Wake up Tibetan Lamas: Are You Destroying Your Religion?

The Chinese tried to destroy Tibetan Buddhism inside Tibet. They failed, but outside of Tibet some Tibetan lamas (not all) are destroying it all by themselves. No help needed. Ignorance parading as wisdom will do it all by itself. Just take a person brought up to believe they are some kind of god, feed them ‘teachings’ designed to support the power structure that sets them up at the top of their own little kingdom, and let them loose on the Western world where there are plenty of naive students willing to turn to them as their saviour and do everything they say without question and you have a situation ripe for abuse. Unless they are good monks or their own teacher has made it clear to them that being a Vajrayana master doesn’t give them licence to ignore basic Buddhist ethics, there is nothing to stop them, no governing body. And the attempts of some lamas to cling to their cozy little kingdoms in the guise of maintaining authentic teachings may bring about the end of Westerners respect for Tibetan Buddhism.

What destroys the religion

  1. A lama physically, sexually and emotionally abuses some of his students and uses others as slaves who do his bidding without question or concern for their own health. Lamas who destroy Western respect for them and their religion will say that:
    • It isn’t abuse, it’s crazy wisdom. This makes it look like they think their lamas are above the law.
    • It’s only a worldly perspective and not a dharmic perspective. This makes it look as if Tibetan Buddhism is not at all concerned with ethics or compassion. It also appears arrogant and condescending, and again as if they think they are above the law of the land in which they teach.
    • Once you accept a teacher as your teacher you have to obey them in all things and if you have correct perception, you would not see it as abuse but as a blessing. This makes Tibetan Buddhism look like a cult and lamas more interested in maintaining power than benefiting their students. Why? Because students are being asked to set aside their right to say no, and their right to use their discernment as to what is best for their own health. That is a very unhealthy situation for the student.The important thing for lamas to realise here is that, regardless of the truth of these ideas from a religious point of view, they are teaching in the West which is full of Westerners, therefore they would be unwise to disregard or demean Western perceptions and values. Also they are subject to the law of the land in which they teach.
  2. Other lamas and students support the lama who has been exposed as indulging in abusive behaviour. This invariably takes the form of:
    • Victim blaming – the students aren’t ‘right’ for Vajrayana, they don’t understand it or the true importance of their lama’s behaviour, they should have checked the lama thoroughly before committing themselves to him, or they should be practicing a ‘lower’ yana which is not quite so risky. This appears very condescending. It also sidesteps the issue of the teacher’s poor behaviour by denigrating the victim.
      Victim blaming is a ruse that has been used for years to keep women from speaking up about rape and to turn juries against them in trials. All it does is contribute further to the suffering of those who have been harmed, which adds to the perception by Westerners that these lamas have no compassion.
    • Superstition and fear tactics – the students are at fault for speaking out and will be punished for it. One said they have been possessed by evil spirits or maras (negative forces). Another well-known denigrator of those who speak out says that they have broken their samaya (or sacred bond with their teacher) and will go to hell. Again these stances shows a complete lack of compassion for those harmed, says nothing about the actual problem, which is the abusive behaviour, terrifies people into silence, and maintains the power structure of the religion which keeps the lama at the top of his feudal kingdom. Where, a normal Westerner wonders, is the benefit in this for the student?
    • Support for physical abuse as a genuine spiritual teaching tool – In the Paris Rigpa centre recently one lama said that beating was a means to increase the student’s wisdom and realization. This is simply incredibly backward thinking to any normal Westerner. Thinking like this belongs in the dark ages. He also suggested that a lama killing someone was acceptable if the murderer is a Mahasiddha (a self-appointed title in this case). That idea is extremely dangerous particularly in those with delusions. Again this man thinks some lamas are above the law.  This is simply not acceptable in the West.
  3. Some lamas while not overtly supporting the abusive lama still support the ‘do as I say or go to hell’ idea, and go even further to belittle Westerners and trivialise the attestations of abuse with illconceived ‘humour’ that expose their misogyny and arrogance. Lamas that don’t respect the culture in which they teach have no business teaching here.
  4. Many lamas say nothing, thus making it look as if they condone the behaviour.
  5. The lamas (His Holiness Dalai Lama and Mingyur Rinpoche) who do speak out against abusive behaviour are few, but it is them that will save Tibetan Buddhism, not those who cling to literal understandings of teachings designed for uneducated people in the feudal system of the 8th Only those with a deep understanding of the absolute meaning of the teachings have the ability to apply them effectively to the present. These two lamas have this ability, others clearly don’t.

General perception

All this leaves any ordinary intelligent Westerner with the perception that the Tibetan lamas care more about maintaining their power structures than their students, and that their religion doesn’t work because the lamas appear to have no compassion and no ability to apply the wisdom of their tradition to a modern situation, or to actually live by it – either that or the religion is as decadent as the lamas who abuse their power.
Lamas need to understand that what destroys the religion in the eyes of the West are lamas who behave unethically and the lamas who defend them, not those who point out their bad behaviour.

Why it doesn’t have to be this way

Many lamas and Western scholars make it clear that students do not have to give up their discernment for Vajrayana to ‘work’, that the idea that complete obedience is required is an interpretation not an absolute. They speak of samaya as a way of seeing the world, of something we aspire to, rather than a series of rules that if broken lead to punishment in hell. These lamas appear to have a deeper understanding, one that goes beyond the Tibetan cultural bias. And yet, the lamas who are destroying their religion’s credibility will try to say that their interpretation does not apply. This makes it look further as if they are merely trying to maintain their positions of power.
Since it’s clearly a matter of interpretation, then why not choose the interpretation that has the least opportunity for harm, where a student maintains the right to ascertain whether a situation is healthy for them or not and where they feel free to say ‘No,’ and leave without fear of hell?  Such an interpretation still allows those who want to give complete obedience and give up their discernment the right to do so if they wish, but it doesn’t demand complete obedience from the thousands of students these lamas bind with samaya when they give empowerments.
Lamas who root for the ‘shut up and do as I say or go to hell’ team think that only they have the correct interpretation of the teachings, and they fear that Vajrayana will lose its power if their interpretation is not maintained, but this is not true. All they have to do is allow the student to choose for themselves just how far they are prepared to take their obedience. How is allowing the student to determine this for themselves an issue?
And how is insisting that the student give up their right of self-determination in accord with the Buddha’s teachings?
Even an S&M contract between a submissive and a dominant has a safe word, a get-out-of-jail-free card (as used in a board game called Monopoly), which allows the submissive the right to say when they have had enough. For Tibetan Buddhism to survive in the West that proviso must be given.

How to not destroy your religion

  • Talk to His Holiness the Dalai Lama and Mingyur Rinpoche on how you should view the issue of abusive behaviour in a lama and take their advice, particularly on the topics of samaya and devotion. They have got it right. Westerners respect them. Follow their lead.
  • Show some respect for the humanitarian values that underpin Western law. They are in accord with the Buddha’s teaching, abuse of power is not.
  • Understand that you are not above Western law and must obey the law like everyone else.
  • Make a committment to ethical behaviour.
  • If you must demand complete obedience in all things from your students, then be very clear about that and tell them so in your advertising for empowerments – e.g. If you take this empowerment, you are accepting that you must obey me in all things and never criticise or complain, otherwise you will go to hell. If having sex with students, hitting them and emotionally abusing them are all acceptable to you, then make sure you tell your students that that’s what you’re offering.