Looking for a Tibetan Buddhist Teacher? Or Been Mistreated by one? Here’s some good advice.

This video is an interview with Karma Yeshe Rabgye (a Western monk in the Tibetan Buddhist tradition) in which he gives good advice for students of Tibetan Buddhism looking for a teacher and particularly for those being abused by their lama. He is, of course, talking from a Western perspective, and we’ve hit the wall of cultural differences here when trying to get lamas to make public stances against misconduct, so I don’t think he’ll get far with his call for lamas to speak out. But his advice for Western students is basically: you’re a Westerner, you know it’s wrong, so don’t be bound by the fear tactics (samaya) of a feudal culture that has no relevance to you as a modern Western person, and report all incidences of criminal behaviour to the police. Lamas in the West must abide by Western law and should be given no special treatment just because they and you think they’re someone special.

I agree with his point that Tibetan Buddhism in its feudal form will continue on the fringes, but it likely will eventually die out in the West because the feudal aspects (in which he includes the tulku system) are simply not relevant to the modern world. The Tibetan Buddhism that will survive is where the lamas adapt to the modern world and needs of their Western students. Adapt or die is the way of the world, after all.

Finding a teacher

Many of the readers here are so disgusted by the behaviour of Tibetan lamas that they don’t want anything to do with the religion anymore, but others understand that despite the religious limitations, Tibetan Buddhism does have a lot to offer those seeking to understand their mind and learn effective ways of operating in the world. The question then is how do you find a teacher that won’t abuse you.

As well as checking them out thoroughly, particularly noticing whether or not they practice what they preach and whether they have a secret inner circle (particularly if it’s all young women), Karma Yeshe talks about looking at how we are as students, and asking ourselves, what do we want from the relationship and how do we see the teacher. If we see him or her as a saviour who will tell us what to do, as a daddy figure or a god, then we’re opening ourselves up to abuse.

This echoes the approach I take in my book Fallout: Recovering from Abuse in Tibetan Buddhism where I suggest that we can’t change the teachers but we can change the way we relate to them. ‘We must forge a new way of relating to our spiritual teachers’, a healthier relationship than the teachings proscribe, one where we do not fall into blind devotion.

Such a relationship, however, can only be achieved by someone who does not have codependent tendencies, someone who has clear boundaries and good self-esteem, but those who seek gurus may be weak in these areas. If you don’t think you can manage not to fall into a submissive, codependent relationship with a guru, I suggest you do some solid work with a psychotherapist before seeking a guru.

From Ch 48 of Fallout: Recovering from Abuse in Tibetan Buddhism

The other important point Karma Yeshe makes is that we should have many teachers. We can learn different things from different teachers. The idea that we should have one teacher for life should be discarded as it’s limiting at best and dangerous at worst. We must retain control of our spiritual path.

The only way out of this mess, I think, is for students to vow to never compromise their personal integrity, to take responsibility for their own spiritual path rather than handing control over to another, and to keep their critical thinking faculties engaged at all levels of the path rather than blindly accepting every pronouncement by a lama as wisdom. To give any of that up in the name of devotion is neither wise nor in line with what the Buddha taught.

From Ch 48 of Fallout: Recovering from Abuse in Tibetan Buddhism

And what if you’ve been abused?

Speaking up is Karma Yeshe’s advice, but we all know that’s not easy. Certainly it’s important to step outside of the TB conditioning so that you’re not afraid to make a police report, but stepping outside of a belief system into which you’ve been indoctrinated is really hard. It takes time. I think I’ll write a whole post on this after some more thought, but the first step is to follow any grievance procedure that is in place in your sangha, and to record all communications.

If no such procedure exists then email whoever is in charge with a formal complaint. You can google how to make a formal complaint. Also keep a record of when the email was sent, and send a copy to a another person for them to also keep a record of. Again, keep a record of all communications on the matter. Copy and paste them into a Word document.

And lodge a complaint with the police as soon as you realise you’ve been abused in some way. That doesn’t mean that you’ll be taking legal action, it just means the police will have a record of it. We have to get over this idea that good Buddhist don’t involve the police. If a crime has been committed, we need to report it. We don’t need to sue, but we do need to make a report. This is vital for any investigation, particularly if someone else comes forward with a similar experience.

Going public

If you get no satisfaction from a grievance procedure or from lodging a formal complaint, then you may wish to warn others by going public. That will have repercussions that will be hard to handle – such as vilification from sangha members (and I’ll go into them in more detail another post) – and if you decide that’s the way you want to go, the question is how best to do it. Clearly getting others together so there is more than one voice speaking out is the best option, but it’s not always possible to do that even if you know the same thing is happening to others.

If you’re a lone voice, it’s hard. Journalists can’t publish someone’s story unless it’s verified by at least one other person, and they have good reason to believe that the allegations have some basis in fact. Someone not publishing your story doesn’t mean they don’t believe you, it just means they need more information. It’s about responsible journalism. My policy here is not to be the original source for someone’s public statement of their experience of abuse.

Facebook rants don’t work. Share in a closed group, by all means, but if you want to make a clear statement, I don’t advise Facebook because it’s too easy for people to abuse you and even get your account shut down. Utube videos do work, but I suggest that you don’t allow comments unless you’re either going to ignore them all, or are prepared for abuse from the true believers.

Tell your story to the camera and make sure you begin by saying that this is your lived experience, your story, that this is what happened to you. To be even safer, do not directly accuse the perpetrator of a crime. You can say, he sexually abused me in these ways, but don’t say, ‘He’s a sexual abuser or a sexual pervert.’ That’s slander.

If there’s only you and you don’t want to do a video, I suggest making your own statement on your own webpage (they’re free through WordPress.com). Then you can share the link to it wherever you want, and blogs like this can link to it as an allegation.

Most important is to look after yourself. I suggest reading my book and seeing a counsellor.

If you’ve been in a cult, or have been a victim of spiritual abuse and institutional betrayal, reading Fallout could literally be even better than going to a psychologist, because it will go straight to the point, it will take you step by step through a process of recognizing what you’ve been through, in order to deal with it.

Dr J Perez   Goodreads Review

What do you think of what Karma Yeshe Rabgye says in the podcast? And do you have any advice for those who have been abused and are wondering what to do that I can include in a comprehensive post on the topic?

Image by Jan Alexander from Pixabay

7 Replies to “Looking for a Tibetan Buddhist Teacher? Or Been Mistreated by one? Here’s some good advice.”

  1. The misuse of tulku system has happened also in the past and is connected to individuals, not east and west dichotomy. Here is what Kenpo Jigme Phuntsok, the founder of Sertar monastic community, had to say: “There Are Many Types of Tulkus Nowadays, sometimes ordinary people become great tulkus overnight. How can this be? Please ask these people, “Are you truly the reincarnation of an eminent monk or master?” If they are, then it is perfectly understandable that they are recognized as tulkus. If, however, they clearly know that they are not but continue to deceive living beings sanctimoniously, then they have definitely broken the precept against major lies. In ancient India, for example, until practitioners had attained the realization of an arhat, they were not permitted to sit on a yellow floral cushion.These days, we frequently hear that this or that person is a tulku. The truth is, there are genuine ones and fake ones among these tulkus. People acknowledge fake tulkus either because they hope to exploit the connection for their family and friends or to gain social status. Even some monasteries recognize tulkus just to pursue fame, fortune, and the rest of the eight worldly dharmas. These so-called tulkus have little practice experience, but after their title is bestowed, they become self-righteous and do not behave like practitioners at all. In contrast, some khenpos clearly are reincarnations of tulkus, but they never admit it. Adopting a low profile in this way is very good. In fact, tulkus are divided into several types: 1. Before dying, sometimes eminent monks and masters give blessings to their future rebirth. Through prophecies or dream omens, they bless someone who is not actually their reincarnation to be their nominal tulku. But this is not a tulku in the true sense. 2. Some people are not tulkus, but to benefit beings or for other hidden purposes, they are recognized as tulkus through certain methods. 3. There are also some tulkus who adopted it as the path during the bardo. 4. Some tulkus are under the influence of Mara. For instance, a demon who killed a teacher in a former life takes the form of the teacher, then directly changes into someone, or blesses someone and says, “This is the reincarnated tulku of our teacher.” In short, it is best that someone who is not a tulku does not masquerade as one. If you are truly virtuous, no one will belittle you. But if you believe that by just mimicking well you can really become a tulku, that is taking it too far! I Am Not a Tulku Many worldly people today like to pay respect to tulkus. While this activity has its merit, I hope that before you follow a tulku, you will carefully assess this tulku from several aspects. Do not readily believe whatever talk you have heard. People say that I am the reincarnation of Tulku Lerab Lingpa. But I have never—not in the light of day or even in dreams—thought myself that I am this accomplished master. There are plenty of people who are as inferior as I am, some even more pathetic. In reality, what purpose is there for one to receive an undeserved title of Tulku? I hope some of you will reflect on this carefully. In the past, many masters were honored as tulkus, but they did not then become pleased with themselves. They just quietly protected their virtue and merit. Other masters did not wish for the title of Tulku, but their teaching to benefit beings flourished unimpededly. There are people today, however, who believe themselves to be “tulkus” and smugly bask in others’ praise. They go as far as drinking and smoking all day, craving women frequently, and satisfying their greed with the funds they obtain. To witness this abominable image of worldly defilement truly inspires pity. Some immoral characters shamelessly boast of being tulkus in order to win respect and obtain offerings. They say to others, “Tulkus are the most noble! A tulku’s status in Tibetan Buddhism is the highest!” Many people end up being taken in by these claims and believe that they can follow anyone who is a “tulku,” even if this so-called tulku has not the slightest virtue. But when these people meet a teacher without a tulku title—no matter how sublime the teacher’s virtue or how vast the teacher’s knowledge, and even if all the Dharma characteristics of a spiritual guide are present—they cannot feel a drop of respect for this teacher. This phenomenon is rather common in the Han regions and has now become a complex issue. Some fake tulkus have indeed inflicted deep and lasting harm on Tibetan Buddhism.”
    Khenpo Jigme Phuntsok

    1. You might be interested to know that Jigme Phuntsok totally pumped Sogyal Lakar as authentic as a Tulku. Was just as easily taken in by all his connections and had no idea (apparently) what this criminal lama Sogyal Lakar was up to. Sogyal Lakar went from supposedly humble translator to name-dropping political name-dropper and one day upgraded himself to Rinpoche out of desire/jealousy. He then set about building up his legend culminating in stories of his mystical past with his own teacher in his ghost written book. So you know Jigme Phuntsok wasn’t capable of seeing through the disguise or testing Sogyal before he forced students to accept him as an authentic Tulku of his own lineage. The same goes for other Nyingma high lamas who recognize and later say, oh but it doesn’t mean they’ll be any good. Once you get recognized people assume you are some prodigy who found their way through death to directed rebirth and will continue to have whatever wisdom is associated with past teachers or even more and it will come to them as a blessing transferance … it’s not just a few, it’s most of them. If some is wise then they should just be practically able to pass on advice that makes sense. Not retroactively take credit for random things they said as if they were psychic or genius insights if they luckily turned out to resonate or be in tune with reality while 95% of what they say is just reading something someone else passed in or just garbage that is mistaken or even dangerously misdleading. So frankly using quotes and saying “this guy said this” I don’t care for it or trust it. Jigme Phuntsok was an amazing leader but I don’t know if he was all that wise. He was a great educator but I don’t know if his lineage isn’t corrupt centuries before and I can’t waste more if my life trying to find out if con men are really some realized being or just “selling” themselves and living the high life.

      1. Absolutely. Me too, but there are some people who do still want to find a teacher in the Tibetan Buddhist tradition, so this was for them.

  2. The simple obvious basic mistake is to imagine that some people are better than other.

    Being able to sit on a yellow floral cushion as a sign of superiority? We are in the XXIst century, this whole story is completely ridiculous…

    When did Buddha Shakyamuni talked about one human being superior to another one or being able to sit in a higher position because of his spiritual achievements? In fact he adopted a completely egalitarian system and sat among his followers…

  3. For what it’s worth, my advice would be don’t ever be afraid to involve the police, but be aware that this will absolutely mark the end of your involvement with the abusing group, and you should be psychologically and emotionally prepared to make a clean and total break ( and not be afraid of demons, or cancer, or hellish mind-states or whatever other bogeys are wheeled out to frighten you. And definitely involve the police if you receive phone calls threatening you or your family. Finally, don’t ever bother with appealing to lineage higher-ups for help, especially if they belong to large institutions with reputations and revenue-streams to protect, and even if you think they don’t really know what’s going on in the centers being run in their name. It will be a dangerous waste of your time. That said, however, there are still excellent and trustworthy teachers out there, and they can still be found.

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