One of the things I learned about in the year after I discovered that Sogyal Rinpoche abused his close students was narcissistic personality disorder. In order to avoid potential abuse, all spiritual seekers should examine the question, is your guru a narcissist? Or was he or she a narcissist?
Narcissists are everywhere, and they are dangerous people who manipulate others for their own gain. They are masters at coercive control and often become abusive. If you know what to look for, you can see the signs of narcissistic personality disorder in people around you. Donald Trump is a good example of someone with narcissistic personality disorder and so was Sogyal Rinpoche.
I think it’s vital that we all know how to spot a narcissist so we can avoid being manipulated by one. They are able to be very charming, loving and alluring when it suits them, so it’s easy to get sucked in.
We see reality though the filter of our thoughts, emotions and beliefs. When beliefs don’t align with reality, they distort perception. This is why, according to the Buddhist teachings, one of the obscurations we need to dissolve if we are to be enlightened – i.e., see reality directly – is the cognitive obscurations, the area of beliefs.
It’s why when we meditate, we train in not labelling or thinking about what we perceive, we simply see, simply hear, simply be without engaging our conceptual mind. But even those who practice this in their meditation find it hard to practice in daily life, especially if they hold tight to beliefs that aren’t in alignment with reality. And sometimes those beliefs are the very beliefs that were designed to point them in the direction of reality.
Look at those in the US who believe that Trump won the election.
I recently recorded a video in which I shared what I do when I feel helpless. I shared it because I figure that I’m not the only one feeling helpless, at least occasionally, when we look at the world situation, particularly climate change and the dire predictions for our future. In the video I share how the way I deal with such an emotion takes me from a place where I feel helpless to a place where I realise that I’m not actually as helpless as I think I am. In the video that’s a kind of esoteric place – for want of a better word – but that’s not the end of the story. What I find interesting is how the sense of empowerment gained through working with an emotion in that way can help me find ways to help on the level of action in the physical world.
In this video I talk about creativity as a form of meditation, art as meditation, and personal art as a focus for contemplation. I talk about visual art and craft – including flower arranging – but it also applies to the performing arts, of course. And even to creating gardens and home decorating, anything where you can put aside your thoughts and tune into the deep well of creativity inside you, the creative mind that, in my experience, is the same as the ‘meditative’ mind.
I know quite a few in the Beyond the Temple community who find a refuge in creativity and who create art of some form. Some of them do use art as meditation and contemplation. I mention colouring in in the video, but I also know a painter, two photographers, several musicians and many who create beautiful gardens and homes or who simply appreciate looking at something beautiful.
Some of you will have already seen this video, but I’m posting it here so we can talk about it in a more ‘private’ setting, and also so more of you can see it and give me your ideas. As I say in the description for the video:
The Beyond the Temple community is primarily made up of people who have left a Buddhist cult like Rigpa or Shambala. In the past few years, we’ve made friends and deepened existing friendships based on our shared disgust with abusive lamas and the people and organisations that protect and enable them. Now, as we go on with our lives, and don’t want to talk about abuse anymore, we can still foster those relationships based our shared values as we look at the world around us and our shared experiences of creating our own spiritual path free of dogma.
I have lots of ideas for posts for this blog that take the idea of ‘beyond the temple’ broader than it has been, but it could take a while for me to get around to writing them. Those who are my friends or followers on social media will know that I’ve been consumed by the bush fire crisis facing my home state, NSW. I even had to evacuate one day. But today we have a little rain, so perhaps we’ll dodge the bullet this time. The nearest fire is about 20 kilometres away, but it hasn’t moved towards us for a week now, so the ever present anxiety has eased.
The expected rain isn’t enough to put out the fires, though, just slow them down, nor is it expected to be enough to fill the dams and break the drought. Ferns and trees are dying. Kangaroos are coming into the garden to get water and vast areas of Australia are burned and/or in severe drought. Wildlife is devastated. I read somewhere that scientists predicted that Australia would be one of the first countries to feel the effects of climate change, and here we are.
So discussions around Tibetan Buddhism all seem rather inconsequential and even indulgent in light of the fact that if we don’t act in the next decade to lower carbon emissions, we truly will be facing the extinction of life as we know it.
We are truly, all of us, facing the great impermanence.
One of the reasons people join a religion is because the structures of that religion help them make time to contemplate the spiritual dimension of life. Christians head off to church every Sunday, for instance. Many people who aren’t Christians or who don’t belong to a specific church believe in God, but without the ritual of church and listening to a priest give a sermon, they may never take the time to think outside of their worldly existence. And most people do need something to remind them to at least aim to be a good person. It’s easier for the worries of life to take us over if we don’t take time to meditate or contemplate or pray or just sit and enjoy some mental space or peace and quiet.
So what do those of us who don’t want a religion do?
Rigpa’s gaslighting skills are making a strong showing in the wake of Sogyal’s death. Gaslighting is a nice term for what some might call outright lies. It’s a way of obscuring the truth and manipulating people to perceive things in a way that suits the gaslighter’s agenda. Rigpa needs students to deify Sogyal, to keep the fantasy alive so they can keep the money rolling in, so they’re doing everything they can to assure their devotees that Sogyal was truly an enlightened master – and therefore, according to their beliefs, he didn’t harm anyone.
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? group. Apply via the contact form here, telling us about yourself and why you want to join the group.