How to Follow a Spiritual Teacher in a Healthy Way

I was inspired to write my take on how to follow a spiritual teacher in a healthy way when someone directed me to a long post on Facebook by Dzongsar Kyentse (DJK) in which he offered the tantric (vajrayana) Drubthab Kuntu cycle of teachings and initiations. He said, among other things, “For those in limbo, wondering whether or not they should do this, I suggest following the tantric prescription to do a thorough background check on me. There are plenty of websites you can consult, and you might particularly want to read posts by Tahlia Newland, Matthew Remski, Joanne Clark and others.”

What do I think about that?

He’s being quite open about what he expects from the students who take up his offer, and that’s refreshing. And yet – as a cynical ex-Tibetan Buddhist – I can’t help wondering if it is genuine openess or a subtle manipulation to make the teachings and relationship with the teacher more ‘special’ and so more appealing to those who relish being the ‘chosen few’. It’s a common dynamic in spiritual groups that lures people into the cult’s ‘inner circle’. Such manipulation may be quite unconcious, and someone – be they the teacher or the student – is only free of it if they are aware of the lure of it from both sides. This is why both teacher and student need to be educated in cult dynamics to ensure a healthy relationship.

The basis of a healthy spiritual teacher – student relationship

Whether it’s this cycle of vajrayana teachings or some other, whether it’s a ‘special’ teaching or just the usual given by some teacher or other, and whether it’s this teacher or another, the old prescription for the Tibetan Buddhist teacher-student relationship should only be undertaken if you have a level of knowledge and awareness of self to enter into it in a healthy way, a way that will have the teachings and practice increase your self-esteem/ self-confidence, not destroy it.

The term ‘self-esteem’ does not have the same meaning as the word ‘ego’ as it’s used in TB. And yet thinking they are the same is a common misperception. The requirement for ‘complete surrender’ to one’s vajrayana master can easily become giving up one’s confidence in one’s own ability (self-esteem), and the lost feeling that comes from feeling completely dependent on someone else for their sense of value can be mistaken (by both teacher and student) for realisation of the concept of ‘no-self’ in Buddhism.

In TB ‘ego’ means ‘grasping at a false sense of self’, whereas the term self-esteem means ‘confidence in one’s own worth or abilities; self-respect’. It’s trust in your inner strength, not in your outer – possibly neurotic – manifestation, and it’s essential for healthy vajrayana practice. An unhealthy TB student-teacher relationship destroys one’s trust in oneself and that’s the opposite of what it should be doing.

With the realization of ones own potential and self-confidence in ones ability, one can build a better world. According to my own experience, self-confidence is very important. That sort of confidence is not a blind one; it is an awareness of ones own potential. On that basis, human beings can transform themselves by increasing the good qualities and reducing the negative qualities.

Dalai Lama

Think of refuge practice. The purpose of that is to develop trust in your true nature, your Buddha nature. In other words the practice of refuge should develop confidence in one’s inner strength and potential. But the vajrayana requirement for total surrender and slavery to one’s teacher’s whims (as taught by DKR and other traditional TB teachers) can sabotage the development of that confidence in one’s true nature and diminsh one’s self-esteem.

Yes. Unfortunately, vajrayana, when taught by teachers who demand that students drop all personal boundaries can achieve the very opposite of what it’s supposed to achieve. (I write more on how certain teachings can be misunderstood and have a negative rather than a positive effect in my book Fallout: Recovering from Abuse in Tibetan Buddhism.)

Hence, choosing your teacher carefully is indeed as important as the teachings say it is.

Are vajrayana teachings for you

It’s pointless getting a cycle of tantric/ vajrayana teachings if you’re not dead serious about practicing it. And how many Westerners are? Very few. My advice is to only take vajrayana teachings that you intend to practice. Vajrayana (as distinct from other forms of Buddhism) is useless if all you do is collect knowledge. It is supposed to be practiced, and the insight into the practice and into one’s self only comes from sustained practice with the deep knowledge to know what you’re actually doing and applying it to yourself, to your own issues.

Gathering empowerments for the sake of having an empowerment is missing the point entirely.

It’s difficult with TB because there are so many cycles of teaching, and our tendancy towards spiritual materialism makes us want them all, especially because every single cycle starts by saying that the teachings in it are the most precious above all the others. But actually, they’re all most precious. Tibetan Buddhist tantric teachings are incredibly powerful and transformative when practiced genuinely – not rote mouthing of a language you don’t understand.

My advice is to choose JUST ONE cycle of vajrayana teachings and practice it until you’ve completed the required number of recitations. After that, you can do another if you want. Or maybe drop vajrayana practice because it’s done it’s job, and dzogchen / mahamudra then comes easily. That’s the purpose of vajrayana as a preliminary to dzogchen and mahamudra. Vajrayana practice combines the practices of shamata and vipashyana, and if practiced starting with the three samadhis and with the understanding of the true meaning of your visualisations it brings you to the state of one taste.

So these teachings do have value, but choose a practice (and it’s associated teachings) that resonates with you; don’t just take a cycle of teachings because that’s what’s being offered. Vajrayana can be complex and confusing. Keep it simple by working with one practice at a time.

The practice of Vajrakilya is for overcoming obstacles.

What traditional teachers want from their students

TB teachers like DJK – and Sogyal Rinpoche when he was alive – want students who will not be bothered by their faults and who will not criticise them if they do something unethical. They want students who will see them as perfect in a worldly way as well as a spiritual way, students who do not question them and who obey their every whim. Students entering a vajrayana /tantric relationship with Dzongsar Khyentse need to know that entering into a vajra relationship with him means they cannot see anything he does as abuse, even if it is abuse. He makes that quite clear in his books.

However, once you have completely and soberly surrendered, you may not interpret certain manifestations and activities of the guru as the abuse of power. If you want to be fully enlightened, you can’t worry about abuse.

Dzongsar Khyentse, The Guru Drinks Bourbon?

This is not just DJK’s view, this is the traditional Nyingma view, and for a student to undertake a relationship with such expections is akin to someone joining a bondage sex group. They don’t see being bound, beaten and raped as a problem because they get off on it. But we assume that they know that’s what will happen to them. And they always have an escape word, a word that stops whatever is being done to them. Tibetan Buddhism at the vajrayana level doesn’t have an escape clause.

This is not to say that you will be abused in any physical or sexual way, though you may be because traditional TB teachers (and many of their Western students) don’t see that as inappropriate – they see it as a teaching for you. But TB teachers of the old school seem to be very adept at emotional and psychological abuse – and financial abuse. With the common lack of transparency in TB organisations, you have no way of knowing whether the money you donate to all their ‘worthy’ causes isn’t just funding the teacher’s lavish lifestyle.

Choosing a spiritual teacher

See this article in Lion’s Roar for general guidelines for choosing a teacher.

in his Facebook post, DJK says he’s not qualified, which is good because he’s clearly not enlightened. (Given the list of qualties of a Buddha, I doubt anyone alive today is. ) His students will think he’s being humble in saying this, rather than truthful, but if they can see him as their perfect teacher, despite his faults, then that will support their vajrayana practice.

No matter who you go to for teachings, I advise people not to get into a personal relationship with any teacher because any emotional entanglement with a teacher is bound to be problematic.

Check out their students and group dynamics for signs of cult dynamics at play.

The problem is, as you can see by the gushy devotional comments, that the cult dynamics are strongly in play on DJK’s group, and so any attempt to make teachings for a select few is likely to make some want the teachings even more. They will want to be the special truly devoted students, and that’s a decision made from within the manipulation of the cult dynamics, not one made with full agency.

To give students full agency in making the decision of whether to take tantric teachings from them, a teacher would have to actively discourage the kind of co-dependency that the guru devotion aspects of TB foster – which we can see manifested on Facebook by copius prayer-emoji-using students. And for that, a teacher would have to read the cult dynamics literature. With TB teachers’ attitude towards Western psychology (in general), it’s unlikely you’ll find one who has done that, or who has taken the next step in making sure that they and their students don’t fall into those dynamics in their own group.

We’re talking here about teachers and students needing some awareness of how spiritual groups with a central focus of devotion to a teacher tend to operate, and the negative effects of some of these dynamics. Cult dynamics remove people’s ability to discern clearly, so someone caught up in those dynamics are unable to make a decision with full agency. A truly skilful teacher will set their students free from the psychologial and emotional dependency that TB tends to foster.

Look at the teacher’s students. What do you see? I see little sanity or genuine awareness in most of the comments on DJK’s posts.


In the end, the question for students is, Can you trust him to do you no harm? I wouldn’t trust DJK. He may not physically or sexually abuse you, but psychologically, given what I know of him, it’s almost guaranteed he’ll play with you emotionally like a cat with a mouse. He seems unaware of his arrogance, predjudice and emotional imaturity (as shown in some of his facebook posts) and if he is aware, he doesn’t see it as a lack of spiritual realisation, but rather delights in being against ‘political correctness’, completely ignoring the face that someone with what he calls ‘political correct’ ideals implies that they have a level of spiritual awareness which aligns with the Buddha’s teachings .

I don’t trust any teacher who doesn’t know the definition of pychological and emotional abuse or understand the meaning of codependancy not to mess with people’s minds in a negative way. TB teachers do it in the name of dharma, thinking it’s ‘crushing ego’, when all it’s doing is crushing the student’s self-esteem, the very self-esteen that they need as a basis for effective Buddhist practice.

So how can I follow a spiritual teacher in a healthy way when I don’t trust any of them?

Lack of trustworthy teachers aside, it is still possible for a student with knowledge and awareness to avoid the institutionalised codependency we see at play in many TB groups and take these teachings and work with them in a way that will have them far surpass the teacher.

For that, they need to know that the lama to which they pray and unify their mind is not the physical teacher, but the true nature of themselves and reality. That understanding and awareness is really what’s needed for a healthy TB guru relationship – not to mention effective vajrayana practice. With that, you can tell your teacher to lay off their games and help them wake up.

A healthy relationship is one between equals, and given that – according to the vajrayana teachings – we all have Buddha nature, teacher and student both, then even where the teacher thinks he or she is better than all their stupid Western students, the student can enter the relationship knowing they are every bit as equal in terms of their true nature. Yes, they have more knowledge of certain things – that’s why you’re taking teachings with them – but you are every bit as able as they are to realise those teachings. Drop all the shit and you’re equal in the deepest meaning of the word. As a student looking for a healthy relationship with a teacher, you need to always remember that. Never see yourself as inferior, even whenthey are doing their best to make you feel inferior.

Spiritual teachers have issues as well – look at the TB tulkus warped childhoods – and sometimes their issues make them blind to the fact that they’re spitting their shit all over their students rather than giving the teachings they think they are.

If you’re someone who understands how cult dynamics work – such that you can operate outside them even when surrounded by them – and if you’re someone who doesn’t have codependent tendancies, has clear boundaries and who knows you can tell your teacher to get lost when they’re being an idiot, then you’re good to go.

For such people there is an escape clause. And that is understanding that the idea that you’ll go to hell if you leave your vajra master is just a belief and not a fact about reality. And you can drop a belief at any time. (Best never believe it in the first place. I mean, hell? Really? ) If the practice works, dropping a concept like that will be easy.

Human potential is the same for all. Your feeling, ‘I am of no value’, is wrong. Absolutely wrong. You are deceiving yourself. We all have the power of thought — so what are you lacking? If you have will-power , then you can do anything. It is usually said that you are your own master.

Dalai Lama


And as for samaya, on the outer level you can still have gratitude for what someone taught you even if you leave them after becoming disenchanted with them as a person. On the inner level, your samaya is with the true guru, the nature of self and reality itself, and that level of samaya, once you’ve recognised it, can never be broken because it has nothing to do with the physical teacher. They were merely a faciliator to help you recognise it.

Samaya is a statement that is true, genuine, pure, real. To apply oneself in a way that is in harmony with how the truth is, is called keeping the samaya. When the samayas are described in detail, there are hundreds of thousands that can be listed, but all of them can be condensed in this way.

The foremost samaya is when you compose yourself in a state in which you in actuality experience the fact that all sights, sound and awareness are visible emptiness, audible emptiness and aware emptiness. To have that certainty is called keeping all the hundreds of thousands of samayas

 Empowerment & SamayaChokyi Nyima Rinpoche from Dzogchen Essentials: The Path That Clarifies Confusion compiled by Marcia Binder Schmidt (Rangjung Yeshe Publications), pages 55-56.

You may notice that many of the links go to the Rigpa Wiki; that’s because, regardless of the failings of the Rigpa organisation in general, the Rigpa translation team, headed by Adam Piercy, has created a reliable and precise source of information in the Rigpa Wiki. Adam’s translations in particular are excellent and insightful, and I am extremely grateful for his contribution to my education.

Images by Larisa Koshkina , pasja1000 and Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

25 Replies to “How to Follow a Spiritual Teacher in a Healthy Way”

  1. I find Vajrayana to be based on faith not logic and reason – unless you accept circular logic like “you have to believe it because it is true” which is how most of the arguments boil down. The beauty of the whole culture on the outside tends to high the violence, inequity, corruption and justification of violence, inequity and corruption that these teachers spend an enormous amount of time justifying. Which is to say being sociopaths.
    They like to say the proof of the pudding is in the eating – well I have eaten and vomited it back out. Sure, don’t believe me, listen to people who only barely interacted from a distance and made their own safe balanced version but then watched others get abused and ran for cover only to come back later and say “maybe its ok, if you just remove this and that” but then these lamas say “who are you to remove this and that” because what they love are all the loopholes designed to undermined whatever basis in Buddhist logic, reason and teaching supposedly supports their vajrayana random texts pulled out of visionary experiences and walls of caves filled with amrit.

    1. True indeed. I’m not saying TB is okay if you remove this or that. I’m saying the vajrayana teachings have value to those for whom they resonate, and that for those who want those teachings there is a way they can get them without ending up on the receiving end of the worst of the religion.

      The general acceptance of abuse by TB teachers will never be okay, and we can’t remove that perception because doing so is up to the lamas, and they won’t give up their power – whoever in history has? I think the student who wants vajrayana teachings needs to set the boundaries and the power dynamic for the relationship themselves so they can ignore whatever bullshit the teacher might try to impose on them. That’s what I’m talking about here.

      If we are someone who still wants to receive vajrayana teachings – and some do (I’ve written this for them) – then we can go into it with our eyes open, so we can be one of those who interact from a distance, a psychological distance of awareness, like the distance one has from one’s thoughts when meditating, an awareness that sees what’s at play and doesn’t fall into the games. For me my physical distance was fortuitous. Had I been close to a centre, I may have ended up in a position where I could have been abused as well.

      I think not becoming involved in a group is the best way to approach TB given what we know now about the culture of the religion. Practicing alone is, in my experience, far superior to group practice anyway. But if we were to take any teachings in a face to face situation, we really would have to have our bullshit radar finely tuned, because, as we both know, it’s all too easy to find oneself being drawn into the full cult experience with all its perception-warping potential.

      As far as I’m concerned, the religion is not okay , but it does have valuable teachings and practicesaside from the superstition and teacher ass kissing. The challenge if we want them is to engage on our own terms, not on the lamas terms. Of course, they’ll say that’s the wrong approach, because we’re not surrendering to them, but that whole idea is just power grabbing tactics since the lama to which we’re supposed to be surrendering is our own true nature, not to any person. And a teacher with any kind of realisaton would foster that, not the master-servant crap.

      1. Hello Thalia, funny how I got your article even though I unsubscribed from beyond the temple. I thought unsubscribing was my freedom of choice. Oh well.. so much for that. It’s all good since DJKR has exhibited the supreme kindness of mentioning you and friends and even places you as guardians of vajrayana so you may snare the unready in your nets, i remain as ever amazed and happy to meet an embodiment of Buddha in this life. Since we all have Buddha nature and we are each mid-career beings I don’t see how you could argue. A blessed sometime you just have to accept. Just like it will be at death. This is a crucial practice. And of compassion too, not the busy kind that itches to convert others to one’s view, but the compassion that lets things be. Emaho! DJKR just taught this by including you with honours in the all encompassing mandala of self-liberation. Please forgive my insider’s language, it is the known language of praise.

        1. It is interesting to compare the well thought out, intelligent, rational post, to your response here. It helps to confirm the sanity of what Tahlia is saying. Thank you for being such a good example of her observations of DKRs students.

          1. Yes. One really can’t see it when you’re caught up in it. I look back on myself as I was whilst in the thick of my devotion to Sogyal and cringe. Though I don’t think I was ever too gushy. That kind of blind devotion never sat well with me, and I never thought he was perfect in a worldly sense. When people get the absolute and relative gurus mixed up, it’s a problem.

        2. Yes, it was good that he suggested that people check our opinions, and that’s why I felt I should write something in response. He wants people who have really thought it through, and I see this as helping people to do exactly that.

          As for unsubscribing. It’s possible that you subscribed twice with different emails, because if you did unsubscribe, then you will no longer be on the list for whatever email you unsubscribed from. It’s an automatic system, so there’s no taking away your ability or right to choose going on. Just unsubscribe again next time you get a notification. But you might be interested in the next vlog I have coming about the language we use to describe our spiritual experiences. It has nothing to do with gurus, but with how we perceive our own experiences.

      2. I like the part where you said “My advice is to choose JUST ONE cycle of vajrayana teachings and practice it until you’ve completed the required number of recitations. After that, you can do another if you want. Or maybe drop vajrayana practice because it’s done it’s job, and dzogchen / mahamudra then comes easily. ” I didn’t mean to put words in your mouth – i actually made a very generic kind of reply but obviously it’s to your post so … let me try to explain more. What tended to happen is that you were really, really pushed to take on endlessly more practices and not particularly helped to stick with those. Other people than I that stayed to a distance could make the time and do things at a better pace. I saw examples of that – but I wasn’t the only one to be at constant odds with too many practices, too little time, work and pressure to do that and the practice but not too much practice and definitely too much work is fine. Then, because you are “celebrated” or whatever as the core community, or a monk – or any reason you are invited to more empowerments. More practice intensives and if you are also just forced to be practicing Sangha because you are a monk, and live there then you need to be able to do whatever all the practices they do were. So I tried to kind of make my practice efficient.
        So … in retrospect what you said is good, at the time I was trapped into a situation with all kinds of problems and that is my experience as it was. I feel I did an enormous amount of practice and had signs that some of it did “the job” that was intended. It is my personal feeling that a sign of accomplishment for me was to see through more and more of the bullshit and act to expose it. To stop listening to to a madman’s teachings and read more of the older texts with advice about how to follow (or not follow an unqualified) teacher. DJK is basically of the opinion that just being around when they entrap you with samaya means unqualified is irrelevant. I’m sure it has been explained in many places that unqualified teachers can’t even empower, commit, create vows. It is said that you visualize vows to a deity in many of those vajrayana experiences so then, you are perhaps making a deal with the deity and using the human as a kind of place holder – because they may not be as “blessed” or even just a reasonable person. So I felt committed to these deities as truthful, compassionate or even wrathful deities. Wrathful … just say no – some said it meant or that the truth will “purify” in terrible ways that are wrathful. That is wishy-washy westerner translation – there are plenty of texts where wrathful is clearly aggressive harmful and destructive towards “obstacle makers” or “enemies of the dharma (lets call that the truth here)”. So yeah – how to follow your vajrayana vows as taught depends on your own ability to decide for yourself and use your own confidence and judgement.
        On ego – well it was often said “Tibetans always love themselves, its not even a question that you don’t”. Later HHDL said he had come to a better understanding of modern psychology and this notion that Tibetans are just different is mistaken. So to love yourself means to do what is best for yourself, to want yourself to be happy and it’s clearly just fine if it’s an absolute necessity for Tibetans. So destroying self love, self confidence is a technique called “Trauma bonding” of masters and servants, abusers and the abused. Humans cordon off traumatic memories and abusers gaslight them that they are ill but being helped, encourage the rewriting of history. So clearly this is another case of per individual what harm became of them. As a musician I already had this idea that the ego made it hard to learn, it got in the way of hearing properly or being honest with oneself. You had to humble yourself – to deflate ego – and do the work. So I was quite vulnerable to be “made use of” and I already felt that offering service was good for a person. Vajrayana situations have been perhaps too quick to adapt this idea of service and karma yoga – to get all the benefits that Hindu godmen get for building communities of people abundantly offering service. The texts speak far more of very small sets of students really working hard on retreat and not spending a whole lot of time with teachers unless they were very close and attending that teacher.
        So who is “removing this and that” its often the teachers of Vajrayana – abridging out their own commitments and tradtions to have a great “vision” of their utopian society plans which always gravitate into cult abuses of the great powers and responsibility they are loaded with by students who need to feel they have the great and all-powerful oz as their teacher. When all they have is a shady little carnival man behind the curtains.

        So – you really have a wealth of practices and ideas about reality to explore in Vajrayana and you are going to have to be a very strong personality not to get steamrolled. It doesn’t appear to be the right religion for people to be devotees – it is for the highest level of student by its own description. Using the poison and transmuting it or having such an unassimilably high view that you are untouchable by most of reality.

  2. My immediate take, on reading the first para, (thanks for the fresh post btw thalia) is that DKR is saying, or suggesting, “don’t follow me unless you eschew the critiques of me by these people”.

    I commented under one of DKR’s pro-Russian fb posts, wondering why he doesn’t express compassion for the Ukrainians – they are suffering indescribably but did not bring this war on themselves. In return i’ve been roundly chided by one Singye Dzong for my arrogant, pro-western pov. He goes on & on about the arrogance of questioning DKR. A mature practitioner wouldn’t need to attack me personally, they could just critique my arguments.

    1. Exactly. How can anyone follow a teacher who sides with the agressor in such a conflict? The agressor being the one who can stop the suffering. It makes no sense and when that teacher teaches Buddhism, of which the core value is ‘do no harm’ I can’t see how that teacher can claim to be a Buddhist. These days I think that TB is not actually Buddhism. They teach some Buddhism, but at their core, they do not follow the basic tenats. The teachers do not treat others as equals – as if they also have Buddha Nature.

  3. Very good write-up Tahlia, after all those years you are really going to the bottom of the problem.

    Lately my latest thought was that any religion is organized in a way to prove that the religious clergy is superior to others. That’s where their religious status in the society comes from. I wonder whether any religion exists without this hierarchical structure.

    In a spiritual endeavor. I can see only humility as a basis. Honestly when you are guided by integrity, how not to be humbled by your own condition? So I don’t see spiritual persons fitting well in religious settings.

    About DJKR, his true talent is to be a great manipulator. Too bad for the weak minds who follow him. Of course, they should be warned. To have a religious title or come from a famous religious family is not a condition sufficient to be trustworthy.

    It’s not clear to me whether the methods and problems you mention are not more specific to the Nyingma school. All their well-known inherent mess has been going on for centuries in Tibet.

    1. I refer to the Nyingmas specifically sometimes because I don’t have much experience with the other schools, but I think the fundamental idea of ‘your guru must be seen as perfect, therefore everything he does is good’ is in all schools. It seems to be up to the individual master as to whether they abuse the power that gives them or not.

      1. Ok, but it seems that the method of “crushing” the ego and living closely to the master is specific to the Nyingmas.

        Also it is well known that “seeing the guru as perfect” doesn’t apply to worldly matters for obvious reasons. But curiously some Nyingmas seem to insist on that aspect: they believe that everything their guru does is perfect. Pretty foolish attitude that can lead only to disaster from my perspective. They don’t understand the essence of the practice and their master neither.

        I find those methods built on power and control rather counterproductive. Quite the opposite of Dzogchen. Does a authentic Dzogchen Master would try to control his disciples? Of course not, quite the opposite.

        1. I totally agree. Certainly adherence to beliefs and concepts is completely at odds with the dzogchen teachings, which are all about letting go of all concepts. The ‘idea’ that a guru is perfect in a worldly way regardless of his or her behaviour is just an ‘idea’ and an erroneous one at that.

  4. Thanks Tahlia. For my taste somwhat long winded. But your analysis is 100% valid and very useful. As a commentator in the same arena I appreciate how much deep reflection went into your exegesis.
    I offer just one opinion. From long term observation of DKR I think he’s a con man. He’s a great showman but anyone who takes him seriously as a lama is delusional. In the same vein as Donald Trump, Boris Johnson and Scott Morrison. Two down one to go.

  5. Hi Tahlia

    Such a relief to read this. I was in Rigpa for 10 years, I became heavily involved and had devoted a lot of my life to it and was working as an instructor for the last few years. I left the group when the article about Mimi came out, I was sickened by the fact that in the meetings where we were told how to deal with people asking us about the abuse, that we were just taught methods of damage control, but no one would answer my questions about whether what she said was true, and I felt that if I continued I would be complicit in abuse and in the misuse of the teachings.

    I left because I loved the teachings, practises and ideals of the Buddhist path, and I was starting to become guarded listening to teachings by SR because of the manipulation he was using (i.e. we would go to Vajra hell if I spoke out against him).
    It severely undermined my faith in the teachings and practise, that everyone could be so blind to his behaviour and their own cover ups. I thought, ‘how can any of these people really have any realization if they can keep justifying cruelty and abuse, as well as shame those that have been abused that they don’t understand the blessing of the Vajrayana teachings.

    I am so glad that there are teachers such as the Dalai Lama, Thich Nhat Hahn and Mingyur Rinpoche, so I was able to keep hold of a slim thread of faith, that there are genuine beings out there who fully represent the truth of Dharma and have integrity and pure hearts.

    Recently I read the vision for going forward on the Rigpa site and I was so relieved, I thought that there was genuinely insight now and accountability, but then I saw that DKR was now their spiritual advisor and was overseeing the education of future teachings. I know he is another one who wants to live the Western rock star lifestyle as well as be a spiritual teacher so I decided to do a search and found what he had written here.

    It was so disappointing, that is the same fundamental logic and thinking as SR so nothing has changed. It will just means that all those running Rigpa still believe that there was no abuse, however there is a very shiny, politically correct, PR front which has developed this vision board. Which is the same as what was happening when I was involved. So it has just become more hidden, the select few can now sign up for the Vajrayana teachings, once they have proved that they have true understanding.

    But to me this still feels like a betrayal of the teachings, as in their hearts those in Rigpa still look down on those who stood up and spoke out against SR as being ignorant and lost in their own patterns, there is a spiritual elitism which is poisonous at the core no matter what kind of shiny front they put on it for all the newer people getting involved. So what they believe is those with true understanding and insight will understand that a Vajrayana master can never abuse a student, and the rest of us have fallen prey to our egos.

    Thank you for writing about this still, I had been considering going back to Rigpa and I had recommended a couple of people to go on retreat at a local centre, which I will not be doing again as the ethics, transparency, authenticity and integrity are still missing. Their whole organisation is based on a deceit which goes against the whole Buddhist path. It is my love of the Buddhist teachings that makes this so upsetting as they are such a well organised group and so influential in the West, they could do so much good. Instead it is like the story of the 3 pots, Dharma from Rigpa is like the pot with poison mixed in.

    1. Well said. You’re spot on and speak for many of us. I usually suggest people go to Mingyur Rinpoche because he has really good online courses, and MR is very aware of the issue and has said that his answer to the problem is to make sure that his group is a good example of what a healthy group can be. I did a course online with them and spoke a lot to their (very approachable) main students and the difference between them and the Rigpa crew was like chalk and cheese.

      1. That’s the trouble with Rigpa at any level. Those with the most power in the community, Patrick Gaffney for instance, and others in the controlling body, still believe that Sogyal was enlightened and the abuse was a teaching (see my last post). That attitude, which will be in those who run centres, will creep into the teachings at all levels and taint them. How could it not? Certainly when someone gets to the vajrayana stage. They won’t give you vajrayana teachings unless you accept DZK’s view that you can’t, after taking a tantric teacher, see anything that teacher does as abuse. I mean, seriously. That is so fucked up, and yet that will be what they consider ‘properly prepared.’

        If you ask if they agree that Sogyal abused people, they’ll say something like, ‘For those who don’t understand vajrayana, I agree that it looks like abuse.’ Or ‘I agree that some students “felt” abused.’ Or ‘From a worldly perspective, yes.’ So they qualify any statement that agrees that he abused people with something that makes their statement refer only to a non-vajrayana student-teacher relationship.

        Then you have to ask something like, ‘And what about at the vajrayana level? For a properly prepared vajrayana student, do you agree that their teacher’s behaviour, if like Sogyals, would be abuse?’

        Or you could ask if they agree with DJK’s statement that ‘once you have completely and soberly surrendered, you may not interpret certain manifestations and activities of the guru as the abuse of power. If you want to be fully enlightened, you can’t worry about abuse.’ Because that’s the rub of it. That’s the twisted shit right there. And no one in their right mind should take on such a relationship.

        They’ll either qualifiy it by talking about the ‘special tantric relationsip’ or coat their answer in something that makes it sound like they don’t agree (especially if talking to beginner students) or they’ll outright lie because their core objective to keep the money rolling in.

        The very fact that you don’t feel that you can raise this issue, and that the teacher/instructor is defensive about Sogyal shows the cult mentality at play here. I think you should ask those questions in front of as many people as possible, and then abandon the group because they are distorting the teachings, all why thinking that only they (and DJK and their other spiritual advisors) have the only ‘true’ understanding (another cult view) – despite many scholars from other schools making their faulty thinking clear. See the second section in my book ‘Fallout’. It talks about how distorted their understanding of the core concepts of vajrayana must be in order for them to have accepted and enabled the abuse.

        Honestly, their perception is so incredibly twisted, I don’t think they should be teaching Buddhism at any level.

        You can join Tergar, Mingyur Rinpoche’s group online, and if there are enough people in your area who go to Rigpa because they want face to face meetings, you can, with Tergar instructor’s help, create a Tergar study group for them. They support the creation of such groups, and they are very helpful for ex-Rigpa students.

        I don’t think you’ll be doing a diservice to others who may leave if you raise this issue, you’ll be doing them a service, because it’s not the Buddhist teachings that are fault, it’s Rigpa. And if you offer a Tergar study group, then they’ll have a far healthier option for learning about Buddhism.

        I mean, do you want to participate in a group where the teachers can’t recognise harm when they see it? When they qualify it as ‘not harm’ under certain circumstances? I don’t think it’s healthy. Even their code of conduct has a major flaw in that – if you read the accompaning document – they have a separate, special section for vajrayana student-teacher relationships. One which has no protection at all – though they’ll try to tell you that the basic one still applies, that’s not what the words say.

        Anyway. Rant over. But one thing is for sure, supporting them by attending the centre is supporting them as an organisation and contributing to the likelihood that someone will get snared into the ‘vajrayana is for students with superior faculties’ net and that whole twisted way of thinking. Vajrayana doesn’t have to be like that. Join Tergar.

        1. Right I understand. And yes, I know exactly what you’re talking about, how you feel. And the Rigpa party line that you described is so spot on and so sickening. It’s a way of dismissing people and denegragting them at the same time.

  6. Thank you Thalia for your intervention about DKR “Druthab Kuntu” anouncement.

    I find pathetic this kind of “patronage” and quite short the presentation of the commitments involved in the classic transmision of such a huge, deep and vast collection of teatchings collected by Loter Wangpo and Khyentse Wangpo!

    As he is a fan of Trungpa and an old Sogyal’s friend, he will not surprise me anyway.
    He “certainly” is a lieneage holder of these Teatchings, but is this enough???
    Tashi deleks! anyway 😉

  7. Jacqueline I am glad that Behind the Thangkas was a game changer for you. There was many years of research behind the published version. As an investigative journalist I delayed publication until I had all the anecdotal evidence at least double sourced. Have you read Sex and Violence in Tibetan Buddhism by me and Rob Hogendoorn? There’s a revised and updated edition now. Your description of the toxic Rigpa culture resonates with similar insights across a broad spectrum of former Rigpies. And with commentators like Tahlia, Mick Brown, Rob Hogendoorn and myself. The evidence is overwhelming. What pisses me off big time is that the primary enablers, who knew for decades exactly what was going on, are now in the most powerful positions within Rigpa. I speak of Patrick Gaffney, Dominique Side, Seth Dye and Mauro de March. They are complicit in a culture of rape and violence. They should be in prison.

    1. Hi Mary, thanks so much for replying to my comment. I am grateful that you wrote the article Behind the Thangkas. I had always been aware of the ‘Dakinis’ around Sogyal, but I thought to myself ‘well if they are happy with the situation, who am I to judge’. Mimi’s report showed the truth of the matter and I admire her bravery in stepping forward even though she knew she would be met with people trying to discredit her and denigrate her.

      I will definitely check out your book, it is good to look at something from as many perspectives as possible. Tahlias writings have been so valuable to me as she is a former student of Rigpa, and understands the nuances of loving the Buddhist teachings and practises, while at the same time being disgusted by Sogyal’s abuses and how he used the teachings to try to manipulate and control people. She has put a lot of things into words that I felt at the time, but never fully clarified myself, she has unpicked all the different threads.

      I do know some people who work for Rigpa who are geniune and kind people, but I agree, those at the top are complicit in the cover up of abuse and the continuation of the kind of thinking that caused the abuse in the first place.

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