The Tibetan Buddhist teachings warn that where there is the greatest potential for enlightenment there is also the greatest chance of delusion. If you embark on the spiritual path without correct understanding of the subtle concepts involved, your desire to ‘wake up’ to your true self could lead you deeper into delusion. This is why they say that Vajrayana and Dzogchen should only be undertaken with a qualitied teacher who can make sure that the student doesn’t misunderstand the subtle teachings. But it also applies to any level of spiritual study and practice.
In Rigpa, we enthusiastically lapped up our Dzogchen teachings, never for a moment thinking that we might fall into the kinds of misunderstandings that increase our delusion, rather than freeing us from it. We were brainwashed into believing that we had a great master who was teaching authentic Dzogchen. Given our knowledge now of the man behind the teacher, however, of someone who, along with his most devoted students, thought his actions were not subject to the law of cause and effect of the material plane, it appears that he didn’t understand the teachings on the indivisibility of relative and absolute truth. No matter who you are, if you’re a physical being and you hit another physical being hard, it hurts them and results in blood and bruises. Apart from this being made clear in the teachings on dependent arising, it’s just common sense.
Genuine understanding or vague concepts?
Despite what you may believe or may have been told by those who haven’t really studied the teachings, there is no enlightened plane separate to the physical world, and no inner spiritual world that we can enter to find out what is happening in our external world. That knowledge comes from our outer senses and intelligence backed up by facts presented from reliable integrous sources. Inner examination might show the vastness of inner space and even the way the outer world exists, but it doesn’t show what’s happening ‘behind the scenes’ in the physical world, and it doesn’t change what is actually real to suit our beliefs. If we believe that what we ‘know’ about the outer world from our intuition or ‘inner guidance’ is the same as what is actually true in the external world, we’ve misunderstood the meaning of the word ‘truth’ in relation to what we find by looking at our own awareness.
The Buddha made the relationship between the outer and inner spheres of our experience and perception quite clear when he said, ‘Form is emptiness; emptiness is form; form is no other than emptiness; emptiness is no other than form.’ Sogyal said that often, as did we all, but how many of us truly understand its meaning or honestly admit that we don’t really get it and look into it further? How many of us studied beyond Rigpa’s curriculum—which was lightweight in terms of Madyamika—enough to understand dependent arising? Without those teachings we are unlikely to fully understand this statement on emptiness from the Buddha. If we didn’t see the full profundity of this, along with other often-repeated phrases, then they were little more than cult slogans.
Even with the Four Reliances there is opportunity for misunderstanding
Luckily for us, Nyushul Khenpo, who presumably saw the danger inherent in a teacher with many students and no formal training, undertook to give him that training, and Sogyal did follow his words—and those of other respected teachers—precisely. So if we followed the words of the dharma rather than the teacher, we did receive authentic Dzogchen teachings, especially if we fully followed what’s known as the Four Reliances.
1. Rely on the message of the teacher, not on his personality;
2. Rely on the meaning, not just on the words;
4. Rely on your wisdom mind, not on your ordinary, judgemental mind.The Buddha, in the Sutra of the Teaching of Akshayamati and the Sutra of the Questions of the Naga King Anavatapta.
Even so, there is still much opportunity for misunderstanding. How, for instance, are we to know the real meaning, let alone the difference between our wisdom mind and our ordinary, judgemental mind? Did we seek other teachers and other texts to give us the real meaning? Did we examine the meaning in light of our meditation experience? And did we really use our wisdom mind—which is free of all concepts and has a direct experiential understanding of the meaning of emptiness and its relationship to the physical world—or some vague state still within the realm of concepts and assumptions? Did we mistake intuition for true wisdom? Whether we did or not, I think, would depend on the quality, amount, and consistency of our study and practice. Rigpa’s basic curriculum may have been light weight in some areas, but their lists of quality books to use as resources for each module of study were comprehensive. There was no reason why those with the time and inclination for study and practice could not have understood the true meaning.
Unfortunately, however, those closest to Sogyal, who worked incredibly hard, had the least amount of time for study and practice, even if they had the inclination. And Sogyal taught some very subtle teachings to casual students uninclined towards intensive study who lacked the grounding from which to fully understand them. These he taught in retreats where he’d created the atmosphere of a group trance state, and the danger was that people went away thinking they had understood because they confused a pleasant trance experience with genuine understanding or experience. Such assumptions solidify delusion.
Generosity or greed?
The potential for misunderstanding is the reason why these teachings were supposed to be taught to no more than three students at a time, and why those students were supposed to be only those who were ready for them, those who had done the pre-requisite study and practice. Sogyal, however, boasted at his generosity in making them available to everyone. I’m not complaining, since I benefited greatly from those teachings, but I see now that it was not generosity, but rather greed that led him to be so free with the teachings. Offer something special and the pundits come in droves with open wallets! In this he was no different to the new age gurus he so despised. He certainly had little ability to correct misunderstandings or to go into great depth. I’m fully aware that I learned the definitive details from books, not from Sogyal. He was good at inspiring people and essentialising the teachings—something I appreciated—but essentialisation does not impart the full meaning; it summarises. And if you haven’t studied what is summarised, you could easily come away from such a teaching with assumptions that are incorrect.
Why is this potential lack of understanding an issue? Because having only a vague understanding of key spiritual ideas opens us to falling deeper into delusion, not just on a personal spiritual level, but also on a worldly level.
How can wanting to ‘wake up to your true self’ lead you deeper into delusion?
Misunderstanding ‘spiritual’ ideas or ‘lightweight spirituality’–picking just the bits that appeal and not giving ideas any kind of rigorous investigation—can lead not only to deepening personal delusion but also to worldly delusion because conspiracy theorists share some of the same kinds of ‘sloganisable’ beliefs. By sloganisable beliefs I mean easily sharable stock phrases that sound right to ‘spiritual’ people but about which they may have erroneous assumptions or incomplete understanding. When reduced to slogans, the very beliefs you subscribe to because they are what you ‘feel’ to be true in light of your path to wake up to your true self are used to hook you into the delusion of conspiracy theories. In the cause of waking people up to the conspiracy theories in which they believe, they are spouted equally by narcissistic New Age and wellness gurus / influencers and the white supremacists, anarchists and far right Christians that spread conspiracy theories.
For instance, ‘Don’t let yourself be ruled by fear.’ Sounds fair enough. Sounds like something we heard often in Rigpa, too. Remember Sogyal’s oft repeated slogan ‘all fear arises from an untamed mind’? That suggests that we can, and should, get rid of fear by ‘working with our mind’ which in Rigpa essentially meant ignoring one’s thoughts and emotions—never giving any credence to the fact that acknowledging the validity of our fear could save our life.
‘Don’t let yourself be ruled by fear’ is also, according to the Conspirituality website page on the language used by conspiritualists, ‘a stock phrase used [by conspiracy theorists] to denigrate anyone who, in the time of COVID, abides by public health directives. The term implies that the virus is not real, but rather a constructed social control effort. Meshes well with victim-blaming language that suggests fear itself is a degraded or immature state.’
Note that last sentence. Isn’t that exactly how it was used in Rigpa?
See the danger now?
See how easily someone could hook you with that slogan because we’re familiar with it from Rigpa where it was also used as a method of denigration for and dismissal of valid concerns?
Do you believe that your personal transformation/enlightenment is part of a coming fundamental transformation of society, after which ‘all things will be changed’? Millenarianism—defined as a religious, social, or political group or movement that believes this—is part of the con-spirituality mind set. Your desire to see a better world where everyone has woken up to their true nature can easily be the way you inadvertently share a slogan with links back to a bunch of conspiracy theorists for whom the great awakening means waking up to the truth of the Q-drops, and also to ‘the storm, or the wave of mass arrests that will finally awaken the nation to the reality of the Cabal.’ Once you’ve shared something that, even if it seems innocuous on the surface, was posted by a conspiracy theorist you’re a target for recruiters who know exactly how to hook you. Be careful or your desire to see society wake up might become the hook that draws you into another cult, because make no mistake about it, the groups that spread conspiracy theories are cults, dangerous ones too.
Look what happened in Washington on the 6th January 2021.
Where do you find truth?
New Age, wellness and other modern ‘spiritual’ communities where many have fallen prey to conspiracy theories put great stock in following one’s own intuition or inner wisdom, not only to guide you in life but also as a method for ascertaining ‘truth’. I agree that we need to follow our inner wisdom to find our essential nature, but my understanding of ‘inner wisdom’ or ‘finding the truth within’ doesn’t preclude me from using my critical thinking faculties. Nor do I confuse ‘finding the truth within’ with finding the truth of what has actually happened or not happened in the outer world – which is what those who have fallen into conspiracy theories have done. They think something is true because it ‘feels’ true or because they believe it is true.
Again, look at all those who believe Trump won the 2020 US election? It doesn’t matter what evidence you try to give them to prove that Biden won. They’ll just tell you that they ‘know’ Trump won.
If you don’t know how to differentiate between your ego mind and your wisdom mind (the mind that recognises emptiness), then following the idea that we should turn to our wisdom mind in order to find the ‘truth’ could be dangerous. Whether we’re following our ego—undoubtedly cloaked in its wise form on order to fool us—or our wisdom mind, we’d better have a healthy dose of common sense and respect for external truth as validated by actual evidence in the real world. Without it, we could easily fall prey to those who push conspiracy theories.
Non-rational forms of knowing, such as dreams, intuitions, inspiration and mystical experiences have their place, of course. They can be important sources of wisdom and healing. Many great scientific discoveries and cultural creations have come from ecstatic inspiration, from Newton’s discovery of gravity to Milton’s Paradise Lost. However, it’s crucial to balance our capacity for ecstatic / magical / mythical thinking with the capacity for critical thinking.
Too much left brain thinking without any ecstasy, and you end up with a rather dry and uninspiring worldview. Too much ecstasy without critical thinking, and you may be prone to unhealthy delusions, which you then spread, harming others. You may be so sure you’re right, so hyped in your heroic crusade, you may block things that are really helpful and spread things that are really harmful.
Most of us in this post-Buddhist cult community are good people. I’m sure that none of us want to ‘spread things that are really harmful’. So if we do it by accident—and that’s easy to do if we don’t take the time to check the source and critically evaluate what we read—then we can always simply admit our mistake. We’ll all learn by hearing your story.
What experience have you had with conspiracy theories? Do you know or have you been approached by anyone pedalling conspiracy theories? How did they try to hook you?
My next post will look at other ways we might be vulnerable not only to conspiracy theorists but also to the narcissistic wellness gurus and influencers who will happily hook us into their brand of spiritual in order to sell you their wares.