A reflection on Sogyal Rinpoche’s death and feudalism in Tibetan Buddhism.
The first thought I had on hearing of Sogyal’s death was ‘The king is dead: long live the king.’ I ignored it, thinking it was one of those useless bits of mind vomit that invade our minds, but the phrase kept popping up during my quiet times, during my morning walk or meditation, along with a sense of what unpacking that phrase might mean in the present circumstances of Sogyal’s death. Wanting to retire into anonymity, I resisted writing about it, but eventually the insistence with which the phrase kept reoccurring made me accept that, like it or not, I had to write about Sogyal’s death in light of this phrase. So here it is:
Sogyal is the king to which we’re referring here. He (along with his willing slaves, of which I was one) created his kingdom, Rigpa, and he sat on the Rigpa throne – usually an office chair – encouraged by his students, who showed the kind of deference and devotion peasants are expected to show their king.
He gathered a court around him, an inner circle of lords and ladies, who protected him from the demands of the peasants and pandered to his every whim. And he had a harem of beautiful women to attend to his sexual gratification. Women who he and his court convinced were ‘special’ and lucky to gain his attention.
This is not Buddhist in any way, it’s just feudalism. Even Western kings prior to the time of the French Revolution had access to pretty much any woman they chose. No one would turn away the attentions of the king. The benefits to one’s family were considerable – see the movie The Other Boleyn Girl – not to mention the lavish lifestyle to into which the woman would be thrust as a concubine or mistress. Coercion into the bed of the master, lord or king was a fact of life for woman in medieval times, as was the brutal disregard with which they were discarded when the person with power over them and their family grew tired of her charms.
And he had knights who went out and did his work for him: National Directors, Study and Practice Co-ordinators, Practice co-ordinators, Finance and fundraising co-ordinators, event managers, and so on.
Those who spoke badly of the king were publically drawn and quartered, and so dissent was effectively squashed. The only option for those who saw that the Kingly garb was an illusion was exile.
| We even called him a ‘master’. The historical meaning of that word is ‘a man who has people working for him, especially servants or slaves’. Synonyms: lord, overlord, ruler, sovereign, monarch, liege |
The true nature of the king
Few knew the true nature of any king in a feudal society. Only his closest courtiers. And if the king was an idiot or abusive (as I suspect many of them were, given that absolute power tends to corrupt absolutely and the brutality of the human race in general up until the development of the concept of human rights around 250 years ago in France), his knights and advisors worked with that as best they could. The monarchies were good at making fine shows to satisfy the populace that they were being taken care of – so long as they were faithful to the crown. Pomp and ceremony and fancy speeches promoted the idea of a truly wise and benevolent king or queen regardless of the true personality of the regent. Sound familiar? Anything Buddhist here? Nope, just feudalism.
In the same way, us ordinary peasants had no idea of Sogyal’s true personality. We saw aspects of it, but just as a peasant in a feudal society would ignore any indications that the king wasn’t the noble being he was made out to be, so did we. To see him differently was dangerous. If the illusion came tumbling down, so did our place in the society/cult. And King Sogyal’s knights and couriers always did the required damage control to soothe the peasants concerns.
When I realised that Sogyal wasn’t the man I thought he was, when I realised that although he could be kind and apparently (as I saw him) loving, he could also be incredibly cruel, and that although he seemed very insightful at times, he could also do incredibly stupid things, I realised that the ‘kingliness’ I’d perceived in him had been nothing more than a projection on my part.
I wanted a spiritual teacher who was perfect, so that’s what I created for myself. But there never was a king. Even though we had one.
I’m reminded of the words: Mind (it exists) is devoid of mind (it doesn’t exist). The nature of mind is clear light. (Nevertheless it manifests as clear light.) Sogyal was not a king, nor was he enlightened, nevertheless he manifested as a king for those who wanted a king. Despite his personality disorder, he faithfully dispensed his kingly duties as he’d been taught to do by his upbringing and teachers, and just as a king who is rotten to the core can still follow legal protocol and preside over a court to dispense justice for those seeking it, so, too, could Sogyal provide what we came looking for. If our introductions to the nature of our mind was just a projection from our side, it still did the trick, because the protocol for introduction, well established over centuries, was strong enough in itself that it still worked regardless of the lacks of the person presiding – at least for those whose minds were ready for a little nudge in the right direction.
King Sogyal died for me as soon as I realised he wasn’t a king (not a role model for achieving enlightenment). I grieved back in June 2017.
Now the man Sogyal Lakar is dead as well. People have their own reactions to that, depending on their relationship to him. But regardless of how one feels about this personally, his death likely raises questions about death and our relationship to it.
Our personal relationship to death
I grew up on a farm. I saw a lot of dead animals. Death was simply part of life for us. Even now I live in the country and on my walks will come across the remains of some animal. I’ve also travelled a lot in outback Australia where road kill is common. I’ve driven along sections of roads lined with the desiccated corpses of kangaroos, and plucked feathers from dead birds with which to decorate masks and hats.
I look at my family often with the awareness that death will one day take me from them or them from me. My daughter, when she was growing up, often told me how unusual our family was because her friends’ parents never talked about death. My husband often says, ‘I’ll be dead by then.’ We don’t pussy foot around the topic. My mother (93 yrs old) told me how relieved she was that I would actually talk to her about her impending death. ‘No one else will talk about it,’ she told me.
My father died from cancer when I was in my twenties, and that hit me hard. I remember him saying to me, ‘I’m not afraid to die. I’ve led a good life. I know where I’m going.’ As a Christian who lived by the words of Jesus, he had no reason to fear. He was a genuinely good person.
I’m not afraid of death, either. I never believed the Tibetan Buddhist stuff about bardos and ending up in lotus flowers for centuries if you didn’t realise you were in one! And being released into a pure realm if you did realise. Sheesh who needs that kind of pressure to remember all that shit when you’re dying – don’t look at the dim lights or you’ll end up as a pig! Apparently Tibetans fear death more than any other race. And it’s no wonder. I’d be scared, too, if I really thought I’d be facing terrifying beings in the bardos.
I prefer the near death experience idea of ‘rapid movement toward and/or sudden immersion in a powerful light or being of light’ accompanied by ‘an intense feeling of unconditional love and acceptance.’ Not only does it seem ‘right’ to me, but also the characteristics of near death experiences have been formed from research, not just because a ‘master’ says so.
Since any idea of death that isn’t supported by research into people who have actually been dead is really only a belief about death not a fact about it, you can believe the Tibetan version or not. It’s a choice. If you’re Tibetan, it would be difficult to step outside that Tibetan cultural perspective, of course, and near death experience research indicates that people interpret what happens according to their beliefs. So if you believe in the terror of the bardos, that’s what you’ll experience – assuming there is some continuation of consciousness after death. I’m happy to leave that question until I’m dead. I figure I’ll find out then, and until then, the question is kind of irrelevant to me.
I figure that if we live a good life and do our best to die in a good frame of mind, then if we do have some continuation of consciousness, we’ll be in a good space for going forward, and it there isn’t any continuation, then at least we will have died in peace.
What do us ex-Tibetan Buddhists we do when we die?
This is a scary question for someone who had it all worked out according to a tradition that they no longer believe in. If you figured that you’d just do Guru Yoga at the time of death, and now you couldn’t possibly do GY, what do you do?
You could follow the same idea but cut out the middle man. My practice for a long time has essentially been merging my mind with the true nature of reality every time I remember to do it. Another way to think of it is turning my mind onto my own awareness or looking for the true nature of my awareness. And that’s what I plan to do when I die. Maybe you could think of merging your mind with that ‘being of light’ they talk about in the near-death research. Same idea but without the bad associations.
Imagining yourself flying up into a being of light that is unconditionally loving sounds like the kind of thing that will help you die in peace. It’s also the kind of thing that will help you live your life in peace. No need for even a buddha. I sometimes visualise a ball of light with all the enlightened beings in it, all together. A kind of generic version of vajrayana. It’s great when you’re feeling like shit. Just pop them in the sky and have them send a whole lot of light down to fill you up. Anyway, it’s just a suggestion for ex-vajrayana practitioners. For me it takes the essence and leaves the garbage out of it.
Cultural perspectives on death
And then there’s the Rigpa flying circus and the homages. We’ve talked about those issues before, but it seems that a notable number of the Tibetan lamas, despite their cultural programming, removed their homages or made condolences rather than homages in deference to the outcry as to the inappropriateness of whitewashing the crimes of someone just because they’re dead. The homages were in stark contrast to the articles that appeared in the Western media that spoke about both his ‘good’ works and his abuse of students.
Our ideas of what is and what isn’t appropriate at the time of death depend on our cultural upbringing.
For instance, there were arguments as to whether the original image (similar to the one below) used for the last post was appropriate. I removed it because the author of the blog and others didn’t like it and I figured since it was her blog, she should decide what image should go with it. Others complained that it had been removed, because they thought it was the perfect image. There’s no right or wrong here. We just have different ideas, and they tend to reflect your background (for me this corpse is no different to all those dead animals I’ve seen.)
To put this into perspective, I did a bit of research on death customs, and I found that there are some really weird ones. The weirdest I found was those of the Malagasy people of Madagascar, who, in an effort to hasten decomposition — what’s seen as an crucial step in the ongoing process of getting the spirits of the dead into the afterlife —dig up the remains of their relatives, rewrap them in fresh cloth, then dance with the corpses around the tomb to live music. ‘The living family members then reflect with the bodies in their laps, pose for photos, and again dance with the bodies of those they’ve lost within the tomb -before putting them back to rest.’
Until recently, female members of the Dani tribe of Western Papa, New Guinea had a finger amputated each time an immediate family member died. The Yanomami, an Amazonian tribe who live in the jungles between Brazil and Venezuela eats their dead. They see the consumption of dead tribe members as a unity-strengthening act. The Rigpa flying circus is nothing on this lot!
Parades of the deceased so people can pay their respects are something seen in both the East and the West.
Though such funeral processions in the West are grand for kings, queens, prime ministers and presidents, they don’t exhibit the kind of bling seen in the East, just a simple flag-covered coffin on a carriage or in a Hurst.
According to one article, in southern Tibet corpses are ’embalmed with ghee, salt and perfume and placed in a wooden casket’. The book, Sources of Tibetan Tradition says that the ‘practice of embalming became widespread in Tibet in the seventeenth century’ and the first step in mummifying a corpse is to pack it in salt. Salt shrinks cells by drawing liquids out of them, so packing a corpse in salt will remove the liquids from the body, which will help to stop it stinking, and also cause it to shrink – another way to suggest spiritual attainment. Removing certain foods from one’s diet and eating little, such that one loses weight before death also helps the body not to decay after death.
In modern embalming, practised by many funeral homes, the blood is removed from the body through the veins and replaced by injection into the arteries with a mixture of formaldehyde, glutaraldehyde, methanol, and other solvents. According to this article on different methods of corpse preservation, ‘Bodies embalmed in this manner have a shelf life of approximately 10 years’. Lenin was embalmed 145 years ago and ‘the Soviet founder’s corpse still maintains the look, feel, and flexibility of Lenin toward the end of his life. If anything, the body’s appearance has improved with age.’ No spiritual accomplishment involved there – unless Lenin was enlightened!
Long Live the King
As Wikipedia says ‘”The king is dead, long live the king!”, or simply “long live the king!” is a traditional proclamation made following the accession of a new monarch in various countries. The seemingly contradictory phrase is used to simultaneously announce the death of the previous monarch and assure the public of continuity by saluting the new monarch.’
Tibetan Buddhist practice can continue seamlessly after the death of a master by adding the dead one to one’s perception of the master that represents them all – i.e. Guru Rinpoche for the Nyingmas – and by taking on a new master. Just replace the old with the new and carry on. That kind of continuity is reassuring at a time when it might feel, to the devoted, that their world is falling apart.
Those who still want a ‘master’ will be looking (if they haven’t already) for a new one. The questions for those students are: Will you just swap one king for another? Will you continue to play the master/servant game? And, is that a healthy relationship to be in?
And what of Rigpa? Who will take over Rigpa? Will the vision board find a new king? Or will some narcissist rush in and save them from making a decision by offering to take it on?
An opportunity for change.
Rigpa actually has a great opportunity here to make healthy changes. They could be quite clear and say that they will no longer have any spiritual advisors, that they will run Rigpa as a Western organisation without a king or a council of kings. They could institute democracy where the members vote for the vision board and have a real say in policies, and they could simply employ teachers on a simple fee basis.
Even with a democratic structure, unless they voted out the ‘old guard’, reject their fundamentalist views, and any new board denounces Sogyal’s behaviour, it will make little difference.
For sure the time of kings and feudal structures is long gone in the West. We gave them up around 250 years ago around the time of the French revolution. Surely we can take the Buddha’s teachings to heart without having to step back a few centuries and take on the feudal baggage we outgrew here with the birth of the idea of human rights for all.
The king is dead: Long live the king.
33 Replies to “The King is Dead: Long Live the King”
Those feudal remnants are anywhere within tibetan buddhism, in a symbiosis with all kind of tibetan traditions. Its seems so unterwoven to me that it is not possible to see what is buddhism and what is Lamaism.
I havent met any tibetan Lama of whom I could say that he/she is aware of this and he/she would realize what kind of problems are caused by this.
Its a pity. To me its like that: I see Vajrayana and Dzogchen/Mahamudra as viable paths, in accordance with what the Buddha taught, but not as a valid path as long as its mingled with all that tibetan stuff. From the tibetans do I not expect anything anymore.
And to take out the teachings out of this tibetan basket is quite difficult.
Thats the reason why I consider tibetan buddhism a dead end street.
I’m not so ready to give up on what’s good in it, but I’m also not hopeful that change will come from the Tibetans. Already there are people in the West, well educated people, who have set themselves up to teach dzogchen without the Tibetan influence so much, but there’s a danger in that as well. Anytime there is a single teacher at the head of an organisation there is a danger of them becoming a little King or Queen. I’m finding that when I sit/meditate – which I’ve started doing again, a kind of essential vajrayana practice emerges on its own accord. So maybe there is something in that. Rather than trying to nut it out intellectually, just let those of us who have done a lot of varjayana, just sit and see what comes. I think you probably have to give the whole thing up, though, before the essence could arise without the Tibetan-ness. The sad thing for the Tibetans is that if they don’t make the required changes, they’ll loose control of their own religion. And I think that would be quite sad – for them anyway.
However, those lamas who removed their ‘homages’, didn’t write them, or wrote condolences rather than homages showed they’re listening to us, so perhaps there is a chance.
The King is alive. We are consumed by power and control. We have to admit this.
I say a danger for those who are going against the tradition. They can easily fall into the same trap.
If someone leaves the tradition and starts to teach then they are merely creating there own tradition. They will promote and defend it.
We are all conditioned.
Thats the reason why we need a system of check and balances. I am afraid that consciousness about what we are doing and why we are doing it is not sufficient alone.
And it seems to me that those who left tibetan buddhism will hardly find any substitute.
For my self, I just gave tb up. There is no sense for me in following it as a path.
There is enough for me to discover what is else available from the Buddhas teaching.
But I still feel a wish to see removed that curtain that has lied over the tibetans and the westerns minds as well.
Even that tibeto-western subculture that has emerged is a part of that crowd of earth residents with two legs and one big brain each to make use of it.
I think exactly like you do Thalia. Essential pure experience. Essence without Tibetan-ness. And you’re right, if the Lamas don’t make changes they will lose their way.
The way they are treating Sogyal Rinpoche, now that he is dead, is as though they are trying to prove what a great enlightened master he was – because it proves how great he must have been. Other deceased lamas weren’t treated like this. From Thailand to France to India to Sikkim to West Sikkim, packed in salt and worshipped at big ceremonies all along the way. The Karmapa didn’t get that treatment on his death, or any others ! No one. Rigpa is trying to prove something or other, that’s for sure. And the way TB operates, you’re correct; it’s got a lot of feudalism. And the way we were taught to view our teacher Sogyal, and the other masters as well – it isn’t buddhism. It is LAMAISM. All so sad, the way a wonderful thing gets spoiled. And the way we, trusting and intelligent folk – and we are intelligent – get sucked into things. Sucked or suckered. So I’m not taking any further interest in this charade of wheeling Rinpoche’s body around the globe. And who knows what will happen next in Rigpa. I have my guess, but who knows. But personally I don’t expect anything good. The outcome I am expecting is more of the same, and maybe even more feudal, unfortunately.
Yes, I agree totally about those feudal tendencies we need to leave behind in Tibetan Buddhism. I agree totally that the importation of Vajrayana into the West has become something of a pathetic charade of kings and serfs. And yes! Buddha left the palace to beg and meditate.
However, sadly, I don’t see a lot of difference between feudalism and colonialism or imperialism– so I don’t share your optimism about Western human rights progress. And we just have to be careful that we don’t see Tibetan culture as some primitive ignorant culture and the West has it all figured out. In Dharamsala, women now hold positions in the government and nuns are given education equal to monks. Every child who arrives from Tibet is given a free, modern education. While the West now is in something of a crisis, what is called a “populist movement”, whatever that means is spiraling societies into something that looks very primitive to me.
So it is never simple. I like to think of the American constitution as a pretty good effort at creating an enlightened society– but one of its main writers, Thomas Jefferson, owned slaves, even while he wrote, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal..”
And now there’s Trump. So yup, Buddha had it right. He left the palace. There’s no enlightenment there.
It’s not an East/West divide, it’s about values. We could say ‘modern values’ based on equality and everyone having the same rights, not some having less rights due to their place in society, but the Buddha held values of equality, so ‘modern’ isn’t the right word either. People in all cultures hold them. Just because someone ‘believes’ in human rights, though, doesn’t mean they act in accordance with their beliefs, just as plenty of Buddhists seem to have little compassion or wisdom. Hence we have a country supposedly committed to human rights lead by someone like Trump. So, we’re only speaking in generalisations here. As you say, it’s not so simple.
I didn’t mean to imply that Tibetan Culture is ‘less’ than Western culture, just that the feudal structure in the religion is problematic.
Sometimes I get the feeling that some individuals will often defend the Tibetan people (as a race/ethnic group) whenever people are being critical of Tibetan Buddhism, or should I say LAMAISM. It’s as if they think that mentioning democracy and human rights in the same paragraph is somehow the same as saying, “Tibetans are primitive, stupid people, and Westerners know better.” Nobody is saying that, or at least I’m not! Criticizing cultish religions/societies is NOT a form of racisim because ideas/cults/societies are not races. Ideas and religions cross over to other cultures and races, so they can seep into any society. It’s dangerous not to criticize cultish ideas because it makes the criticism of medieval style cults somehow racist and politically incorrect if the cults are connected with certain nationalities or regions of the world. The criticism is simply a warning (to the West) to not give up centuries of fighting for human rights and trade it in for some archaic philosophy, bound up in feudalism and monarchy, etc. Westerners aren’t ‘better’ than Tibetans, but within the past several hundred years, Westerners are unique because they learned (the hard way) to cast off kings and monarchies and turn to human rights and democracy. That really IS an achievement that is unique in human history, although I realize that human rights and democracy are often being hijacked by corrupt, power hungry people who would love to destroy what Western ancestors have fought for. Democratic ideals do not make Westerners ‘better’ than other people, yet these ideas have inspired humanity as a whole, and many cultures are also embracing these values more and more. Everyone really wants to be free, so it’s really not just a ‘Western’ thing to want some kind of rule of law instead of tyrants. The problem is that tyrants always want to take over and people have to guard their freedoms and yes, even fight for them sometimes, otherwise those rights will be taken away. It’s important not to be naive and think that freedom will somehow survive just because the constitution exists on paper. Words on paper can be whittled away and replaced with twisted new regulations that take the “teeth” out of those words. If no one does anything to preserve freedom, it will be lost. part of preserving it is to call out cultures that are completely incompatible with the values that took so MANY years to build in the West.
Westerners used to be feudal, just like Tibetans and other cultures around the world. Partly because things were so terrible in Europe for so long, people finally got fed up and said “NO MORE” and it’s taken centuries to finally come to a point where Western civilization at least (somewhat) stabilized. That could all go away very quickly if we allow power hungry despots to once again decide to be kings and try to get us to give up our rights as free people. That’s why it’s so DANGEROUS to stop the criticism of cultic religions/philosophies from other cultures and call it ‘racism’ whenever someone points out the flaws of these imported cults/ideas. Without being constantly vigilant, we will lose all the freedom people have fought for within the past few hundred years. In fact, some of this pc stuff is starting to sound cultish and extremist in of itself because it’s going too far and getting out of control. I can easily imagine a dictatorship revolving around pc ideas taken to extreme, and I think it has already started.
Another thing I’d like to ask is, why should Tibetan Buddhism be the defining thing that makes Tibetans ‘Tibetan’? Tibetans existed many years prior to when Tibetan Buddhism was forced on them by tyrannical rulers. It never came to Tibet “peacefully” as the lamas want everyone to believe. Just like the Christian church in the Middle Ages, the shamans of Tibet were forced to convert to Tibetan Buddhism when the rulers decided that ‘Buddhism’ would be the state religion. Tibetans used to be shamans, just as Europeans also used to be shamans, and although Tibetan Buddhists now demonize the shamans and say how horrible they were before they converted to TB, how do we know they were really WORSE off before TB? Vajrayana was an imported religion from India and the indigenous religion of Tibet was what they had before TB. While many aspects of their religion were absorbed into TB, the TB religion became dominant, just like Christianity in Western culture.
My main point is that religion is not a race, and being critical of a cultish religion is not racism, nor is it saying that Tibetan people are somehow bad or stupid compared to Westerners. Not all all! Westerners are falling for Tibetan Buddhism and they aren’t stupid either, just very naive, and that’s largely the fault of the uncritical media, celebrities, therapists, teachers, and many people in positions of respect and authority, who paint TB as a wonderful thing. In the case of Tibetans in Tibet long ago, (when Buddhism first arrived there), many were forced to convert, just like when Christian church ruled Europe. When I criticize Tibetan Buddhism/LAMAISM, I am simply being honest about the dangers of cults taking over, which will happen if no one is allowed to criticize them for what they are. There are plenty of Caucasian cults as well to look out for, but they aren’t all accepted with an uncritical attitude by the whole of society like TB is. The problem is that for too long, Tibetan Buddhism has received so much positive coverage and PR that people tend to be “fans” of TB even though they really know nothing about it. They don’t know about Buddhism either, which is a very strict, moralistic, renunciate path in it’s truest form. If people knew what true Buddhism actually taught, I wonder how many people would actually accept it as their adopted religion. In the case of Vajrayana, people accept it as the paragon of wisdom without even finding out about the embedded “lamaism” aspect, which is hard to separate from some of the real gold nuggets, which are genuine, (if you can distill the gold from all the stupid lama/guru b.s.)
fed up with the whole lama circus, Thank you!
I wonder why somebody has to even write what you wrote in this day and age. People are trying to school each other about human rights and so on, even though we all know already for decades what those are. “Be sensitive, respect other cultures…” Yes, up to a point. That is fine. When cultures mix they also influence each other. Then we have to discuss the rules and values. We also have to choose.
I agree with you about everything.
@fed up with the whole lama circus, I don’t think I spoke about racism in my comment– do you see some place where I did that? In fact, I have no problem with the discussion in this article about feudal practices in many, if not most, Western TB communities. They are real and they are a problem and this article expresses that well.
However, I always question statements that assume we’ve made a lot of progress with human rights in the world. Particularly, right now, as an American, I am feeling despondent in that regard! Historically, while countries were busy setting up their democracies, they were also busy colonizing Africa and Asia and oppressing people without restraint in those countries. The US and some European countries have been imposing their imperial interests at the expense of human rights across the world for centuries. Here in Australia, the indigenous people still don’t have a treaty or a say in the government that is equal to their status and the government has caged refugees on Manus Island for years now, despite protests from Amnesty International and Doctors Without Borders about the costs to their mental and physical health– about human rights abuses. South and Central America have suffered badly from US interference and now the Trump administration has halved the number of refugees he will accept from those countries, as well as the aid the US will give them. I could go on and on.
And I would remind you that Tibet played no part in the wars of the last century, in which an estimated 123 million people died.
You can choose from any issue of human rights violation in the world and conclude that the country/religion/culture involved is completely corrupt. Or you can realize, as the Buddha did, that we live in a complex, interdependent reality and there are no simple conclusions. We can only do our best and avoid generalizations.
And I for one believe that there is much of value in the Tibetan Buddhist tradition- just as there is much of value here in Australian culture and in the culture of the US etc. etc.
“I don’t think I spoke about racism in my comment– do you see some place where I did that?”
You didn’t mention racism in this particular comment, but you did bring it up in the past during similar discussions, on this and other forums. Also, my comment wasn’t just directed at you. It was directed at many people in modern society who accuse people of being racist whenever anyone has something critical to say about another culture, other than white Caucasian of course. For some reason, it’s okay with the pc police to bash white culture, but it’s not okay to even raise alarm bells about risky, imported ideas from other cultures. That is NOT to say we can’t learn things from other cultures, and it’s not saying that other cultures don’t have anything good to offer. However, I think there is too much acceptance of other cultures, no matter what ideas they bring to the table, even if it threatens the very idea of freedom. So, that’s what I am talking about.
World War 1 happened because of collapsing empires in Europe, (because people were fed up with despotic rulers), and the turmoil and revolutions which followed. WW11 happened because a dictator got out of control and the world really did have to stop him. There really wasn’t any other choice. If the world had not stopped him, not many people today would know peace and freedom anywhere, and many of us might not even be here today, due to extermination and genocide. But it’s useless to get into a debate about every war that was ever fought in the 20th Century, so I won’t get into it. I agree that most of the more recent wars are pointless and shouldn’t be fought at all. Many wars are not always started by the West though. As you say, it’s more complicated.
As for Tibet itself, it was never a “peaceful” country. It’s true that they did not involve themselves in global world wars, but that was because they were so isolated. It had nothing to do with Tibetans being any more virtuous or peaceful than anybody else. Also, Tibet was so busy fighting internal, civil (religious/political) wars, or having their more powerful allies fight wars for them, that they did not happen to fight in external wars for a long time. However, that does not make them peaceful by any stretch. They always had a powerful ally to protect them, so they got complacent about defense. Throughout Tibetan history, either China or Mongolia backed Tibet in it’s potential military conflicts with other nations. Usually, depending on the time in history, either Mongolia or China was their enemy. Tibet was pretty lucky because when China threatened them, Mongolia backed them, and when Mongolia threatened them, China backed them. In the 20th century, when China was engulfed in their own cultural revolution, (because the Chinese people were fed up with tyrants in that region), Tibet became a big target. Mongolia was too busy fending off Russia to defend Tibet, so Tibet had no protection from anybody. It was very easy for China to take advantage of the vacuum and march right in. Tibet was an isolationist country, and they did not have any interest in invading other countries for a long time. However, that did not stop them from having sectarian wars (internally) and getting big allies to back them up whenever they were threatened externally. I’m not knocking Tibet, I’m just saying they are human and they have the the same problems that everyone else has, which means that nobody is peaceful and perfect in any society. The ones who have the most power are the ones who are usually involved in the big wars. Tibet was involved with wars in the past.
I understand why you’re not optimistic about the future these days. It can sometimes look pretty grim, and of course no one can say what will happen next. Things may get much worse, but we can only look at the present state of conditions in Western countries. If you compare the Western countries to the Middle Ages, or even many other places around the globe, I think you will be able to see that the West has come a LONG way in modern times. There is a LOT of improvement in how the common people live, even though it still isn’t perfect by a long shot. Most “peasants” in the West are living much better (and longer) than people did a few hundred years ago. Human rights is a fairly new phenomena that generally wasn’t even tried in most old societies, (East or West), so when people first came up with the idea that “all men are created equal” it took a long time to really put it completely into practice, (and include women and minorities, etc.) But that doesn’t mean we should throw these values away just because those who came up with it may have been hypocrites themselves in some ways. Democracy and freedom are a work in progress, and hopefully if people don’t trash it, we may have a better society someday.
As you say, things are not black and white and it’s very complicated and nuanced. No no one says it isn’t.
I should have mentioned that Mongolia was also of course fending off China proper as well.
Also, I didn’t say Tibetan Buddhism has no value at all. I mentioned that there are a few gold nuggets in there, IF one can separate the gold from the lama b.s., the cultural trappings, the abuse, and the misoyny, etc.
No, I have never mentioned racism on this blog/forum. I can only discuss what I say. And we’ll just have to agree to disagree about these issues, e.g. how much progress the West vs some Eastern cultures have made etc. And I simply cannot go through your last comment and point out every instance when you have misrepresented what I said. This is no longer productive. Best to leave it for now!
@ Joanne and @fed up with the whole lama circus
I think it helps to remember the difference between discernment, which is recognising the differences between things without a value judgement, and criticism that involves a value judgement. Not all criticism involves value judgement, but if we’re sensitive to being judged then we may see judgement where none was actually stated or intended.
It’s vital that we discern the different aspects of a problem clearly, and I think we should not feel restrained in our examination of religious issues by fear of appearing culturally insensitive or superior – after all, if we really want to go down that road, Tibetan Buddhism does hold amazing teachings on the nature of mind that we Western cultures don’t, so in that area they are certainly ‘superior’ to Western culture – and it’s important to honour the advances in thinking in our own culture (at the same time as recognising our failures, of course). To not do either means you’re not discerning the full picture.
And sometimes a value judgement needs to be made. Often in fact, whenever we’re choosing one thing over another, deciding on a ‘best’ course of action. Let’s face it, honouring basic rights for all human beings, regardless of race, station or creed IS a better system for the majority than a feudal system of inequality. In feudalism, the only people that benefit are those at the top of the pyramid. And their benefit comes on the back of and at the expense of the quality of life of those below. Pointing this out, however, doesn’t mean I’m ‘looking down on’ a culture with a feudal structure, or thinking my culture is better than such a culture – especially considering the difference between our beliefs as Western countries and our actions – it just means that I have discerned which system I would prefer to live under. I don’t see this conversation as being about culture, anyway, it’s about enlightened values and the structures that support them, and if we don’t hold them up as something to aspire to, then where are we, as the human race in general, going?
In terms of religion (which is not the same as culture) the question is which structure most supports the values of the religion, and I fail to see how a feudalistic structure fits with Buddhist ideas of equality and compassion for all. It fits with ideas of lama worship, but that is not Buddhism and never was. It isn’t even how it’s supposed to be in Tibetan Buddhism, but it’s how it’s turned out for many because it suits the little kings not to correct their subjects face-value understanding of their religion. Just to be clear, that’s a criticism of Tibetan Buddhism as it’s practised in some communities under some lamas; but it’s not a criticism of Tibetan culture. (Just as when I criticise Catholicism, I’m not criticising Italian culture.)
One can say a culture is better that truly lives in accordance with human rights than a feudal culture that oppresses and abuses its people. That’s a no-brainer. Maybe that’s not the pc thing to say, but I’m going to say it because it really needs to be said, straight out, without mincing words. That doesn’t mean the West has truly “mastered” human rights yet. Clearly the West has problems and still abuses human rights. But the ideal of freedom in Western society, which at least strives for that goal, is something to be valued. (let’s not forget the West has a long history with feudalism as well, so this isn’t really an East-West problem. We are talking about systems, structures and ‘isms’, not people as individuals, or even comparing races.
There are some gold nuggets in Tibetan Buddhism, but I am having a hard time separating the feudalism and the lamaism from the genuine spiritual aspects. The lamaism is written into the texts and is a part of the whole philosophy. How can one distill the essence of the teachings without ingesting some of the lama stardust “magic” guru worship along with it? You don’t need to try and answer that question, since I am not sure it really can be answered.
Just wanted to add that I’m NOT saying Western culture is inherently better than the East. There are good things in both cultures and we have a lot to learn from each other. The West has NOT mastered human rights yet. But ANY culture of ANY race or ethnicity that TRULY mastered human rights would be the best culture in the world, (if such a thing actually existed).
@fed up with the whole lama circus and @Tahlia, it is not about deciding which culture is “better”, but about understanding our own culture and its power imbalances and tendencies to go astray. Otherwise, the next generation of lamas will simply use Western ploys (along with Tantric pledges) to gain power.
And in response to the question fed up with the whole lama circus asked, I personally think that a moratorium on Vajrayana practice in the West might be necessary. Without Vajrayana, there does not need to be a power imbalance and there can be Buddhist communities with robust questioning and doubting and equalitarian, sane respect for teachers instead of king worship. At the very least, there needs to be a transparent statement made in every centre that practices Vajrayana about what power the teacher has and whether he/she can behave as he/she pleases etc. Rigpa said that SL was not a monk and therefore could have sex with students. If I had known that in the beginning, I would have never walked into a Rigpa teaching in the first place. There needs to be a sign on the door.
So that’s an example of how power can be held to account in a Western context. The only thing right now holding the US president to account right now, the only thing preventing him from becoming a king essentially, is the media. So that is a strength the West has– and I think it’s important to understand our strengths and weaknesses.
By the way, I didn’t say Western culture was “better” than the East. I said that IF there was a (hypothetical) culture (that had a lot of power and influence) that actually could perfect a humane and just society, it would truly be the “best” culture.
Personally, I think the best way to solve the abuse problem is to simply stay away from organized religion period. They all have the same kind of abuse/power/sex/money problems. While Vajrayana and other “guru” religions may be worse, I think any spiritual seeker will run into the same type of problem anywhere.
Sadly, that’s where I have come in this life. No organized religion. Done.
Please don’t take everything in my comment personally. I am speaking to a wider audience, although I did address some of the comments you made. A lot of my comments are not necessarily ONLY aimed at you, even though your name was in the heading. Also, it’s not just Tibetan culture I am speaking of either. I am speaking about a trend I see more and more among people (especially on the left) in Western society to embrace foreign cultures and hate their own culture. I think that’s dangerous, even though there are some good things from other cultures, so I am not saying we should all go to the other extreme either.
Also, I am not saying that democracy/human rights in the West have been perfected. It is a work in progress and MUCH more needs to be done all over the globe, not just in the East, but in the West too. But what the West doesn’t need is for lamaism to take over and become the new main religion. It has already become too mainstream, and that’s what makes it dangerous in my opinion.
@fed up with the Whole lama circus, I agree, I hink you’re right, at least partially. . As a member of the “left” I do definitely have a tendency to be extra protective of refugee communities/cultures, especially those that are stateless. I also tend to be overly critical of my own culture, though I never feel hatred. In fact, one gift Trump has given me, as he threatens so much of what I hold dear, is to show me how much I love my birth-country.
In fact, it’s interesting to know that Tibet in its history has invaded part of China more than once. They have invaded, pillaged, burned some cities and came back to their country.
That’s true. 🙂
Of course, the Tibetan Buddhists will tell you that Tibet was a warrior country only when they practiced shamanism, and when they converted to Buddhism, they became pacifists. Ha, ha! 😀
He can’t deny their warrior nature. 😀
The Dali Lama has also said that if Tibet had been better armed at the time of the Chinese invasion, they definitely would have resisted militarily.
Tibet generally relied on other allies to protect them, (which didn’t work out in the end). Although it’s not like they didn’t try to resist anyway. From what I understand, there was a secret effort with the CIA to train Tibetan gorilla fighters to fight against China. When Nixon made “friends” with China, the CIA project was scrapped. (I personally don’t see anything wrong with Tibetans, or anyone else, trying to defend themselves. I just don’t want them to lie about it and pretend they are strict pacifists.)
@fed up with the whole lama circus, I don’t think they lied. If you read the Dalai Lama’s autobiography and other historical accounts, they were totally open about the attempts groups made to militarize. Even monks went out with guns. But they had no significant, organized army and no hope of defense against the Chinese. It was genocide in the end.
I really enjoyed reading this piece. I think the points are very well made. This is valuable advice – My practice for a long time has essentially been merging my mind with the true nature of reality every time I remember to do it.
I never saw him as a king, just a conduit for the teaching. Really only a stepping stone into the whole thing not the whole thing himself. It will be interesting to see if another king appears to fill the role. There are many more things to be said about this but I will let others enjoy it for themselves. Brilliant.
Thanks BB. It’s always nice for our no-self selves to be appreciated!
Thanks for the historical info on old Tibetan techniques of preserving the body. Makes me wonder how many of the workers suffered from mercury poisoning.
Thanks @Tahlia for this interesting reflection.
In 2017, in the months after the open letter to Sogyal – when it started to be evident that its’ effect was going to be more than just scratch on the surface – the 500 year anniversary of Martin Luther’s Protestant reformation was being commemoratated (see, for example:
At the time, I watched a 2 part min series dramatisation of this “Reformation”. The parallels between Martin Luther questioning of the conduct of religious authority in Germany half a century ago, and the contemporaneous situation of holding Sogyal to account for his abusive manner of manipulation and conduct was uncanny.
The way you’ve written about the court hierarchy touches on this, but add to that religious promises of salvation and liberation with taxes-aka-donations for cleansing the soul-aka-purifying Karma and the fruits of both being promised in the afterlife, then you have a formula for truly hoodwinking the masses.
Perhaps Pope Francis’ address on the occasion of the 499th anniversary of the Reformation – followed by comments by the Protestant Archbishop of Canterbury – could offer the starting point for the script of many Tibetan Buddhist leaders. (Heaven (sic) forbid, we have to wait 500 years!)
“We have the opportunity to mend a critical moment of our history by moving beyond the controversies and disagreements that have often prevented us from understanding one another. ”
” The Protestant Archbishop of Canterbury in England expressed remorse for the violence committed there in the name of the Reformation.” (in ‘How the World Is Marking the 500th Birthday of Protestantism’, Times, October 27, 2017)