Does Tibetan Buddhism condone abuse? Let’s look at the information we have on this.
The crazy wisdom tradition
A favourite story of all teachers in the religion is that of Marpa and his student Milarepa. Milarepa had a lot of bad karma so in order to purify his karma, Marpa made him built towers of rock and then pull them down and build another. I think he built and demolished seven towers. Apparently this purified his negative karma and eventually he became enlightened, and a favourite saint of the Tibetan people. Marpa also beat him and this is seen as an acceptable teaching method for Milarepa because apparently he had great potential. Marpa is seen as a great master. However, Marpa also beat his wife and she didn’t become enlightened.
There are other stories of masters throwing stones and hitting students with sandals – shared by Sogyal in The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying – and these stories are told to show that unconventional teaching methods can wake students up if those students are ‘ready’ for some realisation and the teacher is a great master who knows that the student needs this.
Whether or not you believe there is some value to this kind of idea, and whether or not you believe teachers use the idea as an excuse to do what they want, it is a fact that this kind of behaviour is part of the tradition.
Sogyal certainly thought he was a crazy wisdom master and so do those students who are still devoted to him. In this video he tries to justify his actions to a student hes just hit. If you think this does actually justify it, then I’d say you’ve been brainwashed. The idea that hitting someone brings that person closer to their attacker is nonsense! And why would you want to be close to someone who hits people?
(If the You Tube video has been removed, the file is attached below.)
Of course, some lamas recognise that abusive behaviour isn’t crazy wisdom.
‘Unfortunately the term “Crazy Wisdom” has now become so popularised that people will use it to explain any kind of bad behaviour by gurus, as if “Crazy Wisdom” is some special Tibetan cultural practice which allows a Vajrayana guru to ignore all laws and vows, all of the Buddha’s teachings on ethical behaviour, and any consequences for their actions! … The time for the misuse of “Crazy Wisdom” is over. “Crazy Wisdom” is not an excuse for breaking vows or for bad behaviour.’
Dr Nida Chenagtsang, Karmamudra:The Yoga of Bliss, Sexuality in Tibetan Medicine and Buddhism
A lineage of abuse
‘The people of Katok experienced Khyentse Chokyi Lodro’s arrival as something of a tsunami. They said he was like an “invading force” (they used the same Tibetan word to describe the advance of the Communist Chinese) because his sovereignty over them was absolute and indisputable. Monks were punished ten at a time. When a flogging was called for, Rinpoche insisted in four or five hundred lashes, never a mere hundred, and he always watched from the window of his residence as the punishment was meted out.’ The Life and Times of Jamyang Khyentse Chökyi Lodrö: The Great Biography by Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche and Other Stories. Dilgo Khyentse and others, Shambhala (July 25, 2017)
This is the man Sogyal talks about in the TBLD as a great master and saint.
During a talk at the Paris centre, Orgyen Tobgyal Rinpoche said about spiritual teachers, ‘Such great beings, whether it corresponds to western ideas or not, if they kill someone, it’s fine,’ and, ‘Beating hard increases wisdom.’
Abuse is widespread in Tibetan Buddhist monasteries. The young Kalu Rinpoche on You Tube talks about being gang raped in a video titled Confessions of Kalu Rinpoche. I saw a video of a monk beating a young monk—badly—and a friend told me of nuns she had spoken to in India who were regularly raped by the local monks, monastics who apparently have no concern over breaking their vows.
‘Sexual misconduct is very common amongst high level lamas.’Dr Nida Chenagtsang, Karmamudra:The Yoga of Bliss, Sexuality in Tibetan Medicine and Buddhism
Teachings on how to follow a teacher.
Rigpa students chant the following in their daily Longchen Nyingtik Ngondro practice:
‘Towards the lifestyle and activity of the lama,
May wrong view not arise for even an instant, and
May I see whatever he does as a teaching for me.
Through such devotion, may his blessing inspire
and fill my mind!’
This idea that you have to see anything your guru does as a teaching (and therefore okay) is not helped by one commentary on this text used by Rigpa which adds another phrase to the last verse: ‘and may I see whatever he does, whether it seems to be in accordance with the Dharma or not, as a teaching for me.’ A Guide to The Words of My Perfect Teacher, another commentary on this Ngondro, expands this idea on page 261 by saying: ‘His [the teacher´s] charisma may attract men and women alike, but even if he were to seduce a hundred girls daily, see it as the activity of bringing under control. And when he causes trouble, stirring up disputes and so on, even if he slaughters hundreds of animals every day, regard this as the activity of fierce subduing.’
If you take these words at face value without the depth of understanding to moderate their apparent meaning, then what is it saying to those who chant it every day?
The Dalai Lama doesn’t agree with this, but then he’s from the Gelupka lineage. There are 3 other lineages and the heads of those lineages have not said a single thing about all this abuse.
As far as Gelugpa is concerned, Lama Tsonghkapa clearly mentioned; if a lama teaches something that is against the dharma it should be avoided and opposed. If the lama’s teaching is in accord with the dharma it should be followed, if it is in discord with the Dharma it should not be followed.Dalai Lama, National Seminar on Buddhism in Ladakh, India on August 1, 2017.
The Words of My Perfect Teacher and a commentary on it A Guide to The Words of My Perfect Teacher are the two core texts of Rigpa on the Vajrayana preliminaries or Ngondro—the entrance into the Vajrayana path—and both books make it very clear that once you’ve taken a teacher as your Vajra master you have to do what he or she says, see them as a Buddha, see everything they do as enlightened activity, and never criticise. Many teachers use these books as a reference for how students should follow their teachers. The book is based on being a student of a perfect teacher, however, not an imperfect one! And these days, even the book in question (written a couple of centuries ago) admits that good teachers are rare:
‘All the qualities complete according to purest dharma are hard to find in these decadent times.’Patrul Rinpoche. The Words of My Perfect Teacher
Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche
Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche is the only lama who has spoken extensively on the matter, and for that I am grateful, but he sees the problem of guru abuse in Vajrayana as being caused by student’s misinterpretation of Vajrayana Buddhism, not the guru’s behaviour. He is often ambiguous, but if you look carefully, you’ll see he does make the bottom line clear.
‘The key point here is that if his students had received a Vajrayana initiation, if at the time they received it they were fully aware that it was a Vajrayana initiation, and if Sogyal Rinpoche had made sure that all the necessary prerequisites has been adhered to and fulfilled, then from the Vajrayana point of view, there is nothing wrong with Sogyal Rinpoche’s subsequent actions.’
Dzongsar Khyentse, Guru and Student in the Vajrayana, Facebook 15t August 2017
In a teaching called Being Savvy at following the Guru ,
Chile, January 20th 2019 he said: ‘And what I have basically, among other things that I’ve said, if Sogyal Rinpoche had applied the correct procedure and if the students also knew what was happening, then if they had taken him as a vajrayana master, that’s it, then you have to continue with this practice of pure perception, but if SR haven’t taken the correct procedure, and I have said that that time and I say now, that I doubt that SR had taken the correct procedure. This is my personal thought. You know the correct procedure … and someone says you do my chores for 3 years, these are the correct procedures. If SR didn’t apply the correct procedures, students didn’t know what was happening and students also don’t know was happening, it is totally wrong for Sogyal to demand whole-hearted pure perception so that he can do what he likes; it’s totally wrong. Okay. ‘
In other words, abuse by a guru is only ‘totally wrong’ if that
guru hasn’t taken the correct procedure to prepare you. He’s saying that the
problem with Sogyal’s abuse of students was not the behaviour itself, but that
he behaved that way to students who weren’t properly prepared. He doesn’t say
that a teacher shouldn’t abuse students who were properly prepared – and some
In page 19 of his book The Guru Drinks Bourbon? he makes this even clearer. In a section headed ‘Liberation Through Imprisonment’, he admits that in the student teacher relationship as traditionally laid out in Tibetan Buddhism ‘The potential for abuse of power exists.’ Then, in the very next sentence, he says: ‘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.’
There you have it. Vajrayana according to DZK does permit abuse just so long as
the guru has properly prepared you. Not only that, but if this is the case, then you can’t even complain about the abuse when you discover that that’s what’s happening to you. Ouch!
Failure of lamas to condemn abuse
In an attempt to encourage some more native Tibetan lamas to state their position on abuse, some of us got the letter by the eight translated from English into Tibetan and sent it, along with the Lewis Silken report and over 100 signatures to thirty-eight lamas, with a question. We asked: Do you think the behaviour of Sogyal Lakar/Rinpoche as described in the 2017 letter by eight close students and confirmed by the Lewis Silkin Report is ever an acceptable way for Tibetan Buddhist teachers to behave towards their students?
We received only two replies and one of them referred students to The Words of My Perfect Teacher for information about how to follow a teacher! Apparently no one wants to simply say that beating, promiscuity, humiliation, abuse, are not acceptable behaviours, not in the Vajrayana, nor in any Buddhist context. We explained how important it was that they respond, how their silence is seen as complicit, and still they did not respond. I understand that there are cultural reasons that make speaking out difficult for them, but to not do so after we made it clear in our email just how important it was shows a sad lack of concern for their Western students.
Where teachers in a religion do not denounce abuse when asked to, does it not indicate that they condone it?
The names and responses of those few lamas who have made a clear stance against guru abuse can be found on the ‘Which Lamas are Trustworthy?’ page on the Beyond the Temple website. Take a close look at those who received the letter and never replied. You may be surprised to find lamas you respected on that list.
It’s hard to talk about Tibetan Buddhism as a whole because each lama rules his own little kingdom and isn’t beholden to anyone else, so every lama has to be taken on his or her own merits. However we can discern generalities.
The Nyingma lineage clearly does condone guru abuse for the student who is properly initiated into vajrayana – at least according to DZK, Orgyen Tobgyal and Sogyal Lakar. Though Mingyur Rinpoche said that ‘abuse is not a teaching method’ in his Lions’ Roar article, the Kagyu is the lineage with the most ‘crazy wisdom’ masters in their history. I know nothing about the Sakaya’s philosophy because none of them have said anything, but I do know of at least one woman abused by a high Sakaya lama. The Gelupka lineage appears to be the only one where their leader has clearly stated that lama abuse is not acceptable.
This post uses some excerpts from my upcoming book Fallout: Recovering from Spiritual Abuse in Tibetan Buddhism
If you’d like a more private place to chat about your ongoing spiritual path after you’ve left an abusive community, you can join the Beyond the Temple Facebook group. This group is for people who don’t want to talk about abuse, but want to keep in touch and share their discoveries, inspiration and challenges as they move on with their lives.
If you want to talk about abuse, then Rigpa or ex-Rigpa students can join the secret What Now? group. Apply via the contact form here, telling us about yourself and why you want to join the group.
Students from other Vajrayana communities who need somewhere where they can talk about abuse and find survivor support can join the Survivors of Vajrayana Abuse and their Allies group.
Note that you will not be added to these groups if you don’t answer the questions.