Looking for a Tibetan Buddhist Teacher? Or Been Mistreated by one? Here’s some good advice.

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.”

Authentic Experience with an Inauthentic Guru?

Can an unrealised teacher induce a genuine spiritual experience in his or her students? This is something we’ve talked about before here, but for me, up until now, my examination has been very much informed by beliefs instilled in me by Tibetan Buddhism. In fact the whole quandary is due to the dzogchen teachings insistence that one needs a realised teacher for any genuine transmission of the nature of mind to occur.

‘So in Dzogchen, the direct introduction to rigpa requires that we rely upon an authentic guru, who already has this experience. It is when the blessings of the guru infuse our mindstream that this direct introduction is effected. ‘

Dzogchen, Heart Essence of the Great Perfection, HH Dalai Lama

Now I’d like to step out of the Tibetan Buddhist framework of beliefs and look at this question from a different perspective.

Continue reading “Authentic Experience with an Inauthentic Guru?”

The King is Dead: Long Live the King

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”

Sogyal Rinpoche’s Last Tour

Rigpa has sent an email to their devotees sharing their plans ‘for the ceremonies that will be performed for Sogyal Rinpoche over the next few months’. These plans show a stark difference in cultural attitudes between Tibet and the West as to the respectful way to treat a corpse, and we can respect that. But Rigpa could have been culturally appropriate without the elaborate charade they have planned, and in their communications, they could have been respectful to those Sogyal abused rather than painting them as enemies.

Parading his corpse around as if he were an enlightened master just continues the lie that damaged so many and disillusioned many more. It’s nothing more than their usual manipulation of the faithful. The actions of a cult. They’re essentially repeating the ‘Rigpa party line’ in a big display, saying, ‘Sogyal is a great master; it was crazy wisdom, not abuse; the 8 and their supporters got it wrong. We can be safe in the knowledge that we are right; we can go on with our worship as if nothing happened. ‘

Continue reading “Sogyal Rinpoche’s Last Tour”

The Sakyadhita Conference 2019: Inspiring, Challenging & Fruitful.

I’d never heard of the Sakyadhita International Association of Buddhist Women until Brisbane Buddhist Chaplain Jack Wicks contacted me last year and asked me to present a paper on the fallout from Sogyal’s abuse at the Sakyadhita conference 2019 in the Blue Mountains, Australia in June. I asked Damcho if she’d help out with the project and she said, ‘Yes.’ Getting the funds to pay the costs could have been a stumbling block, but 48 wonderful people contributed to our Go Fund Me Campaign to cover our conference fees and some of our costs. On Monday the 24th of June, Damcho, Jack and I delivered our paper to around 800 people.

The talk was very well received, the quality of the listening was interested and supportive. We had many people coming up and speaking to us afterwards to express how grateful they were that we were talking about the issue of abuse in Buddhism. They particularly appreciated Damcho speaking publicly of her experience.

For me it came at a great time because I’ve finished my book Fallout: Recovering from Abuse in Tibetan Buddhism, which speaks of my journey over the last couple of years, and this was like a very brief summary of the book’s subject matter. I felt lighter after the paper, as if I’d shed a load I’d been carrying.

Click here to listen to the audio.


The venue
The view
Our comfortable room.
The main room.
Women practitioners from all Buddhist countries.

As you can see, I met many wonderful people. It was truly wonderful to be in such a kind, supportive atmosphere. It made me realise that Buddhism is so much more than the few twisted teachers and communities.

What linked us all, these groups of nuns and lay women from all over Asia, Australia and even some from Europe and Israel, is our gender, and that relationship cut across sectarian boundaries. All were treated with respect. All equal. You could feel it in the atmosphere.

The talks were all printed into a booklet so I can read the ones I missed, but what struck me about the papers is the wealth of good works being done by Buddhist women, particularly in Asia, and the strong, inspiring woman behind them. The conference was very well organised, and a very special experience. How else would I ever make such friends? Some I intend to see again. Others will become Facebook friends.

Workshops were many and varied. I did two others on the abuse issue in order to network and so that our workshop could follow up on anything that came out of the others. The two nuns seated in the next photo delivered a paper before us on sexual abuse in nunneries in Bhutan and India, and the two talks together had quite an impact. It made it quite clear that abuse is a major issue in the religion, particularly for women, and particularly in Tibetan Buddhism, not just in the West, but also in the East where both nuns and monks are lax with their vows. Many apparently don’t even know what their vows are, whereas in other forms of Buddhism the monks and nuns recite their long list of vows at least once a month.

Strong inspiring women teachers

Thubten Chodreon, Tenzin Pamo, Joan Halifax, and Pema Khandro were the teachers I knew that were there. None of them had entourages, and all were all accessible. They ate with the rest of us, sat in the same seats, and it wasn’t hard to find a moment to speak with them. Many said to me that they felt that women teachers were the way forward for Buddhism. If you’re looking for a Buddhist teacher, I don’t think you’d go wrong with these women.

I spoke with Tenzin Palmo, and in our brief exchange, she embodied the genuine principle of the teacher in vajrayana, skilfully and spontaneously cutting through a habitual pattern of mine at the same time as setting me free. It heartened me that there are such teachers around. I also heard of a lineage of married monogamous Tibetan Lamas who didn’t screw around with their students. I found that hopeful. Not that I want another teacher – I don’t – but others do.

Tenzin Palmo


It was a full-on six days, and the topic of Sogyal’s abuse was the main topic of conversation for us because people naturally wanted to talk about it. That meant re-living it again to some extent, but Damcho took it in her stride. I found her strength and grace also an inspiration.

I passed a couple of old Rigpa friends who looked at me as if they’d smelled dog poo – despite me smiling and saying, ‘Oh how lovely to see you,’ to one I’d known quite well. I found that hurtful until, with the help of a friend, I realised that it wasn’t personal. My friend helped me to see that I was a symbol of a point of view they didn’t want to accept and accepting me would mean accepting my viewpoint to some degree, something they didn’t want to do. Oh well. That’s how it is.

I managed to thank Tenzin Palmo for her support, and I gave her a paperback copy of my book Fallout. We had a brief exchange where she basically told me I didn’t need a teacher anymore. Her words: ‘You’re an adult, you don’t need a mummy or a daddy to tell you what to do anymore.’ I might tell you the whole story sometime, but I was amused to realise that Sogyal would never have told that to any of his students! She, Thubten Chodron, Joan Halifax and Pema Khandro were all so accessible, none of this setting themselves apart business. I thought them models of how teachers should be with their students.

I didn’t manage to get to a dharma talk, though. This ex-Buddhist has had enough of that! I did plan to listen to Tenzin Palmo, but I had a migraine. Luckily, a wonderful woman took care of me by booking me a massage and providing stick-on heat packs for my shoulders. Her care, attending to my needs without being asked, was compassion in action, and I felt very nurtured.


Damcho, Jack, Tenzin, Karma and me.

To top off the experience, we had a fruitful outcome. The nun on the right in this photo, Ven. Dr. Karma Tashi Choedron pulled together a group of talented women who wanted to do something about the abuse in Buddhism issue, and from her networking came the Alliance for Buddhist Ethics. It’s purpose is to eliminate abuse from Buddhism. A big task, yes, but it’s a start. You’ll hear more about this as time passes, but for now you can show your support by signing up to the mailing list.

Click here to sign up to the Alliance for Buddhist Ethics mailing list.

Here’s some video snippets from the conference including the announcement of the Alliance for Buddhist Ethics and some comments from Jack, Damcho and me.

Yes, I’m not a ‘Buddhist’ anymore in that I’m not aligned with any part of the religion (or any other) but I still care about the issue of abuse in Buddhism. I have great respect for the vajrayana, and I’d like to see it free from corruption, feudalism and the parts that aren’t actually Buddhism – like the idea that abuse is crazy wisdom and therefore okay. No, no, no, it is never okay, and it certainly isn’t what the Buddha taught – as Jack says at the end of our talk.

The next conference is in Malaysia in 2021, and I’m hoping to go. I’d like to submit a paper on self reflection for communities to help them locate cult behaviours and see that they’re damaging and un-Buddhist. This idea came from speaking to a FPMT nun who told me about the cultish behaviour in her group. How, I wondered, could someone raise the issue in such a community? A short guide to self-reflection could provide a starting point for such a conversation. But that’s for next time!

Here’s links to more elegant videos of the conference – with music.

Tibetan Buddhist Tulku Privilege – a Cultural Clash

Conversations with people who have spent time in Tibetan society and been close to lamas have made me realise that, in general, Tibetan people accept unethical and even abusive conduct in their reincarnated masters (tulkus) without question or censure. But ‘tulku privilege‘, which essentially places tulkus above the law, conflicts with modern Western values where equality is the very basis of our democratic and legal system. Also the Tibetan injunctions against criticism and requirements for subjugation to one’s teacher are in direct opposition to Western values of freedom of speech and choice.

‘Human rights recognise the inherent value of each person, regardless of background, where we live, what we look like, what we think or what we believe. They are based on principles of dignity, equality and mutual respect, which are shared across cultures, religions and philosophies. They are about being treated fairly, treating others fairly and having the ability to make genuine choices in our daily lives.’ https://www.humanrights.gov.au/about/what-are-human-rights

Tulku privilege in action

In the West, sex between a student and teacher is considered unethical due to the power imbalance, and coercion into sex is considered sexual harassment at the least and sexual abuse at the worst. But Tulkus see nothing wrong with coercing women into sex through such things as threats of hell and promises of a fast path to enlightenment for the woman and/or her family members.

Sexual misconduct is very common amongst high level lamas,’ Dr Nida Chenagtsang Karmamudra: The Yoga of Bliss, Sexuality in Tibetan Medicine and Buddhism.

Tulkus are brought up believing that they are ‘holy’ and by right of that designation are not subject to the same ethical restrictions as normal beings. They grow up in a religious culture where coercing women into sex is the acceptable norm and under the tutelage of role models who take full advantage of tulku privilege. I expect this is why so few of them have made statements denouncing abuse perpetrated by other lamas.

‘Once you have completely and soberly surrendered, you may not interpret certain manifestations and activities of the guru as the abuse of power. If you want to be fully enlightened, you can’t worry about abuse.’ Dzongsar Khyents, page 19, The Guru Drinks Bourbon?

In other words, after you’ve taken a vajrayana initiation with a teacher, that teacher can do what he wants to you and you can’t complain. In Tibetan Buddhist thinking, Tulkus have a free pass to treat people any way they wish because it’s all seen as ‘enlightened action.’

This attitude can be clearly seen in Lama Zopa’s response to Dagri Rinpoche’s inappropriate behaviour. He uses a lot of words to basically say that since Dagri Rinpoche is a ‘holy being’ anything he does is a ‘holy action’ and therefore not ordinary action which shouldn’t be held to the same standards as the actions of those who aren’t ‘holy.’  

Lama Zopa is so completely ignorant of how ridiculous his kind of thinking appears to the majority of Westerners—excluding those who swallow such beliefs without examination—that he doesn’t hide his views. This is a good thing, because it’s certainly time for some transparency on this.

Clearly Dagri Rinpoche didn’t take the FPMT code of conduct as having any relevance to him, and due to tulku privilege, I expect all tulkus will think the same way—Rigpa’s special category for Vajrayana and Dzogchen in their code of conduct certainly upholds that idea.

In the West, all are equal before the law. A crime is a crime, no matter who commits it. Cardinal George Pell, the Catholic equivalent of a very high lama was convicted for sexual abuse in Australia. Western law sees abuse by spiritual figures as crimes, not ‘holy actions.’ In fact, the very fact that the abuse was perpetrated by a spiritual figure makes it all the more abhorrent.

Not only is the idea of spiritual leaders being above the law not accepted in the West, as James R. Lewis explains in his book Cults in America, probably the most important characteristic of a dangerous cult is that ‘The organization is willing to place itself above the law.’ (See http://abuse.wikia.com/wiki/Cult_checklist )

If Tibetan Buddhism wants to be seen as a reputable religion in the West, instead of a religion comprised of dangerous cults, the lamas have to give up their tulku privileges. I’m not holding my breath waiting for that, though, but we could at least get some transparency around the issue. Westerners should be under no illusions about their Tibetan Buddhist teachers.

Celibacy? Nah. Even the monks do it.

One of the things that really shocked me on my journey of discovery of tulku privilege is that even the tulkus who are monks have sex, and they have it with multiple partners. One Western woman teacher of Tibetan Buddhism with decades of experience around lamas and their communities told me that sometimes tulku monks have sex with many women while looking for a wife, and once they’ve found their wife, they give up their robes. Why, I wonder, don’t they give up their robes before looking for a wife?

She also told me that having a wife does not necessarily stop them from continuing their multiple partners, and some do not give up their robes, even if they do have a wife. So they appear to be a monk, but they aren’t.

Another woman told me that she heard HHDL on two separate occasions saying that a monk could penetrate a woman without breaking his vow of celibacy so long as he didn’t ejaculate! I couldn’t find any scriptural authority on this, but the woman assures me that he shared this fact in Kalachakra teachings she attended.

The fact that ample numbers of Western women have appeared all too keen to have sex with a tulku, robed or not, hasn’t helped the lamas to recognise the reality of the situation—that in the West, as a spiritual teacher, they are expected to behave ethically in all areas. And having sex with a student is considered highly unethical for any teacher no matter whether the student wants it or not.

Teachings or a way to cover their asses?

‘Capitulation to the teacher’s wishes is [seen as] virtuous and defiance has dire consequences as does breaching the secrecy that typically surrounds such encounters.’ Holly Gayley (Department of Religious Studies, University of Colorado) ‘Revisiting the “Secret Consort” (gsang yum) in Tibetan Buddhism.’

The biography of Lingza Chökyi, Travels in the Nether-worlds, includes the story in of a 16th Century women who refused to be the ‘secret consort’ of ‘a master of esoteric teachings’ and complained about his inappropriate conduct. In the story, ‘Yama declares, “It is a greater sin to denigrate and slander lamas and teachers than it is to murder a thousand living beings,” and condemns her to suffer the torments of the hell realms.’ Lama Zopa’s response mentioned above is really just a more subtle way of saying the same thing.

Teachings that do nothing more than maintain the power of the lamas should be thoroughly questioned, not simply accepted as an integral part of the Buddhist teachings. Some lama some time made up the teachings on how to follow a teacher, but did they do it for the sake of the students or to provide themselves with slaves for their own gratification? Given the abuse enabled by these teachings, the latter purpose seems most likely.

And yet these teachings are now seen as integral to the religion. But are they? Really? Isn’t some openness and respect towards a lama enough? Why accept behaviour from our Tibetan Buddhist teachers that we would not accept in any other area of our life?

A huge cultural clash

Western culture has taken a very long time to develop the idea of equal rights for all human beings. Are we going to throw all that away because Tibetan Buddhist teachers expect us to play the serfs in a system that places them in the role of a feudal lord? Didn’t we get rid of that way of thinking back in the time of the French Revolution? Wouldn’t accepting Tulku privilege be a huge step backward for is both individually and collectively? And how does giving up our right to recognise abuse as abuse contribute to our spiritual development, anyway?

Tibetan Buddhism has a lot of offer, but tulku privilege is not something we should import along with the teachings.

A call for transparency

On the issue of unethical conduct, I’ve seen no willingness in tulkus to move an inch from their exalted position where they feel they can ignore ethical guidelines with impunity. Since they appear unwilling to even consider that their beliefs in this area may be needing some revision, then they should at least do us the decency of being transparent about their behaviour.

Isn’t it high time that a lama sat down with a panel of Western students and answered a few core questions such as:

  • Is there any behaviour that would be considered unethical for a tulku?
  • Are tulkus who wear monks’ robes celibate? If so, what does celibacy actually mean for a tulku? Does it mean no sexual contact as it does in the West?
  • The teachings on How to Follow a Teacher in The Words of my Perfect Teacher benefit lamas by providing them with compliant slaves, how do such teachings benefit the students?
  • Do tulkus think that having sex with a woman is beneficial for the woman regardless of whether the woman wanted it or not?
  • Do tulkus see anything wrong with threatening a woman or promising her something in order to get her to have sex with them?
  • Tibetan Buddhist values and Western ethical values clash where tulkus are not held to the same standards as the rest of society, why shouldn’t tulkus behave in accord with Western ethics if they want to teach in the West?

What questions would you like to ask to bring some transparency to the issue of tulku privilege?

For further perspectives on this see the article Why I Quit Guru Yoga by Stephen Batchelor.

Image by lanur from Pixabay

The Benefits of Tibetan Buddhism

Despite the issues with the religion, there are benefits of Tibetan Buddhism, and I think it’s important to recognise these. It’s easy when we’re first discovering the drawbacks (like abusive lamas, cult tendencies, and spiritual bypassing) to reject everything about it, but those who stuck around for decades did so because they did actually gain some benefit – at least those of us who weren’t directly abused.

Tibetan Buddhism may leave out important aspects of human development, be easily misued (but aren’t a lot of things?) and fail in training their gurus such that they don’t become corrupted by their power, and we may have been brainwashed into accepting behaviour we would never accept in any other circumstances, but we did gain important skills for working with our mind and with others. And even if we move on from the religion, we’ll still retain the skills we developed through all those practice accummulations.

Where Buddhism excels

Human beings have psychological, emotional, energetic, physical, spiritual, and mental aspects to their being with various overlaps between these areas, and (unlike what we see in many Tibetan Buddhist Teachers) a truly self-actualised/enlightened being would not be developed in only one or two areas, but in all. If we’re aiming for this kind of balance in our personal and spiritual development, then we need to recognise what works well on what aspects of ourselves, and Buddhism is a powerful tool (perhaps the most powerful tookl) for developing our mental and spiritual aspects.

Some teachers do teach on energy (the tsa, lung teachings) and I know of one who did include a physical aspect—Namkhai Norbu’s Vajra dance—but the teachings in general deal with the mind and going beyond the mind to develop the spiritual aspect of our experience. If we study and practice knowing this without expecting that the teachings and practice will also solve our psychological, emotional and physical issues, then some study and practice of the Buddhist teachings are very beneficial, and I found the extensive practice that I did extremely beneficial.

Some, however, had some adverse effects, so it’s not a one-size-fits-all deal. You have to know yourself, your needs and trust your own instincts on this as in all things.

Benefits of Tibetan Buddhism in skill development

If you ever wondered why we did all those recitations of practices, it’s because the brain needs a certain number of hours to actually change its structure such that the centres of our brain associated with love and compassion and regulating emotions, for example, light up automatically. This is why, once you’ve done the required number of hours – assuming you did them correctly – the skills you learned from your Buddhist practice become part of how you approach your life and my mind.

Mind you, since the brain is very plastic, you could lose it if you don’t use it. But if you’re truly integrating these practices into your life, then you won’t lose them, and you can always return to your cushion for a top up when things get challenging.

Below, I list briefly the skills developed by Tibetan Buddhism that I believe are valuable and probably even necessary for our spiritual and mental development. Most of these skills can be developed through secular means, of course; they are not only the realm of Buddhism. However, Tibetan Buddhism does do an excellent job of teaching us about the subtle levels of mind.


Being able to settle and observe our thoughts and emotions is a vital skill to develop for the sake of our personal well being. We all need to be able to find relief from our thoughts and emotions when they’re too wild and overwhelm us. It’s important, however, to also be aware that that same ability if used to excess can blunt all emotions, including positive ones. Meditation is a tool for us to use wisely.

Loving kindness and compassion practices:

These practices, if done correctly, make us kinder and more compassionate people and help us to relate better to others. When directed at ourselves, they can increase self-esteem and heal feelings of unworthiness.

Vajrayana practice:

What is the point of all that chanting and visualisation? Let’s start with the preliminaries, the ngondro: when done with the awareness that all deities are representations of the nature of your own mind, not some external being or a representation of an external being, and even when done essentially without all the bells and whistles, refuge gives us confidence in our true/Buddha nature, our inner wisdom; bodhichitta/compassion practice makes us kinder and more attuned to others; Vajrasattva practice is a healing tool within which we can right wrongs, energise ourselves and build our immune system; mandala offering is a practice of gratitude and generosity and at its deepest gives insight into the ‘empty’ nature of reality; guru yoga assists us in recognising the nature of our own mind—but I find that if I’ve done offering sufficiently deeply, I don’t need guru yoga.

Oh, and there’s the contemplations on the 4 thoughts that turn the mind to the dharma. What does that do? Exactly what it says it does – develops renunciation. I learned to have deep gratitude for the life I have, an awareness of impermanence that makes me appreciate every moment and every human interaction, an understanding of the nature and pervasiveness of suffering and disatisfaction and a determination to escape that, and a recognition that all my actions have results – postive negative or nuetral. But I got this not from casual reading or from saying them quickly daily but from spending 3 months contemplating each thought, bringing whichever one I was working on into my life as manay times a day as I can remember. After that the 4 lines of the practice were just a reminder.

The three roots practice – guru, yidam and dakini – in which the practitioner arises as the deity: For me, the guru practice helped me to see every sound, perception and thought as sacred, as empty and luminous; Vajrakilaya practice helped me to see that my obstacles were mostly in my mind, and since I worked specifically on some of those obsctacles that I knew I carried from my childhood, it helped me release them. Since I never did the dakini practice, I can’t comment on that.

Other than that, there are various sadhanas that do various things, but the ngondro and three roots practices are the ones from which I gained the most personal benefit, and all while also visualising the same benefit for all other beings.

In general, the practice of visualisation and mantra, when done fully using the three samadhis, and actualising the elements of purity, equality and vajra pride gives a direct experience of the luminous empty nature of ourselves and reality – and yet, the same practices can be nothing more than a fancy form of shamata mediation. It all depends on whether or not you know what you’re doing and actualise it. The knowledge and meditative experience required to do it fully and gain these benefits, however, requires a lot of study and time committment, and I don’t see why you can’t get the same kind of experience using other methods.

Vajrayana practice for me was very inspiring until I became bored with it. I can move on now not because I reject vajrayana, but because I did enough of it.

Dzogchen and Mahamudra:

These teachings drew many of us to Tibetan Buddhism, and practiced well, they can give you a direct insight into the true nature of your mind and reality. Having confidence in your true nature and being able to remain in a state of pure awareness connected to everything and everyone, isn’t just a wonderful state of being, it also enables us to truly find and follow our own wisdom – so long as we don’t get attached to our teacher. The result of that is a sense of freedom and a sense that you can handle anything one way or another. Everything is fluid and workable.

Undoubtably, these teachings are the jewel in the Tibetan Buddhist crown, and beware of look-alike options. You’re better off with a traditional Tibetan Buddhist Dzogchen text translated by someone like Erik Pema Kunsang than a Western cult leader. These are subtle teachings, very easy to misunderstand, and, despite his faults and crimes, I am extremely grateful to Sogyal for introducing me to them.

Balancing it out

The danger with any form of meditation is when students use it (at any level) as a kind of drug to get you away from the difficulties of life and/or as an avoidance mechanism, a way to bypass your emotional and psychological issues. So some examination of our childhood patterns and the role of beliefs in our thinking, feeling and perception is an important adjunct to Buddhist practice as well as some kind of conscious body work or exercise.

If you’re feeling a bit numb, or if your non-attachment is making you unable to relate to the people or situation before you with any real empathy, you’re out of balance. I doubt the Buddha meant that to be the result of his teachings on non-attachment, but I’ve seen it in students who have been Buddhist practitioners for many years. There’s a tendency to gravitate towards the nature of mind teachings and leave the compassion teachings behind as if, being Mahayana, they are lesser somehow.

This shows how important it is to take the path step by step, making a firm foundation in each step before focusing on the next. It might be inspiring to have Dzogchen teachings straight up, but we mustn’t neglect those compassion teachings because they help to keep us grounded.

The weakness and the integrity

The weakness in the religion today is in the poor quality of some of the teachers, and yet you can gain benefit even with a teacher you later discover is a fraud—as I and many others did. This indicates that there is some integrity in the Vajrayana ‘system’ untouched by the failings of an individual or even general corruption in the religion. I’m not the only one who feels that the Vajrayana practices themselves—minus guru yoga—are free of Sogyal’s taint.

Some time ago, I emailed Tenzin Palmo and asked the following:
“Can one gain some measure of genuine realisation through relying on an unqualified teacher? 
This is referring to a situation where the student has given complete, unquestioning devotion and fulfilled their obligations as a student and then only later they discover that the lama was not worthy of that devotion. “

Her reply was:

“Yes, it is possible to gain genuine realisation even when the teacher later proves to be unqualified. If the student has a direct realisation of the nature of the mind, then that is so, whatever the status of the lama who gave the pointing out instruction or facilitated this insight. Some teachers have the ability to open the minds of the students even when in other ways the conduct and wisdom of the teacher may be questionable. This is one reason for the confusion nowadays with lamas who have helped so many students yet have been shown to be unworthy of their role. Still these students were helped….”

Image by Михаил Нечаев from Pixabay

If you’d like a more private place to chat about your ongoing spiritual path after you’ve left an abusive community, you can join the Beyond the Temple Facebook group. This group is for people who don’t want to talk about abuse, but want to keep in touch and share their discoveries, inspiration and challenges as they move on with their lives.

If you want to talk about abuse, then Rigpa or ex-Rigpa students can join the secret What Now? groupApply via the contact form here, telling us about yourself and why you want to join the group. 

Students from other Vajrayana communities who need somewhere where they can talk about abuse and find survivor support can join the Survivors of Vajrayana Abuse and their Allies group.  

Note that you will not be added to these groups if you don’t answer the questions.

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Is Tibetan Buddhism Really a Complete Path?

One of the result of Sogyal’s betrayal for me is questioning EVERYTHING about Tibetan Buddhism. I realise that I accepted too much on faith alone. I had faith that ‘Buddhism’ was all good. But the Buddha himself said we shouldn’t take what he said on faith alone, let alone what some teacher 2500 years in the future might say.

I tested some of it, the stuff that related specifically to me, my mind, and how I handled my life, but I never doubted that Tibetan Buddhism was a complete path as Sogyal said. It certainly appeared to have everything covered, and we did have a step by step progression to follow that was supposed to end up with us being enlightened – in one lifetime. Given the actual results, however, I now have to ask whether or not this is actually the complete path we were told it was.

What are the results?

After forty years in Rigpa, and longer for Shambala, do we have any enlightened beings amongst the students? Are Sogyal and Trungpa’s oldest students the wise and compassionate beings they should be if this path according to them is truly what they say it is? And look at these abusive lamas; If they did actually practice the path they taught – which is highly doubtful – then they are hardly a good advertisment for their path. They may be highly developed in the area of meditation and be able to share some dharma gems, but they are also emotionally immature and highly manipulative people. This is hardly the kind of person we should be aiming to emulate, and they are clearly further from any genuine ‘enlightenment’ than the average law abiding citizen, so something must be amiss in what they taught.

Look at those still running Shambala and Rigpa. In both organisations we see the same kind of DARVO responses (Deny. Attack. Reverse Victim and Offender) as given by every person and institution accused of abuse. There is nothing enlightened or even genuinely compassionate in their behaviour – and certainly no following the vajrayana teachings on purification of bad karma as the basis for their actions (confession, regret and reparation before a witness). What we’re seeing is people concerned primarily with protecting and continuing the very institutions, teachings and teachers who caused and enabled the abuse in the first place.

Can a cult stop being a cult?

In both cases, Shamabala and Rigpa, the changes are superficial, and will remain so unless they actually denounce the behaviour of the teachers who perpetrated the abuse – and in Shambala that’s a lot of teachers, since abuse of one kind or another seem to be throughout all levels of the organisation. These organisations are clearly cults, and I don’t believe they can be redeemed, because though they may remove their teachers from the organisation, they will not denounce their behaviour. They still think it was crazy wisdom and therefore accept abuse as a legimate part of the vajrayana path. For so long as this is the belief at the core of these organisations, their codes of conduct are only for show, and the lovely facade they present at local centres are nothing more than cult induction techniques.

Does the path work with the whole of us?

I realise now that I suppressed my feelings for years under Rigpa’s tutelage, so though my awareness of my own mind and the empty nature of reality is fairly firmly established, I’m underdeveloped in terms of my emotional intelligence – just like my lama. I’m grateful for what I gained in the area of mental awareness, but I can’t say that it’s a complete path.

I’d done a lot of work on my childhood patterns before coming to Rigpa, and I have a high level of physical awareness gained from years as a dancer, but there was no place to work on those aspects of ourselves in Rigpa. The physical aspect of ourselves was simply ignored, and we were advised against looking into our past to examine what we might have picked up from our childhood that is holding us back today.

Not all teachers are the same

Other teachers don’t ignore the physical aspect, however. Namkahi Norbu had his Vajra dance (which I always wanted to learn and never managed to) and Tsoknyi Rinpoche talks about dropping our mind down into our body and tuning into what is happening there. He also talks about acknowledging our feelings by giving them a ‘handshake’ before letting them go. So clearly there is variety within the tradition which makes a general evaluation impossible.

Some people tell me that there are some teachers who are genuinely good people. His Holiness the Dalai Lama appears to be a fine example of compassion and wisdom, so really here, I’m talking about Tibetan Buddhism as it’s taught in Shambala, Rigpa and other organisations of abusive lamas, because in these organisations, the results are not well-balanced wise and compassionate people, and those that are were likely like that before they joined up.

Because there is no central authority in Tibetan Buddhism, many lineages, and individual lamas can basically do and say what they want, there will always be exceptions to disprove any evaluation of the tradition as a whole. But in general the teachings do primarily work with one’s mind, emotions are the enemy and the body is ignored, and so it’s easy to end up with people (including teachers) who are not grounded in their body and in the world, and who are experts at bypassing their issues and emotions rather than dealing with them.

If you have experience of teachers who do seem to teach and embody a path that acknowledges and works with all aspects of ourself -physical, mental and emotional – please do share in the comments. I’d also like to hear your thoughts on how Tibetan Buddhism did or did not live up to your expectations. Do you feel as if you’d been sold a lemon?

For more on this topic check out my vlog.

If you’d like a more private place to chat about your ongoing spiritual path after you’ve left an abusive community, you can join the Beyond the Temple Facebook group. This group is for people who don’t want to talk about abuse, but want to keep in touch and share their discoveries, inspiration and challenges as they move on with their lives.

If you want to talk about abuse, then Rigpa or ex-Rigpa students can join the secret What Now? groupApply via the contact form here, telling us about yourself and why you want to join the group. 

Students from other Vajrayana communities who need somewhere where they can talk about abuse and find survivor support can join the Survivors of Vajrayana Abuse and their Allies group.  

Note that you will not be added to these groups if you don’t answer the questions.

The Facebook page and You Tube Channel associated with this blog are called Living in Peace and Clarity. Click the relevant link on the side bar to ‘Like’ and ‘Subscribe’.

Vajrayana Buddhism Issues – Arrogance

Vajrayana Buddhism issues abound and if you’ve been around a Tibetan Buddhist sangha for any time, you may have heard a teacher talk about the supremacy of the Vajrayana, how it’s the fastest path, has the most skilful means, is for students of the greatest capacity and so on. If we heard someone from another religion talk like this, we’d probably scoff, so is this kind of arrogance something we should buy into? And if we do, what are the results, apart from soothing our ego by making us feel that we’re on the one right path?

The following quote, written by one of the members of the Beyond the Temple Facebook group, inspired this post.

I’m going back to so-called Basics. The 4 Noble Truths, the Noble 8 fold path. I’ve already decided it’s well worth focusing on that for me. The Noble Eight Fold Path is full of suggestions and statements that are more than enough for me to validly follow and see how that works (not just read about and then move on to ‘posher’ ‘clever’ stuff.)

Surely it’s all meant to be about doing It – walking your talk. And if anyone tries to tell me I’m not Buddhist because I reject the clever, complicated Vajrayana practices etc, that’s their problem. I wonder if sometimes people simply (not that simply) just try to do too much and get scattered and forget the really crucial stuff like right speech etc etc. It leads them away from the well-being of all, including themselves, despite their good motivation. And teachers should help remind them when they go down a wrong, time-wasting or unkind side alley. I am not trying to tell a teacher what their remit is, but surely that is blindingly obvious.

Beyond the Temple member

These kinds of thoughts and approach to their spiritual path moving forward are shared by many ex-students of abusive vajrayana teachers and their cults. Below I pull out the main points and expand on them.

Many paths, all valid

  • The Buddha taught many paths to suit different kinds of people. All are complete paths and all lead to liberation – why would he have taught anything less? If you look closely, you’ll see that all the Buddha’s teachings are contained in the foundation yana in an implicit way if not explicit. Later teachings – if they are genuinely Buddhist – simply build on what’s there. Any Buddhist path is as good as any other Buddhist path.
  • The idea that the vajrayana is somehow better than other forms of Buddhism is just arrogance, and yet that’s what we were taught. Such elitism – the idea that vajrayana is the best/fastest/most skilful path – is common in cults, and is as ridiculous as saying that the Christian or any other religion is the best one. The idea that it’s faster is misleading since if it isn’t the right path for you, then you may just be wasting your time, and if you have an abusive guru, then vajrayana will bring you more harm than good.
  • Vajrayana arrogance leads to people not paying enough attention to the foundation teachings on which vajrayana is supposedly built. They skip over it or give lip service to it, but don’t actually study and put into practice things like the 10 negative actions to be avoided. If they had done that work, they would be able to discern right from wrong action and never consider that the kind of abuse we saw in Rigpa was anything other than wrong action. A house without a strong foundation will eventually fall down, and isn’t that what we’ve seen here with this massive failure of vajrayana to uphold even a basic ethical stance?
  • What use is the study and practice of a path that supposedly teaches wisdom and compassion if it doesn’t lead to followers living the teachings and becoming genuinely good people?
  • Isn’t it better to follow a simple path that leads you to be a genuinely good person than to follow a complex one where you get confused about what is right conduct?

Is vajrayana Buddhism truly Buddhism?

After the rose-coloured glasses fell from my eyes in the wake of the revelations of Sogyal Lakar’s abuse, I saw how wafting off into vajrayana land of rainbow light and mantras had resulted not in wiser and more compassionate people, but in minds and eyes closed to the truth of what was actually happening before them. Like the commenter above – and many others – I decided that the most important thing in life was not to follow a complex spiritual regime, but to actually be a good person.

It seemed bizare to me that teachings full of compassion and wisdom could have led to such a result, and I wondered just how far Rigpa had departed from what the Buddha actually taught. To find out, I spent some time looking at the Buddha’s earliest teachings, and some of what I found made it look as if vajrayana wasn’t even Buddhist. Certainly the Tibetan emphasis on unquestioning devotion and ritual seemed the opposite of what the Buddha taught.

The Buddha before Buddhism

One of the books I read was The Buddha before Buddhism: Wisdom from the Early Teachings by Gil Fronsdal. It’s a translation of one of the earliest of all Buddhist texts, the Atthakavagga, or Book of Eights, which comes from the earliest strain of Buddhist literature, before the Buddha came to be thought of as a ‘Buddhist’. The approach to awakening laid out in the Book of Eights is incredibly simple and free of adherence to any kind of ideology. Instead of doctrines to be believed, it describes means for realizing peace that bring genuine results to those who live by them.

What may be perplexing to many is that the Book of Eights does not espouse a religious doctrine that exists in opposition to other doctrines. Nor does it put forth a teaching that is meant to be seen as superior to other teachings. In a manner that challenges the religious beliefs of many people – including many Buddhists – the test explicity denies the role of ultimate religious “truth” and “knowledge” in attaining personal peace.

Gil Frondsdal. The Buddha before Buddhism

Truth or arrogance?

Of course those who like to maintain that the Mahayana and Vajrayana are superior to the early teachings of the Buddha on the basis that the attainment of ‘peace’ is not full enlightenment will scoff at this simply for the use of the word ‘peace’, but really, why would the peace the Buddha referred to in the first turning teachings be anything other than the peace of full enlightenment? If he was enlightened, why would he teach a path that lead anywhere less than the full state of enlightenment? That idea simply doesn’t make sense. And the Buddha would agree that we shouldn’t accept something as truth just because some lama says so!

Nothing basic about the basics

How does following the ‘best’, ‘the fastest’, or the ‘most skilful’ path that requires us to sit on our bums for hours spacing off in a rainbow realm help us if we can’t even follow the noble eightfold path? ( Right view, right resolve, right speech, right conduct, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, and right meditative absorption.) And let’s be honest here, can you? Do you? I certainly don’t. I have plenty to work on without falling for the ‘enlightenment-in-one-life-time’ hook. I’m not saying I didn’t benefit from vajrayana, I did, a lot, but I still have to come back to earth and live the teachings in the real world, and what does that come down to? Following the eightfold path!

There is nothing basic about the Buddhist basics and nothing simplistic about their simplicity. The point is that you can have the teachings and practice the practice without all the bullshit. These days, there are so many books and talks and videos around, that you don’t even need to go anywhere near a physical teacher. Like with husbands, you’re better off with none than with a bad one.

I find it very useful to have a valid, real-live teacher, but if I feel a need to see him/her too often, that may be a danger sign – for me anyway. It shouldn’t be necessary really.

Beyond the Temple member

What do you think?
Leave your comment below.

If you’d like a more private place to chat about your ongoing spiritual path after you’ve left an abusive community, you can join the Beyond the Temple Facebook group. This group is for people who don’t want to talk about abuse, but want to keep in touch and share their discoveries, inspiration and challenges as they move on with their lives.

If you want to talk about abuse, then Rigpa or ex-Rigpa students can join the secret What Now? groupApply via the contact form here, telling us about yourself and why you want to join the group. 

Students from other Vajrayana communities who need somewhere where they can talk about abuse and find survivor support can join the Survivors of Vajrayana Abuse and their Allies group.  

Note that you will not be added to these groups if you don’t answer the questions.

The Facebook page and You Tube Channel associated with this blog are called Living in Peace and Clarity. Click the relevant link on the side bar to ‘Like’ and ‘Subscribe’.

What Now?

Eighteen months after the revelations that Sogyal Lakar/Rinpoche was abusing students rocked Rigpa student’s world, I once again ask, What now? Where do we go from here?
What now is a great question, and one I think we should ask often because it has an openness to the unknown to it, and the future is unknown. Anything we plan or expect is just a projection.
When I see on the news stories of people killed in car accidents, by a falling tree, or being caught in a rip and washed out to sea, it reminds me that I could be dead this time tomorrow, and that reminds me that I have no time to waste in my life if I’m to die without regrets, to die having lived a worthwhile life. And so I must live that worthwhile life now in this very moment.

What makes your life worthwhile?

For me it is a life focused on meditation and contemplation undertaken in a quiet household. In meditation I can help heal the world with light, sound and visualisation. In contemplation I listen to teachings and read books that remind me of the important things in life: love, compassion and wisdom. And I try to live my life in peace and clarity using the wisdom and compassion I foster on my cushion.
During the last 6 months of 2017, my spiritual practice was moderating the What Now Facebook group and writing blogs posts for this blog, I had no time for sitting on a cushion, and no time for earning a living during that time, but supporting others is one of those things that makes a worthwhile life. This last year I have managed to earn a small income, and I’ve returned to a formal meditation practice with an enthusiasm I haven’t had for years.

A spiritual path after Rigpa

I have to thank Mingyur Rinpoche and Tergar for my renewed enthusiasm for meditation. Their Mahamudra course came at just the right time, a month or so after the letter by the eight revealing the abuses came out. And Tergar opened their hearts to any Rigpa student who had studied ngondro. Many of us ex Rigpa students ended up there, but I doubt that any of us have taken Mingyur Rinpoche as their teacher in the same way we took Sogyal; we won’t give up our discernment in the way we did for Sogyal, and that’s a very healthy thing.  But the course was excellent and introduced us to Clarifying the Natural State by Dakpo Tashi Namgyal, a Mahamudra meditation manual with clear instructions on detailed enquires into the mind that we never got in Rigpa. My present practice is following those vipashyana instructions. The commentary on that text, Crystal Clear by Khenchen Thrangu Rinpoche is also excellent.
So there is a spiritual path after Rigpa and other sanghas where abuse has occurred. For some it will be no path, for some it will be a different kind of path, for others a different form of Buddhism, and for some it will still be Tibetan Buddhism, probably because they have a deep appreciation for the teachings, likely especially Dzogchen and Mahamudra, even if they no longer trust the religion or the teachers.
I don’t consider myself a Tibetan Buddhist anymore, and that leaves me free of the entanglement of the cultural and feudalistic baggage carried by the religion, but not being part of the religion doesn’t stop me listening to teachers and practicing according to their instructions.
I mean, here’s a quote from the book I mentioned above:
“With the various types of thoughts, from the very moment they appear, they are mothing other than the aware emptiness of unidentifiable mind.” P33 Clarifying the Natural State by Dakpo Tashi Namgyal
Isn’t that beautiful, profound, and incredibly helpful for developing a healthy relationship to our thoughts and emotions? I think so, and it’s in Tibetan Buddhism where we find such teachings. Because of that, many of us will still want to take teachings from Tibetan Buddhist teachers and that is a risky business, because we’ve learned over the last eighteen months that it’s not just Sogyal who behaves badly; there are many other Buddhist teachers and spiritual teachers from all religions who abuse students.

Choosing a teacher

So what do we do if we want these teachings? We have to choose our teachers wisely and cautiously. No matter what style of spiritual path we choose, a teacher of some kind will probably be involved, and the same requirements are necessary whether it’s a Tibetan Buddhist lama or some new age guru.
There is plenty of guidance on this in The words of My Perfect Teacher by Patrul Rinpoche, but as he says “nowadays it is difficult to find a teacher who has every one of the qualities described in the precious tantras,” so I suggest that we choose only those teachers who have made a clear public statement against abuse, one that does not blame the students in any way, who honour the role of discernment in the Tibetan Buddhist path, who show respect for their students, and who have otherwise shown that they are worthy of their role as a spiritual teacher. We have to check their behaviour and not be fooled by fancy hats and titles, prestigious lineages and charisma, or by many devoted students—blind and emotional devotion is a cult warning sign; intelligent appreciation is not. The high level lamas are the aristocrats of Tibetan culture, the most entitled, with the kind of power held by a feudal lord, and they’re brought up with the expectation that they will live just as the masters before them lived, and so they are the very ones of which we need to be most suspicious.
“Sexual misconduct is very common within the circles of high level lamas.” (Dr Nida Chenagtsang from Karmamudra: The Yoga of Bliss)
But there are some teachers in Tibetan Buddhism that don’t abuse their students. Our task as students is to find the reliable teachers and expose those who do abuse their power. The What the Lamas Say page will help you with that.
We also need to check anything a lama says about politics or society and see whether he or she is indicating an attitude that is in accord with the dharma. Are they showing love and compassion for all, or are they seeing with an us-against-them attitude? Arrogance is a huge red flag—it’s the opposite of humble. And if a lama’s disciples are not seeing that that lama is not speaking in accord with the dharma, then stay far away from that sangha, because if they’re not using their discernment, it’s a cult, not a healthy spiritual community.
Watch carefully how they treat their students during a teaching, and at any hint of unkindness or arrogance, leave. The only way the corruption will leave, or at least lessen, in Tibetan Buddhism—apart from legal action against the abusers—is if we give our money only to teachers who teach, practice and embody a healthy interpretation of the teachings. Organisations cannot survive without student’s money, so the corrupt will die out, or at least diminish. So be careful where you spend your money.
Of course, we don’t need to have just one teacher. We can have many. You Tube is full of free teachings from many teachers, and in vajrayana practice we use a symbol representing all the great teachers, not just one. If Guru Rinpoche has bad connotations for you, then try the ah symbol used by Namkhai Norbu.

What now?

I ask “What now” again now because this blog is winding down. I’m done with Rigpa. They’re a lost cause. This blog’s focus on Sogyal’s abuse and Rigpa management’s cultish manipulations of students limits the scope of it, and my interest is moving towards the wider issues of following a spiritual path—or forging our own—and back to my own spiritual practice and writing. I shall be in retreat from Dec 26th to Jan 21st.
There might be a different blog to take over from this one in the new year, but I’ll let you know. If we get another reply to our letter to the lamas, we’ll post it, of course, but other than that, we’ll wait and see what arises from my retreat.
Thanks to all of you who have engaged in conversations here over the last eighteen months; I hope you all have a happy holiday season.


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