or Abusive Teacher
  • Reviewing a Teacher’s Faults and mistakes
  • Creating a Protected Mental Space for Addressing Spiritual Wounds

  • Examining the Appearances That the Mind Creates

  • The Analogy with Contextual Therapy for Victims of Abuse

  • Teachers Involved in Controversy

  • Overcoming Emotional Blocks in Appreciating Kindness

  • Overcoming Emotional Blocks in Showing Respect

A surgical procedure

Berzin likens this proces of reviewing a teacher’s faults to a surgical procedure, and points out that this can’t be done until the student has recovered from the initial trauma – be it the trauma of being abused or the shock of discovering your teacher has behaved badly:

Before discerning and focusing on the good qualities and kindness of their mentors, disciples need to bring to conscious awareness the teachers’ shortcomings and work on their view of them. The process resembles a surgical procedure. Cleaning an infected wound requires cutting it open, even though lancing the abscess and exposing the infection temporarily increases the pain. In the case of a festering spiritual wound, the hidden infection may be denial or suppressed rage. To purge the infection requires reopening the wound and bringing to the surface what festers beneath, even though the procedure temporarily may bring more emotional pain. The operation must wait, of course, until the injured person has sufficiently recovered from the initial trauma and has regained the emotional strength to attack the problem.

Read the full chapter here:
The next post in this series will be looking at the queston, ‘Is the Guru a Buddha?’

Be sure to check out the What Now? Reference Material page for 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.
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Dr. Alexander Berzin on Issues in Relating to a Spiritual Teacher: Part 1.

The importance of understanding

Many factors come together to create a situation where abusive behaviour can occur and can continue to occur and be covered up for forty years. In a Tibetan Buddhist community, cultural differences in student expectations and understanding of the student teacher relationship is a big factor, as is how the community understands some core Vajrayana concepts. In the next few posts I want to share information from Dr Alexander Berzin that might deepen our readers’ understanding of these factors.
I believe that only by understanding the situation fully can we find the way out of this mess of distortion that will likely do more to destroy Buddhism in the West than anything else. After all, abuse is illegal in the West, so how can any organistion who believes that behaviour recognised as abuse by the majority of the Western population is acceptable possibly survive long term? Even if they have removed the abuser from their role in the organisation, for so long as the misunderstandings that led to the situation are propagated, the same thing can happen again elsewhere.

Introducing Dr Berzin

In order to gain this understanding, I turn to Dr. Alexander Berzin (1944 – present), a Buddhist translator, teacher, scholar and practitioner with more than 50 years of Buddhist experience. After receiving his Ph.D. at Harvard, Dr. Berzin spent 29 years in India training under the guidance of some of the greatest Tibetan masters of our times. There he served as occasional interpreter for H.H. the 14th Dalai Lama and His tutors.


He is the founder and author of the Berzin Archives and and author of many books including Relating to a Spiritual Teacher: Building a Healthy Relationship. Ithaca: Snow Lion, 2000; Second reprint, Wise Teacher, Wise Student: Tibetan Approaches to a Healthy Relationship. Ithaca: Snow Lion, 2010. It is this book that provides the basis of the next few blog posts. Find out more about him here. 
This book provides an in depth look at the student teacher relationship from the perspective of all the different schools of Tibetan Buddhism. It is the best source I have found so far in that the author understands both the Western perspective and has a deep understanding of Tibetan Buddhism. He is aware of the pitfalls Western students fall into and gives clarifications so that we can avoid these pitfalls and common misunderstandings.
The whole book is free on his website. It starts on this page and if you go to the bottom of the page it shows links to the next parts of the book.  Or you can purchase a Kindle copy HERE It’s also available in paperback.
In these posts I will share some main points on the different chapters and direct you to the relevant chapter, but if you want to read the whole thing, I think it would be most beneficial.

Is there something wrong with the religion or is it how we understand it that is wron?

If you are feeling that there is something seriously wrong with the whole Tibetan Buddhist system, this series of posts may reassure you that the religion is not the problem here, rather it is cultural and psychological differences, a misunderstanding of the religion, and a hijacking of it in the service of one individual.
If you are one of those who are determined to prevent this happening again in any Buddhist organisation, you will find Berzin’s words provide a vital understanding of the dynamics at play

The Factors Affecting a Relation with a Spiritual Teacher

He starts with a look at The Factors Affecting a Relation with a Spiritual Teacher. Click the link to read the full chapter.
In this chapter, he covers the following points:

  • The modern Western situation for studying with a spiritual teacher is completely different from the traditional Asian one;
  • Dangers are exacerbated, in the case of the Tibetan tradition, by texts on “guru-devotion.” The audience for such texts was committed monks and nuns with vows, needing review in preparation for tantric empowerment. The instructions were never intended for beginners at a Dharma center.
  • He introduces a nontraditional scheme (that is not included in the book) for analyzing and problem-solving the issue, suggested by and expanded from the work of the Hungarian psychiatrist Dr. Ivan Boszermenyi-Nagy, one of the founders of family therapy and contextual therapy. Here he looks at the aims and expectations of the relationship for each party, the roles and level of committment they take, and the psychological factors affecting the relationship.
    This would be an excellent model for Rigpa to use when looking into any issue a student has with a teacher.
    Then he asks: “Do they student and teacher together form:

    • A good or bad team
    • A team in which both bring out the best abilities in each other or which hinders each other’s abilities
    • A team which wastes each other’s time because of different expectations
    • A team in which a hierarchic structure is maintained and in which the student feels exploited, controlled and thus inferior (reinforcing low self-esteem), and the teacher feels him or herself to be the authority and superior – note that what one side feels may not correspond to what the other feels
    • A team in which one or both feel inspired or drained.”

    Cultural and historical perspectives and the Rise of Confusion

    The second chapter, The Rise of Confusion in the Student-Teacher Relationship, Berzin explores cultural differences and historical aspects that contribute to confusion about the student- teacher relationship.
    This brilliant run down of cultural and historical factors helped me to understand why abuse could happen in a Tibetan Buddhist context. It also shows that the issues go far beyond what can be fixed with a code of conduct. We will have to be much bolder than that if we are to turn this debacle into something that will benefit rather than destroy the dharma.
    Berzin concludes:
    “The recurring misconduct has led some Dharma practitioners to become indifferent. No longer believing in anyone, many find their spiritual practice has weakened and become ineffective. Resolution of the problems and a healing of wounds are desperately needed so that sincere seekers may get on with the work of spiritual development. The student-teacher relationship as understood and developed in the West needs re-examination and perhaps revision.”

  • Be sure to check out the What Now? References page for 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.
    More personal and private support for current and previous students of Rigpa can be found in the What Now? Facebook group. Please contact us via the contact page and ask for an invite. Please use the email address you use on Facebook.


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”

Confessions of a Devoted Student – Part 1

Samaya, Devotion & Beliefs that Alter Perception

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