Today we have a post by Joanne Clark inspired by the release of Dzongsar Khyentse’s latest book. Thank you, Joanne. It’s high time we challenged Dzongsar Khyentse for his support of abusive behaviour by vajrayana masters. Dzongsar Khyentse’s followers show all the signs of people caught in a destructive cult, which might tell us why Dzongsar Khyentse is so intent on supporting abuse as a legitimate part of his religion – at least for the varjayana student-teacher relationship. Read on for Joanne’s article.
It is possible that Dzongsar Jamyang Khyentse has reached a point of realization whereby he can sit down to a meal of faeces and a drink of urine and consume it as if enjoying a delicious feast. It is possible then that he could rape a princess in the same manner that Tilopa killed fish, such that no harm would result.
In the same way, it is possible that his Vajrayana students, those who have taken vows of pure perception, are advanced enough in their own realizations that they are no longer at risk of confusing the madyamaka views on emptiness with nihilism—no longer at risk of failing to maintain a coherent view of conventional truth and karmic laws of cause and effect and failing to recognize harm as harm.
It is also possible that Dzongsar Khyentse’s realization and powers enable him to ensure that his latest statements and instructions, freely available in the public domain, don’t fall in the way of those unable to comprehend them and discern the difference between pure perception and harmful nihilism.
If these possibilities are all true, then I apologize for what I have to say. However, for now, I will assume that we are living in a reality where conventions cannot be miraculously transformed and karmic causality is intact as it is perceived. In this reality, the rape of a princess—and observing that rape without intervening or feeling compassion—both have karmic and moral consequences.
Dzongsar Khyentse shows a lack of basic moral decency despite extensive teachings on ethics
I continue to be amazed that within a religion possessing extensive teachings on ethical behaviours and vast compassionate views, there continue to be teachers challenging boundaries of the basic norms of moral decency. Because here we are again, yet to assess the extent of harm to students, Kagyu students this time, by yet more allegations of sexual assault (https://buddhism-controversy-blog.com/2021/05/22/hurts-within-the-karma-kagyu-school-is-it-time-for-a-change-of-heart/) —whereupon Dzongsar Jamyang Kyentse publishes yet another book on crazy wisdom, Poison is Medicine. Once more, he promotes the practice of “pure perception” within Vajrayana—to the public at large—in which any action the guru does is perceived as pure even if those actions are, in conventional fact, harming another sentient being.
Here is an explanation of his book, freely available in the public domain, in a recent interview on the book with the German Buddhist Union (translation by deepl):
Q: “What should learners do if their master not only drinks liquor or asks them to tease a princess – you tell a story to that effect in your book – but commits physical violence against his students or rapes them?”
Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche: “As I said, if you have not examined this guru and if you have not decided to accept him completely as your guru, then you should call the police and make his behavior public. But if after intense examination you have fully accepted this person as your guru, then at that moment when he is drinking liquor, teasing a princess or doing whatever, you will not consider his behavior as inappropriate. Because in the meantime, your projection, your perception has changed.” (https://buddhismus-aktuell.de/artikel/ausgaben/20213-was-traegt.html)
Dzongsar Kyentse’s nihilist view and indifference to the damage
The problem here is that, unless the teacher is highly realized—such as Tilopa allegedly being able to liberate each of the fish he ate live—then harm is harm. Asking a student to view harm “purely” as no longer harm, where one can walk coldly past a sentient being in distress (and not call the police to rescue her), then that is surely a nihilistic view? Then a line has been crossed. Decades ago, HH Dalai Lama spoke out strongly against the criminal actions of his regent, who was also his Vajra master. He continued to practice on the cushion visualizing his regent purely as his master, but he took action when action was needed to prevent harm. Because harm is harm.
Any religious instruction taken too far is fundamentalism. Emptiness taken too far is nihilism and can cause harm. I am appalled that Dzongsar Khyentse continues to fail to account for that risk. He also shows serious indifference to the growing number of students who have turned away from the Dharma entirely because they have been harmed themselves or they can no longer participate in a culture that allows harm to others. These are good people, smart people, people with spiritual potential. Perspectives like DJK’s insure that they will never return to Buddhism, despite the fact that one of Buddha’s core instructions is to commit no harm. Despite the fact that this is a religion with extensive explanations of what “no harm” means.
Dzongsar Khyentse’s mocking and disparaging attitude towards Western culture and values
There is a fire burning and Dzongsar Khyentse is busy finding fuel instead of placing his finger on the pause button and addressing the danger. To address a problem, it first needs to be acknowledged and understood. He claims that his hero, Chogyam Trungpa, understood the Western mind better than any Buddhist teacher. He ignores the legacy of harm Trungpa left behind. At the same time, he demeans many good and decent aspects of the Western mind, mocking “liberal” thinking and disparaging Abrahamic religions (https://matthewremski.medium.com/the-edgelord-lama-bf67d0b98cfd ). Instead of finding a more solid ground for the growth of the Dharma in the West, one based on the strengths of Western value systems, he is promoting his path of “groundlessness,” which seems to actually strip students of their traditional moral compass.
Student’s disenchantment and exodus
When the revelations of Sogyal Lakhar’s abuses first emerged four years ago, I witnessed many long-time Rigpa students working hard to find a path forward, one that honored their years of commitment to Dharma and practice—and one that honored their core values of no-harm. However, as it became clear that there would be little support from teachers within the Dzogchen lineage, and when Khyentse drew his line in the sand and stated that longtime Vajrayana students who turned away from Sogyal Lakhar’s harmful behaviors were doomed to hell, I witnessed a large exodus from the religion entirely.
Hell for the student who cannot stand by and tolerate harm; liberation for the student who tolerates the rape of a princess. What is going on?
And there has also been an exodus from Shambhala because of sexual abuse, Trungpa’s legacy. And there are now students struggling with their spiritual path in the face of allegations of rape involving Orgyen Trinley Dorje Karrmapa. I am part of some of these communities of exiles and I would like to tell Dzongsar Kyentse that many of these students are struggling, really struggling, as anyone would who has lost faith in their longtime religion. All of these ex-students would not be struggling right now if there had simply been a serious acknowledgement from the Dzogchen/Kagyu community that harm is harm.
Dzongsar Kyentse’s inability to condemn abuse in a vajrayana guru
Dzongsar Khyentse’s recent comments and publication insure that this problem becomes even more embedded. The Vajrayana looks like a prison of sorts in some communities. Several years ago, I and over a hundred ex-Rigpa wrote a letter to some thirty lamas, simply asking them to make a statement as to whether or not they condoned Sogyal Lakhar’s harmful actions. Attached to this letter, we included the extensive findings in the Silken Report in which Sogyal Lakhar’s abuses were verified. We also went to considerable effort to obtain a translation into Tibetan of the letter from eight ex-Rigpa disclosing Sogyal Lakhar’s abuses (https://beyondthetemple.com/an-email-to-lamas/ ).
We only wanted reassurance from the Tibetan Buddhist community that harm was harm and not acceptable. They didn’t need to mention Sogyal Lakhar by name. They could be circumspect. We just needed reassurance. Sadly, only two lamas responded with clear statements condemning the actions. Those lamas, in addition to Mingyur Rinpoche and HH Dalai Lama were the only Tibetan Buddhist leaders prepared to draw a clear line delineating safe conduct within Tibetan Buddhist communities.
Many of us have not been harmed directly. Many simply cannot tolerate being part of a religious community in which harm is tolerated. I remember reading once a comment from one of the writers of the letter from eight ex-Rigpa, in which he stated that he could no longer just walk past the screams coming from Sogyal’s residence. This is the simple point, the groundswell.
Is it seeing purely or seeing nihilistically?
So when I read Dzongsar Khyentse’s recent statement about “purely” perceiving a rape, I think of walking past the screams. I think of instructing our children, as I did once, that we can no longer identify and judge harm as harm. And I think of those many students who are struggling, students with their moral compasses now intact, but their mental health torn.
Perhaps in the context of a remote monastery in Tibet or Bhutan, where cultural contexts and privacy might mitigate any harm in such instructions, these instructions by Khyentse could be acceptable. However, his book is in English, promoted in the public domain and in the context of his frequent disparagement of Western ethical culture. The groundlessness he promotes with provocative statements mocking liberal values and Abrahamic religions and other Western ethical systems thereby also destroys students’ traditional moral compasses. This is fertile ground for nihilistic views.
Dzongsar Khyentse presents his views publicly to naïve students
Because not only is Dzongsar Khyentse presenting otherwise secret and otherwise advanced practices in a very public way, he is presenting them to students who are gullible, naive and relatively quite new to the religion as a sort of challenge. “The groundlessness challenge.” Here an example in a quote from years ago posted on his public Facebook page:
“If you are uncomfortable with the non-dual groundlessness of Buddhism—you might just as well follow one of the Abrahamic religions. These are the religions that follow a clearly grounded dualistic path and say thing like “don’t eat pork, do eat fish, and women must wear burqas.” If the label ‘religion’ is altogether too ambarassing for your elitist so-called progressive mind, you might try some kind of quasi-atheistic secularism, coated with moralistic ethics and bloated with dogmatic liberal self-righteousness. Or you could blindly allowe yourself to be swallowed up by existentialist angst, then get annoyed with those who get blissed out on hope. (https://www.buddhistdoor.net/news/dzongsar-khyentse-rinpoche-issues-public-statement-on-recent-criticism-of-sogyal-rinpoche )
Aside from the cringe-worthy and offensive smear of other religions evident in this statement, since when is the Dharma ever so narrow as he describes? Since when are those who are not ready for teachings on emptiness or advanced Vajrayana practice disparaged and sent away to Christianity or Islam? Not only does the Buddhadharma have much in it, even for Vajrayana practitioners, that could be described as a “clearly grounded dualistic path” that “says things such as don’t eat pork, do not eat fish, and women must wear burquas” (e.g. no garlic when practicing White Tara, no eggs in some Varjayana situations and monks/nuns must ear robes in specific ways etc.), one of the great features of the Dharma is the fact that there is a place of practice for anyone at any stage of practice.
Buddhism is nothing if not an inclusive religion and within the Mahayana, that inclusiveness is quite vast and does not need to include Vajrayana vows or practices. Narrow statements such as this one by Dzongsar Kyentse also feel like an abandonment of students (e.g. no place for you within Buddhism if you can’t give up your “moralistic ethics”) And this statement particularly feels like an abandonment in the context in which it was made, as a response to those disclosures made by eight ex-Rigpa students in 2017 of serious harm and abuse by Sogyal Lakhar. It was also made in the context of DJK’s clear statement that these students, as advanced Vajrayana students, were destined to hell.
Failure to acknowledge the full truth
During that same time, following the publication of the letter from 8 ex-Rigpa, an incident happened on Khyentse’s Facebook page that was particularly alarming. In response to many who objected to his categorical statements condemning ex-Rigpa students to hell, he posted a short video clip from the 1993 conference between HH Dalai Lama and Western Buddhist teachers. In this clip, the Dalai Lama clearly stated that if one is a Vajrayana student, speaking out critically against one’s teacher is wrong. The response to this FB post was many prayer emojis from his students. However, a few of us attempted to clarify for Dzongsar Khyentse that this was not a complete truth because later in the same conference, the Dalai Lama revised this position and clarified ways to respond in situations of harm. Here is the dialogue that Khyentse left out:
Tenzin Palmo said, “For example, in Chogyam Trungpa’s organization, many students became alcoholics, in addition to indulging in promiscuous sex, which simply created a lot of chaos in their lives. After all, Padmasambhava said, ‘One’s view should be as wide as the sky and one’s conduct as—”
Whereupon His Holiness interjected, “yes, exactly!”
Tenzin Palmo: “As fine as barley flour.”
His Holiness then replied, “Really it’s a serious matter. It reminds me of the late Professor Joshi.”
And he continued in Tibetan, with Thubten Jingpa translating as follows: “The late Professor Joshi in his book, he cites one of the factors that led to the degeneration of Buddhism inside India was the popularization of tantric practices, particularly leading to unethical behavior.”
In the context of this, the following statement, which you can hear in the video, has added urgency:
“Now, what our aim is—purify—Buddha Dharma. The interests of the Buddha Dharma and interests of one individual lama—other is much bigger. Isn’t it? So, with sincere motivation, in order to save Buddha Dharma, in order to save at least a few hundred disciples of that particular lama, with sincere motivation, with salutation, then criticize. I think that’s the proper way.”
Sadly, Dzongsar Khyentse failed to acknowledge his error and revise his own Facebook post to include this more complete, nuanced perspective. In short, he failed to acknowledge the full truth, which was that the survival of the Dharma actually depended on these problems being resolved—and by implication, that Chogyam Trungpa’s behaviors threatened that survival. I want to be clear that this is not about the value of practices such as pure perception in the Vajrayana or the importance of commitments and vows. I’m not questioning those. I don’t pretend to be able to judge how these practices can be made more safe in Western communities—but they MUST be made more safe.
Vajrayana can be upheld without “crazy wisdom”
Teaching a “crazy wisdom” view of pure perception at this time in the history of Vajrayana’s transmission to the West, without placing his teachings within the context of the large number of students who have been harmed and turned away, is a lapse in Dzongsar Khyentse’s duty of care as a religious teacher, in my opinion. The Buddhist canon is vast. Tibetan Buddhism has proudly translated many volumes of the Kangyur and Tengyur. The Vajrayana can be upheld without any suggestion of raping a princess. Please, surely.
This “crazy wisdom” strain of Tibetan Buddhism upheld by teachers such as DJK is narrow and founded on a few exceptional cases, such as Milarepa and Tilopa and few other mahasiddhas. Sometimes I fear that teachers forget that these cases were exceptions rather than main lineages of practice. For example, while Marpa purified Milarepa’s vast negative karma by demanding great challenges of him, Milarepa himself never resorted to such challenges in relationships with his own students. In fact, his heart son Rechungpa was very rebellious at times and milarepa never responded with any harshness. So that crazy wisdom “lineage” wasn’t passed on by Milarepa!
The farce of investigating a Vajrayana master when one’s moral compass has already been shaken by that teacher
Now, before anyone says, “But Dzongsar Khyentse is instructing students to investigate their Vajrayana master before committing to him/her”, I would like to address the problem of students being capable of investigating anyone within a Dharma culture that disparages those “who are coated with moralistic ethics”, one that seeks to shake the core of a student’s moral compass as I explained above. How can we discern clearly if we are busy doubting our own perceptions of right and wrong? There are simply too many prayer emojis on Dzongsar Khyentse’s Facebook page. He is already training students, publicly, to respond to his provocations with faith—the “groundlessness challenge.” How can they discern with clear, independent thinking?
In my early days in Rigpa and other Buddhist centres, I personally was incapable of discerning anything clearly about my experiences because of the force of my faith, which resembled something of a Christian-style, born-again faith. The dynamics of religious communities with such cross-cultural elements and how they seriously affect students’ ability to discern critically is complicated and has been discussed at length in other articles. I suggest, as writers have suggested many times before, that Tibetan Buddhist teachers pause to better understand these dynamics as part of their own education into the culture of Western Buddhist students. Meanwhile, perhaps there can be a pause—seriously!—on crazy wisdom practices (e.g. on raping princesses) until the harm stops..
 The Dalai Lama gave this analogy at the 1996 conference held with Western Buddhist Teachers, as a possible “pre-requisite” to test lamas engaged in what are called “crazy wisdom” practices. He also described similar tests when questioned thirty years ago about the behaviors of Chogyam Trungpa in an interview with John and Nancy Steinbeck.
He quoted from The Other Side of Eden, Life with John Steinbeck, kindle location 4672: “I would say if you are going to follow a teacher, you must examine his behavior very carefully. In your case, with following Trungpa Rinpoche, you had a lama who was drinking alcohol. We say, in our tradition, that a lama is never supposed to drink. Now, occasionally there have been some teachers who drink alcohol and claims to turn it into elixir, or excrement to gold, I would insist on seeing this happen. I would never follow him. The student has to take the responsibility of examining the behavior of the teacher very carefully, over a long period. You cannot be hasty about these things.”
And there’s a lot more that can be said to challenge Dzongsar Khyentse for his distructive views. Mathew Remski’s post from the 7th of July is worth reading on the topic. Share your comments below.