Today we have a post by Joanne Clark inspired by the release of Dzongsar Khyentse’s latest book. Thank you, Joanne. It’s high time we challenged Dzongsar Khyentse for his support of abusive behaviour by vajrayana masters. Dzongsar Khyentse’s followers show all the signs of people caught in a destructive cult, which might tell us why Dzongsar Khyentse is so intent on supporting abuse as a legitimate part of his religion – at least for the varjayana student-teacher relationship. Read on for Joanne’s article.
It is possible that Dzongsar Jamyang Khyentse has reached a point of realization whereby he can sit down to a meal of faeces and a drink of urine and consume it as if enjoying a delicious feast. It is possible then that he could rape a princess in the same manner that Tilopa killed fish, such that no harm would result.
In the same way, it is possible that his Vajrayana students, those who have taken vows of pure perception, are advanced enough in their own realizations that they are no longer at risk of confusing the madyamaka views on emptiness with nihilism—no longer at risk of failing to maintain a coherent view of conventional truth and karmic laws of cause and effect and failing to recognize harm as harm.
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
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
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
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
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.’
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
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.
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. Tahlia
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. Topden
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 pagehas 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.