The following, written by Topden, appeared first as a comment on a Facebook post as a reply to someone who essentially said they were finding it hard to see anything positive about DZK’s talks because they had experienced abuse at the hands of two Tibetan Lamas who were operating under the same belief system as DZK was expounding.
I asked permission to post it here as an example of one way to view the teachings. Anyone with a different view is welcome to submit a guest post.
Sorry it’s so long.
Any kind of abuse, physical, emotional or psychological can be deeply damaging, and I truly wish healing to those who experience it as well as those who are the perpetrators, as the pain they inflict on others arises out of their own suffering and confusion. I also deeply wish that it doesn’t turn into an obstacle that cannot be worked with and transformed on the path for spiritual practitioners.
My experience of the talks is not any less influenced by my own pre-conceived notions or previous experiences, because naturally they are, and that is true for everyone. The interesting point simply is my experience is quite different. To out myself from the start, I do like DJK’s teaching style, approach and explanation of the Dharma and feel I have benefited (and been challenged) by him in that regard. Also I have no personal experience of abuse of this kind in a Dharma setting so that might make me a bit naive.
What DZK is and is not doing.
As far as I see it, and by what he has said in his talks, DJK isn’t coming to Rigpa to play judge and jury or directly try and heal the emotional and psychological damage of those who were subject to the abusive behaviours outlined in the letter. I am not even sure if that is his role to play, but in any case it is a role he isn’t trying to play, rightly or wrongly. What he does seem concerned about is trying to explain and correct misunderstandings about the Vajrayana in particular, which from my point of view is a way he can help contribute towards the reduction of further abuse and harm occurring in the future, as well as preserving a tradition that for many is beneficial and free from the kind of abuse we have heard about at Rigpa.
DJK is also trying to make sense of the immensity of the situation and is but one voice in a dialogue to that end. In the meantime he is teaching the Vajrayana from what he has learnt from his teachers and the texts and encouraging others to study and not just take the Lamas’ words for it.
Here are some of the points that I can remember him making in his writing and talks so far, that I think help towards these ends:
Points for the future.
- He emphasised more study, practice and preparation, which, as we know, is a protection against being duped or sucked into harmful relationships or situations. Knowledge and insight is empowering.
- He said that it is the Tibetans who are at fault for joining spiritual power with temporal power and making the Vajrayana into a public affair with mass empowerments etc. which is not how it originally was in India, where instead there were very private Vajrayana student-teacher relationships between competent individuals.
- He said that SR was at fault in recreating the spiritual/temporal Tibetan cultural set up within Rigpa, which has nothing to do with Dharma, Vajrayana or otherwise.
- He said that SR is totally wrong if he did not correctly prepare his students and then acted as if they were in a Vajrayana student-teacher relationship with him.
- With regards to samaya he mentioned that in the above case the so-called teacher is at fault far more than the student, because the teacher should know better.
- He said that Student Devotion is equally, if not more important, than Guru Devotion. Personally, I don’t think I have heard much or anything about the concept of Student Devotion from other teachers and am interested to hear more from him about that.
- He said in terms of conduct that teachers should act outwardly like a Sravakayana practitioner, inwardly as a Mahayana practitioner and only secretly as a Vajrayana practitioner.
- He has said that the Vajrayana isn’t necessary or a path for everyone, and if it is to be undertaken, then it is to be done so after much study, practice and analysis of the teacher and student and through complete choice and volition as a way to train the mind, but once the decision is made it wouldn’t be an effective method if it could be opted out of any moment the ego feels challenged or uncomfortable.I would say this implies that the uncomfortableness is held within the perspective and profound understanding gained from the previous training, practice and analysis of the teacher and is therefore known to be part of the path by the student in a deep way but nevertheless still has to be experientially worked through as a point of mind training. In all the examples DJK uses here to elucidate this point, there is no mention of abuse, be that physical, emotional, sexual or otherwise, rather they are ones like being told to “keep Wednesday a secret” as a way for the student to train the mind and go beyond dualistic thinking.
When questioned about a Vajrayana master using what looks like abusive methods, he says that if they are a Mahasiddha and they are performed out of wisdom/compassion (with the understanding that the student has been properly prepared, both sides have analysed and entered into a Vajrayana student-teacher relationship; because anything less than that is totally wrong) to benefit the student, then there is room for this in the tradition and as we know there are many examples of this, so that should not surprise anyone. If we don’t like that fact about the tradition, then we don’t need to follow the Vajrayana path or engage in a Vajrayana style student-teacher relationship and that is okay. What DJK is continually pointing out however is that the context those examples occurred in are completely different historically, culturally and inter-personally, to the historical and cultural context at Rigpa and the relationship SR had with his students as the relationships were not based on the correct foundations, as far as he is aware and can get a sense of.
Not a mahasiddha, thinking for oneself and opposite interpretations.
When he used the example of the mahasiddha, by saying that he isn’t one, you might interpret it as if he were hiding behind non-discrimination and that no one could therefore judge SR and his behaviour. I interpreted it differently, partly because he immediately went on to make value judgements and discriminate, like the points I mentioned above about Rigpa and SR. Also, he was telling people not to take what he says as the proclamation of a Buddha, as he [DZK] has his own projections. In other words, you need to think for yourself, which for Rigpa students if what people are saying is true, could be quite radical for them to hear. Moreover, within the context of what he said about Tibetan culture and temporal power, he could have basically been saying, “I am not a Lord and you are not my Serf, wake up, discriminate!” Ironically, what I interpret he was saying and doing there has been interpreted by some as the complete opposite. I am not saying here that either of our interpretations are totally right or wrong, but it is interesting that they can be so different based on our individual projections etc, which is what DJK said would happen and is a teaching in itself. So it gladdens me when people highlight this when their opinions have an online following.
Later, using himself as an example, he said there are some things he would not be able to do if his teachers asked him and that was okay, but at the very least he would make an aspiration to be able to do them in the next life. If that personal example isn’t a way to help people relax around what they currently understand as Guru Devotion being a very rigid, completely obedient, blind following of an authority figure kind of trip, then I don’t know what is.
He also mentioned that Tibetan teachers like OTR should know better and make an effort in understanding westerners and western culture more, but many, including OTR don’t and that is a big problem.
Not black and white.
I cannot see anything in what DJK has written or said so far that justifies or legitimises SR at all in terms of SR’s training or lack of training, how he set up the culture in Rigpa, how he hasn’t prepared his students properly and how in not doing so then acting abusively is totally wrong behaviour. However, that does not mean, I am sorry to say, that SR is totally evil or that he hasn’t benefited anyone at all. People are complex, situations are complex, nothing is black and white, inconveniently, but it is far easier psychologically to so order reality in that way.
That’s what the media does, that’s what the human mind which oscillates between extremes does every moment, and that is what the Dharma, the Middle Way, is in part trying to liberate sentient beings from, as far as I understand. That’s not to say no actions are wrong or right on the conventional level because they are, and they should be opposed and rectified or cultivated and promoted, respectively, in ourselves, others, organisations and society at large. But people are not totally bad or totally wrong or totally good or totally right, generally (Guru Yoga and Pure Perception is a practice) and that way of seeing things is what in part entraps people in unwholesome situations and relationships in the first place, as they abandon any critical analysis by blindly thinking and therefore feeling a person is 100% good (attachment/grasping), then after that fantasy is disappointed they become 100% bad (aversion/hatred). That right there is Samsaric thinking; suffering and is to be challenged. Sitting in the middle of that, with all the confusion and unknowing, is as far as I can tell part of the practice. Life is like one big, long (if we are lucky) Zen Koan!
Challenging negativity bias.
What I personally feel needs to be challenged here in particular and generally in life, is negativity bias, which is when the mind is drawn to, focuses on and dwells on the negative at a higher level of frequency and at detriment to the higher instances of positive things or occurrences. Negativity bias, when left unchecked can contribute to general anxiety, low moods and distorts our perception of reality. This has an evolutionary component in so much that noticing what was lacking, wrong or dangerous helped in survival by protecting against all kinds of threat to physical life. Most of these physical threats have been removed for many of us, however the underlying negativity bias mechanism continues to operate on a psychological/identity ego level. To me there is a lot of negativity bias going on in some places with regards to DJK’s talks. No one seems to be acknowledging that he is taking the time to talk, answer difficult questions and provide an ongoing platform for discussion and dialogue. Instead there is cherry picking, extracting a few lines of text from hours of talks or a whole book, looking for what fits an already negative narrative and caricaturing him as a villain. What’s more, some people seem to be responding to him as if he has committed the abuse himself because of his association with Rigpa. A positive aspect of Rigpa, that DJK points out and I agree with, is that it invites and hosts many different teachers, and I wonder where the Rigpa Sangha would be now if that was never the case? So, perhaps the human tendency towards negativity bias and the mindful application of recognising what is good and useful is worthy of some attention here.
Pure perception and trust.
Ironically, the controversial and as far as I can see often misunderstood practice of pure perception, goes against the deepest grain of negativity bias. However, it is a practice to be done only with someone we trust without doubt has our best interests at heart, a conclusion the student comes to due to their previous study, practice and analysis. As we know, the Lam Rim has a lot to say about how to recognise an authentic teacher, what qualities they should have and DJK dedicates time to this in his book, The Guru Drinks Bourbon, as well.
Silence and evaluating a teacher.
As for the question of how we can analyse a teacher if their student’s cannot speak about their methods, it presupposes that the methods a teacher uses with one student shall be the same as the methods they use with another, which as far as I understand may not be true due to the unique, fluid and dynamic nature of each individual Vajrayana student-teacher relationship, therefore, analysis made on that basis may well turn out to be unhelpful in any case. I would suggest it more beneficial to focus on getting to know the teacher’s qualities, (which isn’t a purely intellectual endeavour but one also of the heart that is helped through personal practice) however long that takes, and trusting what their motivation is, however long that takes, because then the methods will be understood within that context, whatever they may be. Moreover, as DJK explained, if you find a teacher that you cannot get close to, then perhaps they aren’t for you. And as has been mentioned again and again, a Vajrayana teacher-student relationship isn’t mandatory at all.
Recognising the difficulty.
I recognise the extreme difficulty here in attempting to call out injustice and abuse to protect future individuals as it is fraught with many outer, inner and no doubt secret (people’s blind spots to mention one) obstacles. It is not one I think I could manage as I would not know where to draw the line between exposing abuse and protecting people and their connection to the Dharma and exposing abuse and therefore turning people off the Dharma before a genuine connection can be made. Gun shots always make more noise than hugs, but that doesn’t mean there are more gunshots in the world than hugs, although it can seem that way if we simply believe our ears and people generally do. To those of you who are brave enough to walk this tightrope, I salute you! 👏
I do believe, or perhaps pray and hope, much like DJK also said, that bringing these issues to light and the subsequent interest and discussions that result, will in the end strengthen the authentic Dharma, help protect future people from being led astray or being prey to those who would use it for their own ends, as it takes root in the West at this relatively early stage.
May it bring benefit!
P.S. DJK can be a provocateur and confronting, and I think that is either a turn on or turn off for many. The good news is that no one has to listen to anything he has to say about anything. We must also know that we do not have to totally accept or totally reject what anyone says, Lamas or otherwise. Instead we can take what we personally find useful and leave what we don’t or are unsure about.
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.
9 thoughts on “Rigpa Progress?”
Didn’t the Buddha say that “Words have the power to create or destroy.”
I can only say that Sogyal needs to name, accept and apologise for his own behaviour before any apology will be truly genuine. This is certainly a start but it’s a “conditional” apology. And wasn’t he trying to teach us about “unconditional” love, compassion, joy and equanimity?
I still find it sickening that none of the senior managers who were complicit by shrugging off their responsibilities towards vulnerable students are still in charge. A line from the Tibetan Book of Living and Dying comes to mind! In the chapter on Compassion there is a description of Western busy-style laziness and Eastern-style languid laziness…..
“…. perhaps it was their karma to find a way to help!”
While in Ireland at the weekend, I went to mass in a Catholic church with my father. Alongside all the other prayers, I heard prayers offered “for those who were injured within the church, let us pray for God’s mercy for all concerned”….
Then in my hands in the mass booklet and among the general notices was a notice about the meeting times of the group that met to support survivors of clerical abuse….. and there was a poster about this meeting in the entrance hall outside.
Alongside this poster was a big fat report and a review of safeguarding children and adults within that very parish!
My God if the Catholic church can do that, then why can’t Rigpa? If only they had listened to their advisers back then in the early 1990s after that American court case.
Such arrogance and folly to think that they were above the law back then and now.
The Rigpa brand is forever tainted in my mind!
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Note that an aggrieved individual cannot go directly to the (as yet unspecified) ethics board. One must first go through “steps” of seeking resolution through dialog and informal grievance via instructor, support person, or local/national team members. Even then, a formal complaint must go to a National/Retreat Director without any guarantee that the complaint will ever reach an ethics board member. It seems to me, the whole point of an ethics board is that complaints be moved to a venue outside the regular Rigpa structure.
My comment to Rigpa was that “an aggrieved party should have the right to go directly to an ethics board as their first option, should they so choose. It is naive, impractical, and unfair to require an aggrieved, possibly traumatized party to go through multiple hoops of Rigpa position holders, likely of limited experience in addressing abuse issues and placed in the difficult position of judging friends. … Indeed, in some circumstances the oversight and advice of an ethics board member may be required to make the “steps” work at all.”
Ethical codes for Tibetan Vajrayana Buddhist groups are not new, so it is not clear why the Rigpa panel is having such difficulty in drafting a realistic Code. Is there more concern with protecting the organization than in supporting an aggrieved and/or troubled individual?
Apparently that group learned from their own abuse debacle. Rigpa has yet to learn that they cannot continue as they have done in the past. Their draft code seems to be an attempt to write down the very structures they used to prevent complaints ever being taken seriously in the past. It’s very sad that on the one hand they say how much they’ve changed and then they cannot see just how much this draft code shows that they have no intention of truly changing at all.