Part 2 – Why I didn’t see.
Why didn’t I see the truth that students were hurting? Because I saw the teacher in person only once a year, and only during a teaching, and because senior students told me those close to him had asked for this ‘special training’, and because I didn’t see anything that clearly stepped over a line: I didn’t see him punching someone hard, several times, in obvious anger while telling them they were useless, as one member of the Australian team recently told me that he observed in the last tour.
Surely, I thought, if they don’t see it as a problem, then who am I to judge? But clearly it was, or became, a problem for some, so much so that they eventually came to see it as abuse. And what happened to them is a great deal more damaging than anything I saw. And they struggled for years before they found a way to get out. Only when reading about trauma bonding and brainwashing techniques did I realise just how badly they had been trapped in a cycle of abuse that was enabled by a system of beliefs that supported it as not only acceptable, but also normal. A belief system adhered to so blindly by those around this teacher that those who recognised the abuse for what it was had no support, but were made to feel that their perception was not pure enough and their devotion was not strong enough. They were made to feel that it was their fault!
I assumed that he did have sex with some of his entourage, but he isn’t a monk, so for so long as it was consensual, that they could say no without fearing retribution for their refusal, I figured that was his business. I didn’t know that he offered one of his attendants to another lama for sex and though she didn’t want to go, she eventually did. I didn’t know the details I know now, the ones that made me feel ill when told to me by the person who experienced them, the details of which were not shared in the ‘big reveal email.’ There is more, much more, that what has been publically stated, and though it varies considerably in extent and kind of abuse, enough people have shared their experience with me for me to know that the abuse has occurred on a very disturbing scale. Does his good work excuse it? No. Nothing excuses abuse. Of that I am quite clear.
When Mimi’s story broke, I didn’t even look into it. Didn’t read it. I’m so sorry Mimi and Oane that I doubted you. That I didn’t examine then. I believed it when, in answer to my question as to the truth of the allegations, I was told ‘we believe that Sogyal Rinpoche has not harmed anyone.’ I couldn’t believe that he really would harm anyone. After all, his motivation is to benefit all beings—I still don’t doubt that motivation, but clearly his ability to discern the difference between harming and helping is, at the very least, not in accord with the conventions and beliefs of the countries in which he teaches. To not harm and to help all beings and to watch your mind is the essence of the Buddha’s teachings, so clearly, I figured, the one who taught me that would abide by it.
I didn’t want my cosy security threatened. And many still don’t. The cognitive dissonance that occurs once you accept that your dear teacher, who you revere, is abusing people is very difficult to handle. Hence this and many other reflections.
I thought the Buddhist were better than the Christians. I thought there was no abuse in Buddhism, that it was just Christian priests that behaved so badly. I was wrong. I never examined this teacher and I never examined the religion before I, without conscious decision, became a student of this teacher. I have now discovered that an alarming number of Buddhist teachers have been abusers, and that few meet Patrul Rinpoche’s description of a teacher worth following. See The Words of My Perfect Teacher the section on Examining a Spiritual Teacher.
I was so naive. I never examined. I just believed what I was told. Like some mindless member of a cult. I’m so embarrassed at my idiocy.
I knew he wasn’t perfect, but I just thought he was, at worst, just a poor boss who didn’t realise that positive reinforcement and encouragement get the best out of people, not overworking them, publically shaming them, and being fussy and demanding. I was also willing to believe that they truly were getting some benefit from these ‘unconventional teachings methods.’ I, unenlightened being that I am, just couldn’t see it.
I trusted that my teacher wouldn’t harm anyone. And his betrayal of my trust in him has hurt me deeply. It set me into a tail spin of questioning. Was I stupid to trust that my teacher would live by the teachings he taught? Was I stupid to follow a religion that asked me to see EVERYTHING my teacher did as enlightened action? Could I ever trust another teacher so deeply again? No. Any teacher that asks that of me, is not a teacher I will listen to in future. As His Holiness the Dalai Lama says:
“On the level of our personal spiritual practice, it is important to have faith in and reverence for our guru and to see that person in a positive light in order to make spiritual progress. But on the level of general Buddhism in society, seeing all actions of our teacher as perfect is like poison and can be misused. This attitude spoils our entire teachings by giving teachers a free hand to take undue advantage. If faith were sufficient to gain realizations, there would be no need for qualified teachers.”
Undue advantage has been taken. Our trust has been abused, and for some it has, indeed, spoiled the entire teachings. Clearly abuse of students by teachers threatens the stability and future of Buddhism in the West, not just Tibetan Buddhism.
And yet some sangha members say that His Holiness’s advice that we should speak up about unethical teachers and quietly, with appreciation for the benefit we have gained, leave those we can no longer follow, does not apply to the R Sangha. Really? When he is clearly talking directly to us on exactly this matter. See https://info-buddhism.com/Ethics-in-the-Teacher-Student-Relationship.html
When I received a first hand account that SL hit students on a daily basis, I knew a line had been crossed, and the second testimony that came my way, from a woman, confirmed that in terms of the generally accepted definition of abuse (cruel and violent treatment of a person or animal) some R students have been, and are still being, abused by their spiritual teacher. Only the honesty of the ‘Courageous 8’ and their willingness to put themselves forward allowed me to see just how badly I had blinded myself and fallen prey to spiritual materialism.
Cognitive dissonance hit big time. Shock, betrayal, bitter disappointment, anger and sadness washed through me at various times all mixed with compassion for everyone involved (including the lama and myself). I knew immediately that this behaviour was wrong and needed to stop. And when the letter came out, the same happened to many hundreds of students—those who actually read the letter; apparently some have refused to. Some still manage to dismiss the truth as ‘just their perception’ and speak of ‘lack of pure perception and devotion’ and ‘crazy wisdom’ and quote absolute teachings as if they excuse unethical behaviour in conventional reality, or otherwise try to discredit the students involved, but all that does is make me see their bondage to the Lords of Spiritual Materialism more clearly and make me quite clear that I do not want to walk the spiritual path with anyone blind to the importance of basic ethics.
Throughout the turmoil, even as I shed tears and asked ‘How could he stain the noble dharma this way?’ I never for a moment felt that I had abandoned my teacher. His wisdom mind and mine are forever linked. The samaya is like a tangible thread between us. Unbreakable. My trust in him as a human being, however, is well and truly shattered.
I held it all, watching the waves crash around me, and found myself in a position to support those who had not been supported before, and so What Now? was born.
This is part two of Confessions of a Devoted Student. Part three Telling it like it is will be posted tomorrow.