The Benefit of Criticism

In Tibetan Buddhism there is a reason for the instruction not to criticise one’s teacher. The idea is that students avoid the kind of constant petty criticism that prevents them seeing beyond their judgemental mind. It is supposed to be a way to help them see with their wisdom mind (see purely), but when it’s taught and understood as a blanket injunction without a real understanding of the point of the instruction, it becomes restrictive rather than enlightening. Compare “You must never criticise” to a more complete instruction:  “Do not view your teacher with your confused judgemental mind, but with your wisdom mind, remembering the five wisdoms of the nature of our mind of which the wisdom of discernment is one.”
The fact that our wisdom mind can discern/distinguish/determine/recognise the difference between what is appropriate and what is not in any situation was completely ignored in instructions on this point in Rigpa, so no criticism was allowed at all, and when someone did make a complaint it was ignored. The result was not just the proliferation of abuse but also that the organisation stagnated, and Tibetan Buddhism is facing the same problem. If an institution doesn’t listen to criticism, it can’t grow, adapt and improve, and it certainly can’t stop bad practices from developing and continuing unabated.

Constructive criticism

All criticism may seem negative, but actually it is only negative when it is destructive, when it comes from a desire to destroy or denigrate. When it comes from the desire to improve something rather than destroy it, it is constructive criticism, and constructive criticism can be of great benefit. That’s the whole idea of it.
My aim in writing critical posts on this blog is to show Rigpa and Tibetan Buddhism where their faults lie so they know what needs to be dealt with if they are to be a truly healthy organisation and religion. Because the motivation behind my writing is to be of benefit, I see it as constructive criticism. It would be helpful for everyone if it could be taken in that spirit.
The changes I have suggested in recent posts are not of the religion itself but of how it’s taught, understood and applied in the modern world, and surely that’s the central issue facing the religion today. I make my criticisms from a place of deep respect, and my main point on the adaptation of Tibetan Buddhism to modern times is that effective change demands deep reflection on the absolute meaning of the teachings, for only from that vantage point can change be made that does not destroy the transformative power. It is not time for clinging to beliefs, but for examining the true nature of reality and how the vajrayana actually works with that nature to bring about spiritual development.

Feudalism and the fall of monarchies

All that needs to be pared away is the Tibetan cultural baggage that will do more to destroy the religion than it will to protect it, and His Holiness has identified the one concept that covers everything that needs to be examined and discarded—feudalism. The question becomes, what in the religion establishes and maintains the lama’s power (the king) rather than benefiting the student (subjects, attendants and slaves). The Western world saw how easily, given absolute rule with no right to criticise or disobey, a king or queen could abuse his or her power, and now we see the same in Tibetan Buddhism.
Too often people suffered because of unscrupulous monarchs, and out of compassion for the people we made changes. Countries that didn’t moderate the power of their monarchies, lost them completely in bloody revolutions. It’s quite simple really—change or die. Not death by revolution but by relegation in society’s view to the category of superstitious fundamentalism, at best, or, at worst, a cult in the word’s negative sense as a group harmful to its members and even to society. It’s not my place to make the changes, but I can point out that they must be made and why. That’s all I’m doing here. It’s up to the lamas and scholars to work out the details, assuming that they want the religion to be relevant in the modern world.

The man who dared to publically criticise the Queen

John Grigg, also known as Lord Altrincham, was a British writer and politician who will go down in history as the man who called Queen Elizabeth II a “priggish schoolgirl”. In an August 1957 article in his newspaper, he attacked the Queen’s style of speaking as a “pain in the neck” and blamed those around her for the content of her speeches. According to the article, the Queen’s court was too upper-class and British – it no longer reflected 20th century society and it damaged the monarchy.
The article caused a furore and was attacked by the majority of the press. The Duke of Argyll said that he should be hanged, drawn and quartered. Despite being a liberal Tory, he was denounced as a crypto-republican and a subversive revolutionary.
But ordinary people, who had found her speeches dismissive of them and their lives, supported Altrincham’s remarks, especially after he told a TV interviewer that he hadn’t meant to hurt the feelings of the royal family. In fact, he was a strong believer in constitutional monarchy and never saw his criticisms as disloyal; they were designed to help by indicating that changes needed to be made. Many years later in a Channel 4 documentary, he looked back on the incident, and said how by the 1950s the idea had crept in “that you couldn’t say a word against the royal family, let alone the Queen.”
Sound familiar?
The hopeful thing about this story in terms of the criticisms posted on this blog is that changes did take place following Lord Altrincham’s article.  In the biography Monarch: The Life and Reign of Elizabeth II, author Robert Lacey said, “Inside the palace, some people realized there was truth in what Altrincham said. Within two days of the furore, the outspoken peer had been contacted through a mutual friend to arrange a private meeting with Martin Charteris, the queen’s assistant private secretary. Thirty years later, in the course of a political meeting at Eton, Charteris told Altrincham, “You did great service to the monarchy and I’m glad to say so publicly.”

From a basis of respect

Just as Altrincham was a monarchist who aimed for his criticism to help the monarchy be more relevant, so, too, my criticism is only aimed at ‘cleaning up’ Rigpa and helping Tibetan Buddhism become more relevant in the modern age. My articles here have only ever been in response to events that demanded some comment. I have written them not from some personal agenda but simply as a service to those without a voice and in the hope that our views will be heard and examined with an open mind by those able to make the necessary changes for a positive outcome for both Rigpa and Tibetan Buddhism.

When criticism is too much

Of course, even criticism meant to be constructive can become too much for the recipient if it comes all at once, especially if they can do nothing to fix the issues for which they are being criticised. The result of too great an onslaught of criticism can be that the recipient refuses to listen or if they are listening but cannot do anything to solve the problems, they cease doing that for which they are being criticised.
Rigpa management appears to not be listening, and I am ceasing this blog.

Signing off

I have been criticised for being too critical, for not being critical enough, for moderating too strictly and for not moderating enough. It is impossible for me to satisfy everyone, and I simply do not have time to read all the comments, let alone reply to them. Writing the posts is a huge time commitment, and I actually need to put that time into earning a living. I have had a great deal of support, but I have also been personally attacked and misrepresented. Frankly the viciousness of some people (on both ‘sides’) has become tedious, and since Rigpa is not listening, I am wasting my time.
So I will no longer be writing articles for or running this blog, and though someone may post information on any major developments as they come to hand, I’ve pretty much said what needs to be said, and I’m not interested in sounding like a broken record—so if you’re new to this blog please look back over the archives. The last two articles made it quite clear where the changes in Tibetan Buddhism need to be made. Now it’s up to others to get on and do it—for the benefit of beings and the future of Vajrayana Buddhism in the West.
Thank you to those who have supported and encouraged me these last seven months. May all who have been harmed be healed.
Post by Tahlia Newland, editor and author
PS. I plan to continue to write reflections on the spiritual path on my Patreon blog and also on Medium. But these will not be on the topic of abuse in Rigpa.

Current and previous students of Rigpa wanting private support are welcome to join the What Now? Facebook group. Please contact us via the contact page and ask for an invite.
Ex-Rigpa students and their dharma friends who want to move on from the discussion of abuse in Rigpa can stay in touch through the Dharma Companions Facebook Group.  
The What Now? Reference Material page has links to a wealth of articles in the topics related to abuse in Buddhist communities. For links to places to assist in healing from abuse see the sangha care resources page.

Khenchen Namdrol's Comments Raise Questions on Rigpa Management's Committment to Change

Khenchen Namdrol speaks at Lerab Ling and takes a dogmatic view that supports existing power structures.

A video of Khenchen Namdrol Rinpoche speaking at the end of his recent teachings in Lerab Ling was uploaded to You Tube on the 23rd of September on an account with no other teachings on it and no name or information about the owner of the account.
In the video he talks about the students who wrote the letter that broke the silence on abuse in Rigpa and gives a narrow view of the instructions on not criticising the teacher – one that is not in accord with His Holiness the Dalai Lama’s advice or the perspective of Mingyur Rinpoche, Matthieu Ricard, Erik Pema Kusang, Venerable Thubten Choden, Dr Alexander Birzin, Rob Preece, Khenchen Palden Sherab Rinpoche, and Jack Kornfield to name a few. (Links to their articles can be found on the Reference Material page)
He does not address the abuse at all, just condemns the letter writers. It’s victim blaming couched in religious terms, the sort of thing one would expect in any fundamentalist religion where those in power have their power base threatened. Make them the bad guys, not the ‘perfect’ guy at the helm.
This indicates to me how ingrained the problem in Tibetan Buddhism is. For all their supposed wisdom, there appears to be, in some of the lamas, a selective blindness or inability to adapt. This viewpoint is what you get if you look for answers/advice in teachings that don’t deal with this situation directly, so he takes the nearest applicable teaching, the ‘you must not criticise your teacher and if you do you’ll go to hell’ line, but it’s the very instruction that allows abusive behaviour in Tibetan Buddhist communities to flourish. And it’s a view that keeps the lamas firmly in their place at the top of their fuedal power structure.

Lack of compassion

What is really striking here is the lack of compassion by this Khenpo and his audience, who cheer enthusiastically at the end. What are they practicing here? Vajrayana Buddhism is based on Great Compassion and Wisdom, yet neither of those are evident in these comments.

Buddhism is not theistic

KN says that demonic forces are at play, even insinuating that they have taken over the students who spoke out about SR’s behaviour, and then he threatens them with hell. Worse, he speaks of hell and demonic forces as if they are intrinsically real and solid. This makes it easy for some to see it as laughable superstition, but students without an understanding of emptiness may take this view at face value, but such a view is not Buddhism.
The wisdom aspect, emptiness, teaches that nothing is real and solid. The same way as in the visualistion practice, the deities that are visualised are not ‘gods’, they are not intrinsically real. The way he speaks here is as if he believes these demonic forces truly exists and have to be fought and overcome. But are these demonic forces not our own obscurations and obstacles, and are they not supposed to be brought onto the path and seen as not truly existing?
And if they exist, and if the people who signed the letter are in the wrong, as per his point of view, and if they have been overtaken by demonic forces, do they not deserve compassion? True compassion! Not this accusatory way of speaking and solidifying the negativity that has already been directed at them. This is literal demonising!

A damaging statement that solidifies the schism & alienates students

Conveniently neglecting to consider that the cause is the abusive behaviour, not those who spoke up about it, he mentions the schism in the sangha, but he has unwittingly made the situation worse by solidifying some of the ideas that caused the schism in the first place. Hearing this, and particularly if they take it as Rigpa management’s view, may turn some students away, not just from Rigpa but from Tibetan Buddhism entirely.
He (and other Lamas with this view) may be able to teach dharma but it appears that he has little understanding of general Western sensibilities and clearly has no understanding of the dynamics of abuse and of how harmful victim blaming is, not just to those who have been harmed but also to healing the whole situation from all angles.
All his opinion does is reaffirm the power structures in the religion to the detriment of students with genuine grievences.  This is the sort of thing we have to call the Tibetan Lamas out on, but since the kind of reform required will need the lamas to give up a large portion of their power, that level of change will not happen easily – and unfortunately, this statment makes it clear that it will not happen at all in some lama’s communities.
Which brings us to the topic of change.

Does this narrow view reflect Rigpa management’s stance?

This video came from a restricted retreat, so who put this opinion on You Tube where already over 1000 people have viewed it? Since as a restricted teaching only a few people at the core of the organisation would have access to this video, are we to presume that it is an official or unofficial statement? If so, how can we have any trust that Rigpa will make the wide sweeping changes needed to make it and Tibetan Buddhism a relevant vehicle for Buddhism the West? Or is this an indication that Rigpa and Tibetan Buddhism will become merely another religion full of superstision and dogma. If so, what a shame. What a wasted opportunity.
The statement was made on a Rigpa stage during a Rigpa event, but Rigpa management didn’t offer a statement clarifying that it was KN’s opinion that, as an opinion, does not necessarily reflect the view of management. That neglect implies that this is a Rigpa position, and since this has been their position in the past, it would not be a surprise to learn this, only a grave disappointment.
The link was posted on an official Rigpa Facebook group (The All Encompassing Path) but when asked if it was an official Rigpa position, the link was removed. This is a very good sign, but a statement in response to the video being posted is needed to reassure people who are seeking real change, not window dressing.

Can Rigpa management step up and show good faith?

Clearly someone in the upper management takes this stance, or they wouldn’t have ‘leaked’ the video, and such a stance calls into question just how committed they are to the promises they made in their press release on the Lerab Ling Website in which they say: 

“The governing boards and management teams of Rigpa, having sought professional and spiritual advice, will assure that the following steps are taken:

  1. Set up an independent investigation by a neutral third party into the various allegations that have been made.
  2. Launch an international consultation process to establish both a code of conduct and a grievance process for Rigpa.
  3. Establish a new spiritual advisory group to guide the Rigpa organization.”
In order for these changes to be more than an elaborate smoke screen, Rigpa needs to change at the level of how they interpret such instructions as ‘do not criticise your teacher.’ If they are in accord with KN’s statement, then any findings by the investigation are unlikely to bring any real resolution and the code of conduct will not be grounded in real change. And if the new spiritual advisory body is full of lamas with KN’s view, then anyone committed to retaining their wisdom of discernment or cutting Tibetan superstition from the religion might as well leave Rigpa now.


Does Rigpa want to be associated with religious extremism?

The kind of view where those who speak up are threatened with hell is religious extremism, tantamount to taking the bible as literal truth; is this what Rigpa wants to be known for? If not, then Rigpa management needs to step up and deny any relationship with his statement in order to show good faith and establish themselves as genuinely interested in change.
If you want to see the clip, it’s HERE. Watch from 17:10 for the most relevant part.
The instruction to never criticise the teacher in any circumstances in fear of going to hell as stated by Khenchen Namdrol is simply not a healthy angle to take in 2017 in the West when several Tibetan lamas have proved they can’t be trusted. If our teachers were trustworthy this wouldn’t be an issue.
However, if we take the viewpoint of His Holiness the Dalai Lama, Mingyur Rinpoche, Matthieu Ricard, Erik Pema Kusang, Venerable Thubten Choden, Dr Alexander Birzin, Rob Preece, Khenchen Palden Sherab Rinpoche, and Jack Kornfield to name a few,  students would not feel that they must put up with abusive behaviour from lamas in the future.
Rigpa has a choice, and every student that makes up the community has to make this choice, but Rigpa management can lead the way and choose the view that will further the place of Tibetan Buddhism in the West, not diminish it.
So Rigpa management, if any of you read this, will you assure us that you are committed to deep change by distancing yourself from Khenchen Namdrol’s comments? 
Please remember in your comments that the aim of this blog is to bring about change, not destroy Rigpa or Tibetan Buddhism, and that we honor His Holiness the Dalia Lama as one of our guides.

Be sure to check out the What Now? Reference Material page for links to a wealth of articles in the topics related to abuse in Buddhist communities. For links to places to assist in healing from abuse see the sangha care resources page.
More personal and private support for current and previous students of Rigpa can be found in the What Now? Facebook group. Please contact us via the contact page and ask for an invite. Please use the email address you use on Facebook.