Visual Symbolism and Metaphor as a Meditative/Theraputic Focus in Tibetan Buddhism, Jungian Psychology and AI Art

‍In this post I draw parallels between the Tibetan Buddhist use of visual symbolism, its use in Jungian psychology and finally my animated AI art. I reveal a way to use the power of symbolism and metaphor – that you may have enjoyed in Tibetan Buddhism – but in a personally and culturally appropriate way.

What drew me to Tibetan Buddhism was two things: The philosophy as described in The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying and the use of visual symbolism and metaphor. I really liked the idea of visualising something as my focus for meditation because I’d tried meditation before, but I found meditating on the breath so boring that I fell asleep. The Tibetan Buddhist practices, however, woke me up – in more ways than one!

I personally respond deeply to symbolism and metaphor, particularly of the visual kind. I worked with it initially as a painter, then as a visual theatre performer and later as an author. Now I’m coming full circle back to working with it in a visual art form – but more on that later.

Visual symbolism and metaphor in Tibetan Buddhism

‍What I found in Tibetan Buddhism was a richly visual tradition, filled with intricate imagery and powerful symbols that held deep spiritual significance. Each detail within Tibetan Buddhist artwork is purposefully chosen to convey profound teachings and evoke contemplation. Visual symbolism and metaphor play a crucial role, inviting practitioners to explore deeper levels of understanding. And I found this way of working with my mind profoundly transformative.

Then I left it all behind, but part of me yearned for that connection to spirit through symbolism and metaphor. It simmered away in my psyche seeking expression and finally popped out in my art, but with a surprising twist. One I hadn’t seen coming and didn’t conscously invite.

Symbolism in Tibetan Buddhist art

In Tibetan Buddhist art, symbolism is not merely decorative; it serves as a gateway to the depths of spiritual wisdom. Every element within a piece of art carries symbolic meaning, creating a visual language that communicates complex philosophical concepts. These symbols are not meant to be taken literally, but rather as metaphors that guide practitioners on their spiritual journey.

For example, the lotus flower is a common symbol in Tibetan Buddhist art, representing purity and enlightenment. The lotus grows in muddy waters, yet remains untouched by impurities. This symbolizes the potential for spiritual growth and transformation, even in the midst of challenging circumstances. Similarly, the wheel, or “dharmachakra,” represents the teachings of the Buddha and the path to liberation. Its eight spokes symbolize the Noble Eightfold Path, which leads practitioners towards liberation from suffering.

The use of symbolism in Tibetan Buddhist art serves as a reminder of the deeper truths that lie beyond the surface of our everyday experience. It encourages practitioners to look beyond the mundane and to contemplate the ultimate nature of reality.

The process/therapy of creating sacred art

Mandalas – intricate geometric patterns that represent the universe in Tibetan Buddhist art – are not only used as aids for meditation and visualization, but also the process of creating a mandala is a spiritual practice in itself. It requires focus, patience, and a deep understanding of the symbolism within the mandala. As practitioners engage with the mandala, they embark on a journey of self-discovery and transformation.

The strange thing I found when I started using an AI art generator to express aspects of my spiritual journey was that the creative process itself – which requires focus, patience, and clarity about what result you’re looking for – put me in a state of meditation. Apparently, according to research into autistism, spending time creating something one is passionate about is a way to regulate ones emotions when you’re a neurodivergent person. ‘Emotional regulation’ is what a Buddhist would call ‘equanimity’.

Not only that, but I also found that the art I created – once I’d animated it and set it to music by my husband Kris Newland – also inspired a meditative state when I just sat back and watched it.

I wouldn’t call it ‘sacred’ as such, but it does have meaning, and it does use symbolism, mosly European-culture based, and not consciously. Rather it is just there in my intention when I give my prompts and refine the images until I get what I want.

Jung’s active imagination technique

I discovered that the relationship I was having with this art was very like Jung’s active imagination process in Jungian psychology. Jung was, of course, very into symbolism and metaphor, and he studied it a great deal in the context of dreams. According to Jung, symbols and metaphors act as gateways to the unconscious, allowing us to unravel hidden meanings and understand our deeper selves.

Active imagination refers to entering a meditative or relaxed state and allowing the symbols and metaphors to guide your imagination. You visualize yourself in the symbolic landscape and interact with the imagery to gain deeper insights – also surprisingly like Tantric practices. I discovered I was doing this automatically, and wow, interesting things came up, things I’d completly missed in Buddhist practice. But things that in Buddhist terms remain as emotional obscurations unless I examine and heal them.

And yet some Tibetan Buddhist Gurus are scathing in their attitudes towards psychology! Clearly they missed this similarity in using symbolism and metaphor as a tool for transformation.

A modern approach to using metaphor and symbolism in self-reflection and meditation practice.

The active imagination process also works when the artworks are not one’s own creation, so any art rich in symbolism can be used. Pay attention to any images that particularly draw you and reflect on their possible meanings and how they relate to you and your current life circumstances.

Fantasy art is good in this respect. We can relate to the hero in us, the dragon, the wise woman and so on. Jungian archtypes appear liberally in fantasy themed art works, and they all are aspects of ourselves – just as the different Tibetan deities are representations of the various aspects of enlightened mind.

When we throw music into the mix, the power of the imagery increases hugely. Just as the chanting added another layer of transformative power to the Tibetan Practices. Hence my response to watching my animated AI art.

Feeling weak? Watch this one?

She’s a little reminiscent of a wrathful deity, yes?


Using animated AI art as the focus of your meditation could revamp your meditation practice or just allow you some enjoyable spacious moments.

Meditating without meditating

I talk about using the images for meditation a bit more in this video. At the end of this video is a fantasy landscape that I found so captivating that watching it led me into a deep meditative state. I felt a sense of tranquility wash over me, and I wasn’t even trying to meditate. That’s the way I want to meditate these days – without trying.

Click here to see more videos to inspire your meditation

Does this idea ‘work’ for you?

Are We Really Helpless or Do We Just Think We Are?

If you’re anything like me, you’d like to see a world where everyone genuinely respects and cares for everyone else (including the earth and all its inhabitants), a world where ethical integrity is valued more highly than fame, fortune, pleasure or power, and where objective truth is valued as the basis of our shared reality – even though we know we see it through our own subjective lenses. And if you’re like me, then you’re willing to do your bit to help bring about such a world.

But when the world doesn’t move in this direction as much or as fast as we’d like it to, when our leaders are heartless, selfish people who pray at the temples of fame, fortune, pleasure and power, and whose policies speed us ever faster towards the extinction of the world as we know it, we can easily feel helpless, depressed and anxious. And we can give up.

But are are as helpless as we think?

Continue reading “Are We Really Helpless or Do We Just Think We Are?”

Reginal Ray: Transmitting Trungpa’s lineage of abuse.

Another Tibetan Buddhist heavy weight bites the dust!

Eight students of Reginald Ray, inspired by the revelations of abuse in Rigpa in the letter written by eight Rigpa students and in Shamabala by Buddhist Project Sunshine, have written an open letter revealing Reginald Ray’s abuse of students and the cult dynamics in his organisation, Dharma Ocean.

Continue reading “Reginal Ray: Transmitting Trungpa’s lineage of abuse.”

Oh Yeah; I Forgot to Mention the Publication of Fallout! And the Sydney book launch next Wednesday.

It just occurred to me that I never announced here the release of my book on the last couple of years, Fallout: Recovering from Abuse in Tibetan Buddhism. Most of you have likely already heard this, but just in case you haven’t, the book is available now.

I’m really hopeless when it comes to selling books, but I hope to cover my costs so I can then donate anything else that comes in to The Alliance for Buddhist Ethics and the Cult Information and Family Support group in Australia, so your money won’t be lining my pockets. I wrote this to help people, and I’m pleased to say that the responses I’ve gotten from the target audience are overwhelmingly positive. It was well worth writing it.

Continue reading “Oh Yeah; I Forgot to Mention the Publication of Fallout! And the Sydney book launch next Wednesday.”

What Now Rigpa?

What now Rigpa? Building on the past

The What Now? blog, no longer wishing to be defined by our relationship to Rigpa and Sogyal Rinpoche / Lakar and his abuse, has changed its name to Beyond the Temple . We want to write more about where we go from here with our spiritual lives, instead of only writing about Sogyal’s abuse and Rigpa’s gaslighting tactics. But just as when we grow from a child into an adult, our childhood shapes us, so too does our experience of spiritual abuse shape our outlook moving forward, and our interests.

And so as an important reference area for all students of Buddhism, we have in our Abuse in Buddhism Reference area all the links to articles of interest and support that we’ve found helpful and collected over the last 18 months – though better organised now. It’s all great reading for anyone wondering if they’ve been abused rather than blessed or if they’re in a cult instead of a sangha. We have links to excellent articles on all facets of the guru abuse issue, from cult education to links to what lamas have said about lama abuse.

In keeping with this acknowledgement of where we’ve come from, this first post with our new name and URL http://beyondthetemple.com is a kind of ‘where I am with this spiritual abuse stuff now’ kind of post.

When I think of Rigpa or Sogyal these days, I just have a gentle sadness, one of those bittersweet sadnesses that recognises the good, which makes the bad so much sadder.

Abuse-enabling beliefs

I don’t think Rigpa will ever have healthy beliefs around following a Lama for so long as they listen the Orgyen Tobyal, Khenpo Namdrol and Dzongsar Khyentse. They are just too rigid on the ‘once you’re properly prepared and have taken me as your lama, shut up, don’t complain, and do as you’re told’ angle. That’s what it comes down to. (Even their code of conduct has a special section for your relationship with a tantric guru.) The way they enterpret their religion the power is still squarely with the lama, and the student is still expected to be totally submissive to and uncomplaining of his or her every action no matter how harmful. If people are clear that that’s the deal in Rigpa, (at least at the tantric level) then they can be sensible and stay away. And that’s what I’m doing – staying away.

Sogyal Rinpoche, Rigpa & abuse

I feel that Sogyal is just a sick man (mentally as well as physically) with illusions of grandeur and other symptoms of a narcisitic personality disorder along with a special ability to channel the transformative power of his teachers to give genuine introductions to the nature of mind. And Rigpa is a devious organisation, who never mentions the word abuse, despite the abusive behaviour of their lama, Sogyal Rinpoche, being the cause of their problems. The organisation is run by people who seem to have lost their way and become stuck in bad habits and skewed beliefs – though I suspect many are simply trapped by codependent tendancies and some come from abusive backgrounds that made the abuse seem ‘normal’ to them.

That Rigpa still talk to their members like a PR firm doing damage control – directing their members perception away from the truth of ‘the situation’ to a distorted version that makes them think their problem is an attack by ‘disgruntled students’, not the abuse and it’s enabling – is highly manipulative, and it isn’t care. It’s ‘we must keep our membership at all costs, so let’s direct their attention away from the nasty truth that our lama beat people, sexually harassed and used them, and kept them trapped in an abusive relationship through trauma bonding. Let’s pretend everything is right now and get back to earning money, even though we still hold the same abuse-enabling beliefs as we did before.’

Dzongsar Khyentse & the bottom line.

That’s the root of the problem with Rigpa, that they still don’t think that Sogyal did anything wrong in terms of vajrayana even though they know that he did all those things in the report. They won’t say it publically, but Dzongsar Khyentse – their main advisor – does. In his latest comments on the topic in Chile still made it clear that he hasn’t changed his bottom line that once you’re ‘properly prepared’ and you take a lama as your tantric guru, then you have to ‘continue with this practice of pure perception’, something that for many in Rigpa simply means you have to see everything the guru does as beneficial even when it’s clearly harmful.

‘And what I have basically, among other things that I’ve said, if Sogyal R had applied the correct procedure and if the students also knew what was happening, then if they had taken him as a vajrayana master, that’s it, then you have to continue with this practice of pure perception.

But if SR haden’t taken the correct procedure, and I have said that that time and I say now, that I doubt that SR had taken the correct procedure. This is my personal thought. You know the correct procedure … someone says you do my chores for 3 years, these are the correct procedures. If SR didn’t apply the correct procedures, students didn’t know what was happening and students also don’t know was happening, it is totally wrong for Sogyal to demand whole-hearted pure perception so that he can do what he likes; it’s totally wrong.’

Dzongsar Khyentse, Being Savvy at Following the Guru, Santiago, Chile, January 20, 2019. https://youtu.be/A0HGS_iP0No

I gather being ‘properly prepared’ means being warned about how you’ll be treated – like anyone is actually going to tell you the truth when they’ve been sworn to silence as part of their ‘preparation’ and they see whatever their guru does to them as a blessing anyway. It seems to me that he’s saying that it’s still okay for a teacher to abuse a student, just so long as the student knows they’re going to be abused before they take him as their tantric guru.

At least he has admitted that what Sogyal did was ‘totally wrong,’ but only for those not ‘properly prepared’, and I suspect that some of those who were abused were actually ‘properly prepared’ when they asked to be trained. He doesn’t tackle the actual question of the appropriatness of Sogyal’s behaviour even for the ‘properly prepared’, he doesn’t state as Mingyur Rinpoche does, that abuse isn’t a teaching method.

Pure perception & abuse

How, I wonder, does he interpret pure perception here? Because the suggestion is that it means we see the abuse as okay, which isn’t pure perception, it’s the ignorance of not recognising the interdependence between the absolute and the relative. My studies tell me that, pure perception does not mean seeing abusive behaviour in your lama as somehow ‘good’ or ‘beneficial’; it’s simply seeing that the abusive behaviour is empty of inherent existence. It’s still abusive; it still causes harm, even when you see its true nature, which is, of course, beyond any concepts of anything – including benefit and harm. But despite an actions ultimate emptiness, on a conventional level, through interdependence, there is benefit and harm. There is only emptiness because there is form and visa versa. Yeah, it’s hard to get your head around. No wonder there’s so much confusion.

Root of the problem

So for me, as long as at the top levels of Rigpa there’s this idea that for the ‘properley prepared’ student whatever their lama does to them is okay and they care more about keeping their business running than their members or those they harmed, Rigpa is not a healthy place to be.

The what now? question will always remain because we never know what will happen next – because of emptiness anything can arise – but without awareness of our actions, people do tend to keep behaving the same way – organisations have karma just as individuals do – and so when a pattern is established over time, it’s likely it will continue. Unless a great deal of awareness and honesty enters the picture. Anything is possible.

If management ever actually admits that Sogyal did wrong, gives a genuine apology, and stops their gaslighting then I’ll reconsider my opinion, but pointing out their failures has become a bit like flogging a dead horse, so I’m happy to walk away and leave that horse to rot. I don’t want their stink on me.

The future

Now I’ve got that clear. What Now? What Next? Watch this space …

About the new site

And now, some information you might want to know about the new site:

  • This blog contains all posts and pages from the original What Now blog. It is the same blog, just with a different name and URL and with better organised pages optimised for search engines to make the information easier to find.
  • Apart from URL changes to the reference pages, all internal links should send you from one page to another here on this site, but links you’ve posted elsewhere to the What Now? blog will still go to the old site. Those links will still work, but won’t get any updates, so it’s best if you point your links here.
  • The old blogsite will not be updated. There’s a post stuck to the front page of the old site that will send people here.

I’d love to hear what you think, so please leave a comment.

If you’d like a more private place to chat, you can join the Beyond the Temple Facebook group for discussions related to our ongoing spiritual path, or the secret What Now? group, for Rigpa students only, which focuses on Rigpa and related abuse issues, (apply via the contact form here), or if you’re not a Rigpa or ex-Rigpa person and need support specifically related to abuse in Vajrayana try 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, please click the relevant link to ‘Like’ and ‘Subscribe’.

From What Now to Beyond the Temple

If you noticed a change of name on the blog, don’t worry; it’s still the What Now? blog just with a different name. Everything is still here, but we’re moving to a self-hosted site so that I can set up Search Engine Optimisation on it, which means that the content here will be easy to find via search engines even into the future. We’re presently on a free WordPress.com blog and they don’t have much visability in search engines.

Why the name change?

The practical reason is the domain name. On a self-hosted website you need a domain name and WhatNow in any of its versions (.com or .org or .net) is taken. However Beyond the Temple domain name wasn’t, so it now belongs to me, and the URL for this site will change in a few days from https://wordpress.com/post/whatnow727/ to beyondthetemple.com.
The other reason is because, as we all know, things change. This blog started out as a group effort, but it ended up being basically my blog (Moonfire aka Tahlia) with occaisonal guest posts by the wonderful Jo Green (who I hope will continue to write for us occaisonally).
People’s interests change, and when that happens blogs naturally develop, and in this case, it’s not just me, it’s the community we’ve developed here. I and lots of other people are wanting to leave Rigpa well and truly behind us. So to reflect that, I feel we need a slight change of focus. I don’t want this blog to be defined by its relationship to Rigpa. I want to get beyond that and relate to you all outside of that context. We aren’t just Rigpa, ex-Rigpa, Tibetan Buddhist or ex-Tibetan Buddhist people, we are people walking the spiritual path in some form or other. What brought us together was spiritual abuse in Tibetan Buddhism, but that is only the ground of our community, it doesn’t define us.

Community

And we are a community. Regular commenters here and on Facebook know each other well. I think we even accept our differences these days. If someone you love dies or is sick or injured, where do ex-Rigpa folk turn? To the Beyond the Temple or What Now Facebook groups. That’s where you find the support of a community and a bunch of people who will pray for or send some love and healing to your loved ones. We are your sangha now. And it helps if a sangha has a name.
What Now on Facebook is unfindable and only for Rigpa and ex-Rigpa folk, and it’s focus is on spiritual abuse, primarly in Rigpa and Rigpa’s efforts to deal with it, so that’s too limited a focus and not open to many who would like to be part of a sangha for Tibetan Buddhist refugees. So that leaves us with Beyond the Temple  and we already have a Facebook group by that name which I set up when people started leaving the What Now group because they didn’t want to talk about abuse anymore or they found the tone too ‘negative’ – which is isn’t, by the way. We’re an incredibly supportive group who engage in very deep discussions.
But back to the Beyond the Temple group. This group is focused on us as a community with a shared ground of spiritual abuse but not defined by it. In other words, we try to talk about other things related to our ongoing spiritual path. And we try to keep the conversations from falling into too much bitching about stuff. That doesn’t mean we never refer to abuse, it just means that we try not to talk about it all the time. There are other groups now for that.
The Survivors of Vajrayana Abuse and Allies group is really good for talking about the spiritual abuse issue in any vajrayana context, and no abuser-defenders or justifiers are allowed. A lot of the people in that group are also in Beyond the Temple, and most of the What Now people are also in Beyond the Temple. So Beyond the Temple is kind of a central meeting point where kindness to each other is valued above all else and the focus is on our spiritual path and being a sangha to each other no matter where our path takes us.

Walking the spiritual path

My spiritual path is no longer related to Rigpa – and I suspect that’s the same for most of our community – and I like to talk about anything that inspires or concerns me as I travel the spiritual path. And that urge I sometimes have to share such things is why I have the Living in Peace and Clarity You Tube Channel and Facebook page. (I had them long before all this shit hit the fan.) So changing the name, and adding ‘Living in Peace and Clarity’ to the subtitle also gives me a place where I can talk about spiritual stuff that inspires me that is not related to abuse. And it allows that Facebook page to link in with this blog – another place for comunity memebers to hang out.

How will the blog change

It will move away from primarily criticising Rigpa and Lamas to including posts that are unrelated to Rigpa or even Tibetan Buddhism. I and guest authors will still criticise them when they do stupid stuff that needs to be criticised, of course, but there will be other kinds of posts as well. I don’t know what the balance will be, or even what the new kinds of posts will be about. At this stage it’s just opening us up to a wider range of topics related to the spiritual path. Hopefully, we’ll change people’s perception of us as ‘negative’ to something more realistic – after all, we’re only ‘negative’ when something needs to be criticised.
So I hope you’re all okay with that. I ran this by a reliable friend before getting it all moving, and she agreed that it was a good move.
The site will be down for a couple of days as the transfer to self hosting takes place, but then we’ll be operating on the new doman name, beyondthetemple.com
 

Victim Blaming Disguised as Dharma

Bob Thurman recently did a podcast on abuse in Buddhism, and though he said some  things that some may find helpful in the examination of the issues raised by abuse in Buddhism, I think we need to talk about the part where he fosters one of the ideas that enabled abuse and victim blaming in Rigpa. By talking this way, Bob has shown that he has no idea of the toxic culture that arises around abusive lamas or how some teachings/beliefs/ideas can be misued to enable abuse and so need a very careful balancing of polarities if they are to be taught responsibly.

The problematic idea

Below is a rough transcript of the section in question. It is not word for word, but close enough for you to get the gist of what he was saying.

Someone who was more or less ready for the teaching and it was given by someone who was somewhat abusive but not perfectly enlightened and gave it to a disciple enough that the disciple was able to go beyond that teacher, then that disciple will still be using that lama who had faults as if he were a Buddha in order to transform their own faults. So we can say that it is still okay for that disciple that they don’t have to join in on rejecting that lama. In their mind they could stick with that guru, and they actually might go beyond.
What was harm to one might not be harm to another because they had an advanced level of something from something they obtained from previous lives such that it is possible that they could use something dished out to them from an impure vessel to go beyond. It is possible. It isn’t so black and white.” Robert Thurman  https://bobthurman.com/abuse-in-buddhism/

What teaching?

“Ready for the teaching’? What teaching? We’re talking about abuse here. Is Bob suggesting that abuse is a legitimate teaching method? Unfortunately it appears that way.
“Given by someone who was somewhat abusive but not perfectly enlightened.” Not perfectly enlightened? Is Bob suggesting that someone abusive could be even a little enlightened?

Actual harm and feelings of harm

“What was harm to one might not be harm to another …” This is subscribing to the idea that harm cannot be objectively determined, that if you don’t ‘feel’ harmed then you actually haven’t been harmed. But when someone has been knocked unconscious, pulled by the ear until it bleeds, beaten so that you can see the bruising, or punched in the stomach such that they have a hematoma, it’s clear to anyone that the vicitm has been harmed, and certainly a medic could attest to that in court because the evidence of harm is clear to see.  Anyone who experienced such things and then said that they didn’t ‘feel’ hurt, indicates that they have not only been physically harmed but are also so under the sway of trauma bonding and gaslighting by their abusive lama that they protect him and fully subscribe to his version of reality. Not feeling harmed in these circumstances most likely does not indicate some advanced spiritual level, but rather that the poor person is trapped in a web of lies and delusion created by their abuser for the purpose of control and exploitation.
Bob either doesn’t understand or simply neglects to point out that not feeling harmed doesn’t mean that you weren’t actually harmed – not where blood, bruises, scars, and ptsd are concerned. Not recognising or admiting to the symptoms of ptsd in yourself, for example, doesn’t mean that you don’t exhibit those symptoms for the objective observer to see.

Advanced level?

“… because they had an advanced level of something from something they obtained from previous lives …” Advanced level, really. You’re going with that? This idea did so much harm in Rigpa. One of the reasons students stayed and kept taking the abuse was because they wanted to be at that ‘advanced’ level, and they wanted to prove to themselves, other students and their lama that they were such an ‘advanced’ student. How did they prove it? By not complaining about the abuse, by trying really hard to “use something dished out to them from an impure vessel to go beyond.”
When they finally saw the abuse as abuse, this idea that if you’re at an advanced level you can use abuse by your lama to benefit you spiritually was used by others to blame the victim. That the victim ‘felt’ hurt was seen as their fault, not the fault of the lama who actually hurt them. Sogyal said he felt sorry that people ‘felt hurt’. He never said he was sorry that he hurt them. This idea that a good/advanced student would be able to ‘transform’ the suffering they experienced at the hands of the lama allows abusive lamas to not take responsibility for the harm they have caused – something that is karmically inadvisable – and it also results in some students continuing to see abuse by lamas as an acceptable teaching method.
It’s true that people can use all sorts of difficult situations in a way that contributes to their spiritual growth, but what Bob neglects to make clear, and what needs to be made clear in relationship to abusive lamas is that this does not give anyone the right to abuse people with the expectation that that abuse be used for spiritual growth.

Physical, sexual, and psychological abuse are not teaching tools.” Mingyur Rinpoche https://www.lionsroar.com/treat-everyone-as-the-buddha/ 

Correctly identifying responsibility

The major issue with this kind of thinking is that it takes the responsibility for harm away from the lama and places it on the student, making the issue a perception of harm, rather than actual harm that can be seen by an objective person. And so it bypasses the issue of the lama’s wrong doing, but actually the lama’s wrong doing is the issue here, not whether the student can ‘handle’ it or not.
They shouldn’t have had to ‘use something dished out to them from an impure vessel’. The kinds of behaviour Sogyal regularly exhibited should never have occured – especially in a spiritual setting – and the fact that he hurt people was his fault, not theirs. Abusing students is not teaching them dharma. It’s teaching them how to be a bully and get away with it by twisting the teachings such that they lay the responsibility for the harm on the student for their perception of harm rather than on the lama for causing actual harm.
We shouldn’t be judging the student here. It’s the lama we should be judging – preferably in a court of law. He’s the one in a position of power with a responsibility to his students to do them no harm.
This is what Bob Thurman neglected to make clear and what other proponents of this idea also forget, so the idea that students can use abusive behaviour to ‘go beyond’ becomes a justification of the lama’s behaviour, but even if there is some truth to the basic concept, justification of the lama’s behaviour is not a logical inference.

Different responses

Certainly in any shared situation people will respond differently, some will be more bothered than others by being yelled at by their boss for instance, but that doesn’t mean that their boss should yell at them, thinking that he is giving them a great opportunity to not let it upset them. The boss is still a bastard and abuse is never an acceptable or effective management method.
Also the person who yells back might actually be handling it on a more healthy way for that person than the person who walks away thinking to themselves ‘I will not let him get under my skin’ or ‘he’s just a really unhappy person.’ To assume that one person is somehow more spiritually advanced than another because they ‘handled’ it better is simply not true, because the guy who yells back may have seen that the boss needs to be yelled at for his own sake, or for him yelling back might be exactly what he needed for himself for his own psychological health at that moment. And the person acting all meek may be simply enabling behaviour that is very bad for everyone and increasing their own sense of worthlessness. Of course, if the guy who yelled back yells at everyone, then it’s a different matter, but either way, it’s a toxic situation those people should never have been put in in the first place.
Could someone being in a bomb blast and seeing all that carnage use that as a means of liberation? I doubt that very much. There is a point at which a situation is just too toxic for people to be able to avoid some kind of trauma, no matter how well they ‘handle it’ and trying to ‘handle it’ well, thinking that means not showing any signs of trauma can be highly counterproductive for their healing, a repression rather than a facing of the reality of their feelings.

Similarity to abusive families

And when the abuse is coming from someone who professes to love you, the situation becomes even more traumatic. This is where the situation of those who were abused in a Buddhist community cannot be compared to those of the yogis incarcerated and tortured by the Chinese. Their tormentors never professed to love them or be torturing them for their benefit. And they didn’t betray any deep spiritual trust, because the yogis hadn’t  placed any trust in them. The yogis still had their devotion to their own guru to sustain them, but the abused students were abused by the very person in which they had placed their trust.
The sense of betrayal and confusion that comes from being abused by a spiritual teacher adds a whole other layer of trauma. The inner circle culture in Rigpa had all the dynamics of a family with an abusive father, so the closest situation that can be used for comparison is that of domestic abuse, not incarceration in prison. The more the spiritual seeker in this instance relates to their lama in a way similiar to how a child relates to their father, the more traumatic the situation would be for them, and a child-like adoration of and complete faith and trust in Sogyal was definitely encouraged in Rigpa. The betrayal of trust and neglect of duty of care is similar to that experienced by the child of an abusive father.
An abusive husband makes his wife feel like it’s her fault, but we all know it isn’t. She loses her self esteem in such an environment, which makes it hard for her to leave and keeps her always trying to do ‘better’ (even to the degree of apologising for causing him to hit her), and it was the same in Rigpa, just replace ‘husband’ with ‘lama’. But the situation in Rigpa is worse because the general culture is supportive of the abuser by giving a philosophical, so-called spiritual, reason to blame the student for their trauma. This attitude only increases the trauma, and anyone who professes any kind of idea that contributes to this culture of victim blaming is enabling abuse, just like the neighbour of a family where she knows there is excessive violence, but instead of reporting the abusive father to social services, she tells herself that it’s just a parent disciplining their child.
Even if adults have been given tools to make the most of an abusive situation, having those tools does not take responsibility for the abuse away from the perpetrator. And it certainly isn’t an excuse or a reason for a lama to abuse people with impunity thinking he is giving them an opportunity to grow. And that applies regardless of the lama’s level of realisation. Permiting someone to hurt someone else on the grounds that it is good for their spiritual development is just twisted thinking that allows violence to be perpetrated in the name of teaching dharma.

Not a failure

My understanding of how it was for people is that they tried for years to transform the abuse into something beneficial for them, but eventually they saw the situation for what it was – a culture of abuse – and then they left. That was the point where their wisdom kicked in. Any suggestion that leaving, or ‘feeling abused’ was some kind of failure on the student’s part is simply a cult control mechanism, thought manipulation, nothing more. It is most certainly not true.
It’s like in family abuse where speaking up or leaving is seen as a betrayal of the family. The idea just keeps family members stuck in the cycle of abuse. In Rigpa fear of being seen and treated as a failure was one of the things that kept people stuck in that toxic situation.
That people struggled for years under the expectation that they transform the abuse into something beneficial, just made the whole situation more toxic and more traumatising.

Misplaced attribution

One can separate oneself and ostracise a lama who abuses the sacred trust of being a spiritual teacher to abuse students using spiritual things as an excuse and method. It is ethical to do that. It protects yourself and protects others, but if there was some genuine learning, then one cannot hate that miscreant. One works with compassion towards people we hate, so why not apply that to the lama as well. So we still love even the bad gurus if we learned anything from them. We love the teachings, we love them, we consider them no longer qualified and we ask them to try to rehabilitate themselves, and if necessary we use law and media and reason to do that.” Bob Thurman. Abuse in Buddhism podcast.

Bob suggests that we remember the benefit we gained from a lama and honor him for that even while we reject them. This is the usual dharma teacher’s response to leaving a teacher,  and being good little Buddhists, we immediatly assume that any benefit we gained from our time as an abusive lama’s student is due to the qualities of the lama.
But what if it was all a performance? All of it. Even what we felt as love. The idea that Sogyal was nothing more than a consumate performer is something that has been suggested to me by many of the people I’ve spoken to who were directly abused – and they should know better than anyone. What if the good qualities we see in our disgraced lama are just a projection of what we want to see? What if by holding onto the idea that he did have some good qualities we’re just making ourselves feel better about the situation? I guess that’s an okay reason, but we should be willing to accept that it may only be wishful thinking on our part, and if we are to see truth directly we need to drop all our attachment and aversion related to our seeking out the benefit.
I’m not saying that we shouldn’t try to see some good in our experience, or that some of us didn’t gain some beneift – clearly we did or we woudn’t have stuck around – just that we need to be careful that we don’t attribute that benefit all to the lama or hold onto our idea of benefit as an excuse not to examine our ‘realisation’.
Those who remain, still thinking they weren’t abused, and those who did feel some shift from something Sogyal did are likely not more advanced spirituality, but rather more able to manufacture or convince themselves of ‘results’, blind to the truth of the dynamics that keep them trapped, ignorant of the teachings on what a crazy wisdom master actually is, and are erroneously laying the benefit they gained on the lama, not on themselves, which is where they should be placing it. It is their devotion, their openess and trust that allowed understanding to arise, not any quality of the lama. Anything they experienced in a positive way was because of them, not him. The point we should not forget here is that the lama was not fit to be in his position.
Anyone who honours Sogyal for any transformation they may have felt from being abused by him (or taking teachings from him) is actually misplacing their attribution of benefit. Given his almost complete lack of qualificiation for the role he took on, any benefit we received was more likely to be despite Sogyal than because of him. It is more realistic to attribute any benefit we gained from our time in Rigpa to the variety of causes and conditions present rather than to one man.

Tough love?

The idea that a student should be able to transform abuse into some kind of realisation also contributes to the idea that tough love is part of vajrayana, and if you can’t ‘handle’ the tough love then you shouldn’t be a vajrayana student.
Is this really the kind of idea we want to propagate for Tibetan Buddhism? A religion where abuse is seen as part of the deal?
No matter from where this idea came, it was used in Rigpa, and can be used in future for so long as its propagated by lamas such as Dzongsar Khyentse, as a cult control mechanism to keep students taking the abuse and in slavery to the whims of the lama. Though some people may need to be treated firmly sometimes, we’re not talking about a sharply given reprimand here, we’re talking about what Karen Baxtor called ‘serious abuse’. There’s a huge difference between the loving parent who shouts at a child to stop them running onto the road in front of a car and then explains why they had to yell and the parent who grabs the child by the hair, drags them off the road and then beats them while they scream, leaving them bruised and traumatise. The second is abuse. The parent is merely releasing his frustration on the child. In the first instance the child learns not to run onto the road without looking. In the second instance the trauma of the beating obliterates the intended learning. They learn only to fear their father, not to take responsibility for checking for cars before stepping into the road.
Physical, emotional and sexual abuse is not love, is never skilful, and is not a teaching method. It’s been proven through educational studies that people learn better in an environment where they are rewarded for learning, not punished for their failures. That Sogyal did not see and apply this is another indication that he is certainly not enlightened, and that he went so far as to inflict this extreme behaviour on his students indicates that, despite whatever benefit anyone gained from their time in Rigpa, Sogyal and other lamas who hit, humilate, or ask sexual favours of students are not fit to teach. That’s the main point, and it should never get lost in talks on abuse in Buddhism.

Personal realities and community responsibilies

Trauma arising from abuse by a lama is NOT the student’s fault – even given their role in their perception of harm – and anyone who suggests that it is by using this idea that an advanced practitioner could benefit from an abusive lama shows a lack of understanding of the dynamics of the situation – particularly that the lama has broken his part in the teacher student relationship and therefore the required dynamics for transformation in a teaching sense are not present. They are also particularly ignorant on how such ideas have been distorted and used as a cult control mechanism.
The idea that students of any capacity can benefit from violent behaviour on the part of the lama must be discarded from Vajrayana, or at the very least, not emphasised and where it is mentioned, taught with a warning for how the idea is not an excuse or justification for harmful actions on the part of the lama. It does not bypass the lama’s responsibility to behave ethically and should not be used to make a student feel that they are a failure if their lama abuses them and they feel hurt by it.
Spiritual abuse is the worst kind of betrayal. To not feel hurt by it, rather than indicating some kind of realisation is more likely to indicate spiritual bypassing and supression of normal healthy human emotion. So don’t assume that feeling blessed rather than harmed, or experiencing what you interpret as a transendent state, indicates some kind of advanced spiritual capacity, it may just brainwashing and the kind of dissasociative state people commonly enter as a response to trauma. Or it may not.
Only one thing is certain in this play of personal realities: whatever you believe will be what you experience as truth, and only by dropping all beliefs will you have any chance of seeing reality directly. If you are brave enough to drop all beliefs and look directly at what actually is, rather than assuming that the truth is what you want it to be, then you are a true dharma practictioner.
Stopping abuse requires community participation. If we are to root it out, it is up to all of us to become educated, and Robert Thurman is not behaving responsibly by propagating this victim blaming disguised as vajrayana.
However, to his credit, he did also make some good points about teaching tantra and made it clear how unscrupulous lamas use the teachings on pure perception to faciliate abuse:

So lamas dish out initiations and then use the aspect [of the teachings] that ‘I’m now a Buddha in your eyes, and anything you see about me that doesn’t look like a Buddha, you have to imagine it is’, and then they abuse you. And worst of all they cripple your learning ability, they make you helpless.” Bob Thurman. Abuse in Buddhism podcast.

So watch out for any lama who suggests that anything you see about them that doesn’t look like a Buddha, you have to imagine it is. That’s a misuse of the pure perception teachings.

Ato Rinpoche Replies

On November 22, we received a reply from Ato Rinpoche. It was short and to the point, clearly responding to our request. Here is the response:

Greetings to the signatories of the letter below!
I am reticent by nature and by training reluctant to criticise the behaviour of others.  In the present circumstances, however, I do now plainly state that the abusive behaviour outlined in the letter by eight Rigpa students last year – if it is true, and I have no reason to doubt it –  is not acceptable to me.
For sound advice on the Teacher/Pupil relationship I would recommend reading Patrul Rinpoche and heeding the advice repeatedly given by the Dalai Lama.
 
Ato Rinpoche.

Helpful Words on Devotion, Samaya and Pure Perception from Jetsunma Tenzin Palmo

In June 2019, Damcho Dyson, Tahlia Newland and Jacki Wicks are delivering a paper together on Sogyal Rinpoche’s abuse and the fallout it caused as part of the  Sakyadhita International  Association of Buddhist Women’s 16th International Conference. Jacki emailed Tenzin Palmo asking about an aspect of the conference and also asked what her  thinking was on things like samaya and guru devotion in the context of abusive teachers. I found Tenzin Palmo’s reply refreshingly sensible and direct and asked if I could post it here. She gave her permission, so here it is:

Samaya goes both ways:  the student has samaya to the teacher but the teacher also has samaya to the student.  The student’s samaya is to cultivate devotion, trust and openness in order to receive the mind blessings of the guru.  The teacher’s samaya is, through their knowledge and compassion, to develop the spiritual potential of the student. Therefore we must ask, do the actions and words of the guru lead to the students’ well-being, advancement on the path and general feeling of enrichment – or not?

Spiritual teachers cannot use the Dharma as an excuse for licentious or abusive behaviour.   Tantra isn’t about coercing vulnerable women into having sex.  Where is the compassion in exerting your position of power and authority to betray the very people who trust and obey you?  Where are basic ethics and kindness?

If the students (usually -but not always – female) as a result of a sexual relationship with the guru, do feel enhanced, empowered and confident, then that was skilful means on the part of the teacher.  But if the result is humiliation, confusion and disillusionment, then where is the wisdom and compassion in that?  Where have they been helped?

Clearly the manipulative nature of these encounters causes so much distress.  It all seems so egocentric and devoid of empathy. How can these teachers justify such behaviour to themselves?  Although it is a mixture of power, loneliness, emotional immaturity and so on, still this does not excuse the kind of behaviour that would be condemned by anyone anywhere.  That these teachers do have problems is one thing, but that they cannot use their own training to deal with these issues (or even acknowledge them) is really a problem!  Actually, it is pathetic.  Gurus need to observe the same ethical standards as doctors, psychologists, teachers and so on in order to be trusted and respected and not to drag down the reputation of Buddhism.

As Mingyur Rinpoche pointed out, we cultivate pure perception towards everyone, not just the guru. Nonetheless, present day lamas are not Guru Rinpoche or Tilopa, any more than the student is Yeshe Tsogyal or Naropa.  Is the student benefitted? Good. Is the student psychologically harmed?  Not good.  It is so simple.

Tibetan Buddhism is based on a feudal system of total authority (however corrupt) and abject obedience.  We do not need to go backwards to outdated social attitudes in order to be good practitioners. One troubling aspect is the effort to ‘cover up and defend’ by lamas who really should know better.  Part of the ‘Old Boys Club’ syndrome. To try to defend indefensible behaviour by quoting tantric texts and accuse the victims, is to equate Tantra with violence, over-indulgence and sexual predatory activity, which hardly speaks well of that method as a valid path to Enlightenment.

When students are instructed to never question the teacher and to do everything to please them, then of course it leaves the doors wide open to exploitation.  This feudal thinking has to be tempered with common sense and common caution.  If it feels wrong – don’t do it, no matter who asks you.  It is not breaking Samaya to say No.
As someone said: ‘…the happiness of the privileged is based on never starting the process towards becoming accountable…… the revelation of truth is tremendously dangerous to supremacy.’

So be grateful for what teachings the Lama has given and appreciate everything that has been helpful.  But do not feel guilty about seeing and acknowledging where the boundaries have been overstepped by the teacher.  The fault is with limitations and wrong conduct of the guru.  Better luck next time.
All good wishes in the Dharma,
Tenzin Palmo


NB: Tenzin Palmo was NOT a student of Chogyam Trungpa. Read her biography here: http://tenzinpalmo.com/jetsunma-tenzin-palmo/
If any of you would like to donate a little something to help Damcho and Tahlia get to the conference to deliver the paper in person click here.