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.