This video is an interview with Karma Yeshe Rabgye (a Western monk in the Tibetan Buddhist tradition) in which he gives good advice for students of Tibetan Buddhism looking for a teacher and particularly for those being abused by their lama. He is, of course, talking from a Western perspective, and we’ve hit the wall of cultural differences here when trying to get lamas to make public stances against misconduct, so I don’t think he’ll get far with his call for lamas to speak out. But his advice for Western students is basically: you’re a Westerner, you know it’s wrong, so don’t be bound by the fear tactics (samaya) of a feudal culture that has no relevance to you as a modern Western person, and report all incidences of criminal behaviour to the police. Lamas in the West must abide by Western law and should be given no special treatment just because they and you think they’re someone special.Continue reading “Looking for a Tibetan Buddhist Teacher? Or Been Mistreated by one? Here’s some good advice.”
A reflection on Sogyal Rinpoche’s death and feudalism in Tibetan Buddhism.
The first thought I had on hearing of Sogyal’s death was ‘The king is dead: long live the king.’ I ignored it, thinking it was one of those useless bits of mind vomit that invade our minds, but the phrase kept popping up during my quiet times, during my morning walk or meditation, along with a sense of what unpacking that phrase might mean in the present circumstances of Sogyal’s death. Wanting to retire into anonymity, I resisted writing about it, but eventually the insistence with which the phrase kept reoccurring made me accept that, like it or not, I had to write about Sogyal’s death in light of this phrase. So here it is:Continue reading “The King is Dead: Long Live the King”
Rigpa would have asked all those lamas who left accolades to Sogyal to say something, and tradition dictates to them that it be nice. They are culturally bound not to criticise another lama, to only talk about the good. That’s why in Mingyur Rinpoche’s Lion’s Roar article on the abuse, he never actually mentioned Sogyal’s name.
Tsoknyi Rinpoche has shown the lamas a way to say something to satisfy any request from Rigpa (which it would be difficult for them to refuse, especially given that Tsoknyi still teaches there) without glorifying Sogyal.Continue reading “Tsoknyi Rinpoche shows a way for other lamas”
People hold different viewpoints on the question of whether or not Sogyal was qualified to teach as he did, and since people don’t all accept the same ‘evidence’ as relevant, no agreement will ever come to pass. So we will have to agree to disagree or accept that we will likely never know for sure. But a question relevant for all those students who stuck with Sogyal and Rigpa for years is how his lack of qualifications affected our learning. Was it all just a waste of time?Continue reading “Can you get a Dzogchen Transmission from an Unrealised Teacher?”
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.
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
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?
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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.
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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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:
- the individual teacher who is the holder of the lineage
- the teacher which is the word of the buddhas
- the symbolic teacher of all appearances
- 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.
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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.
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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.
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 (ngowochig, ngo-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,⁴ 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.
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: https://studybuddhism.com/en/advanced-studies/lam-rim/student-teacher-relationship/the-dynamics-of-a-healthy-student-teacher-relationship/dealing-with-problematic-teachers
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.
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.
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 studybuddhism.com 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. https://studybuddhism.com/en/dr-alexander-berzin/who-is-alexander-berzin
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 https://studybuddhism.com/en/advanced-studies/lam-rim/student-teacher-relationship/factors-affecting-a-relation-with-a-spiritual-teacher 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 ConfusionThe 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.