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.

13 Replies to “The Benefit of Criticism”

  1. Sorry to see you go, but I realize this blog can’t go on forever. I had the feeling it’s days were numbered, since there were fewer posts and much less activity lately. I too have felt attacked quite often, and it’s frustrating when I try to express a thought and people start a big debate with me. I have expressed frustration with that a number of times. However, I do hope that I wasn’t someone who ever made you feel attacked. and if so, I apologize for contributing to that. I wish you well, and at this point, I am beyond hoping Tibetan Buddhism will reform. I am trying to move on from religion, ANY religion.

  2. Finally comes it to the point that positive and supportive cricism is heard and reflected about or not. This lies in the hands of those to recieve critical thoughts.
    Here has Rigpa the big chance to receive suggestions and more and make something out of it or not.
    Its their choice. I personally doubt they have the ability to make something out of it.
    I doubt that most of that people that represent tibetan Buddhism even understand what the blog owner is writing about.
    They seem to have choosen their golden or whatever cage.
    But I am sure that what is worth to survive- the Buddhas precious teaching- will survive.
    It will free itself of the clutch of that kind of followers that think they have the birthright to own and sell “Dharma”.
    My gratitude goes to moonfire and the thoughtful writers here and to those able to understand the values of criticism.
    My personal mantra seems to have still a certain value: Be truthful and honest with yourself first and Buddhadharma will fall on fertile soil.

    1. Yes but who is “Rigpa” – is it the inner circle who are always in the “old” and “new” board that supposedly changes but doesn’t change. That is tyrannical – those of that “inner circle” have fear based loyalty from the best I can ascertain. They quash change, they shoot the messenger, they like so many politicians define what is allowed to be discussed to create the illusion of dialogue and openness.
      Is Rigpa the “Sangha” of students who joined Rigpa and committed and studied for years.
      Is Rigpa many – such as national centers, regional city centers, small practice groups.
      Are break away groups Rigpa or is Rigpa one. It is not one and it is not many it is a trademark, a corporation that is privately owned and it preserves some culture, some art that was commissioned and has the trappings of a Buddhist organisation but it has created it’s own “new tradition” and that is an obvious no no. That is a corruption and that is something that is debatable but debate is not something I ever really saw happen in all my years inside Rigpa trying and usually succeeding to bring change. I brought technological competence and changed things so that the money people paid wasn’t wasted on incompetence. Then this was just another play-toy of those in power which got out of hand. Still I did it optimistically until things were really stuck and I with a hope others tasked with change would bring change. They didn’t in fact those tasked with change are all out and licking their wounds, healing, recovering and going through a “what happened to me” process.
      Spiritual progress is about putting aside corrupt and limited paths and moving forward – even if that requires one to stop trying to go forward, stop trying to bring change. I know that the authoress of this blog has done a great, logical, objective and well researched job and stopping can be part of making things move too. I pray for things to grow like seeds in fertile ground and give fruits and shade to those of us seeking refuge from “Rigpa”. in the true dharma.

      1. Dear Sangye
        Your remark is valid . Whom do I think to be “Rigpa” in my comment.
        Those that could kept responsible for all that rotten stuff going on for a long time. ” Inner circle ” people. I dont mean to hang them or tread them for capital crime, but they should learn to become responsible for their doing and especially “not-doing”.
        Anyone else seems to have much less responsibility for “Rigpa” as it happened to pop-up now finally, as a rotten story, for some surprisingly, for some not.
        I work now on the “Sangha Theme”, together with three more ex-Rigpas.
        With regards to the issue of “Rigpa”: Almost everything is said now, better we outside could ever do, and none of us had been so closed to that corrupted circle.
        That means: talking about what happens in a mind like mine as I was: naive, with loads of good faith, willing, supportive, but quite clueless, not hartboiled.
        How can it happen again and again that so many people get trapped by a few cone artists ?
        What is the responsibility of each of us.
        I dont think its right to blame just tibetan tradition and feudal systems only, there is always two sides involved.
        Plus: We people from the west can clean up our stories as well: all that stuff we have incorporated, our biblish, leftish, alternativistic, greenish, ecological, woman rights, and whatsoever stuff, plus most of the hippie mindjunk. List could be endless extented.
        ( I write on an handheld device while travelling home from work, therefore do I keep it a little bit enigmatic, and I am no native english speaker).
        So I leave my subway now, sorry for my english.

  3. Thank you Tahlia, you’ve done a GREAT service to us all, and you’re right, they are not listening.
    The fact is there are many amazing ways to follow the teachings of the Buddha. There are still wonderful teachers in the Tibetan tradition, but many have disgraced themselves through their tacit consent of sl’s behavior signaled by not speaking up.
    Thank you to all of the brave teachers who have taken an ethical stand, it shouldn’t be so hard. As Mingyur Rinpoche said, this isn’t about Buddhism it’s about common human decency.

  4. Thanks so much for all your hard work Tahlia.
    You created a wonderful forum here for discussion, debate and providing tools and resources for thinking and processing this whole situation.
    Yes indeed, now it is up to others to reform Tibetan Buddhism. Thankfully we have people like His Holiness, Matthieu Ricard and Mingyur Rinpoche to look to for inspiration and straight talking!
    Best of luck now rebuilding your work and client base and getting on with your life.
    May all be well. May all be happy. May the wounded find healing and be heard. May those that were knowingly and unknowingly complicit in enabling these abuses ask deeper questions of themselves and others, and realize the true meaning of compassion.

  5. Thalia, please be assured your commitment and insights have generally been greatly appreciated by the vast majority of readers and contributors. Your blog stands testimony to the power of speaking out to expose darkness and sleaze with a voice that resonates integrity and authenticity.
    To that end, just now on fb up popped a notification from DKR, he’s linked to your previous post, “Is Vajrayana Buddhism a Cult Religion? pt 2”. At least we know he’s listening. Or maybe the title just resonates with his recent talks. I guess we’ll never know the truth on that score.
    I’m pretty sure everyone here would concur with my hope that after you’ve had a good long break from this time-consuming project, and once things have progressed in the Rigpa soap opera, you may be inclined to chart further developments from time to time and offer us reflections on whatever transpires – the good, the bad and the ugly.
    You’ve given us all the space to vent, reminisce, argue and agree. That’s a great gift.
    As they say in the union movement, “if you don’t fight, you lose”.
    Arrivederci baby!

  6. Thanks for your contribution Moonfire. May your blog bring some benefits to the people trying to understand those obstacles for their practice…

  7. Thank you so much for all your help and contribution to this situation. You held the space beautifully. In criticism there can be the seed of what needs to be done but often we don’t want to admit it. May you be happy, may you be well and may you have all the success and good luck you deserve.

  8. To me it’s not about Rigpa, as an organisation, but about all those individuals, who are ready to take a step further to the trouth and to waking up.
    As Pete once quoted: “You get mad in an instant in a crowd, but you come to sanity slowly – one by one.”
    Or as Armin Risi hat put it: “Fighting darkness doesn’t bring light.”
    You, Thalia and Moonfire, brought light on so many topics, so that those who are willing to open their eyes can now see their steps on the path. That is a tremendous help.
    To me your work is complete. That’s why it had to come to an end. And the criticism that accoured towards the end, I see that as a symptom that all has been said.
    It’s like having had a wonderful nutricious and healthy meal. At one point you still have to stop eating. You have given us enough tools and “food for thoughts” to get clear with our experiences in Rigpa and move on with our lives.
    I wish you, that you can appreciate your own helpful work, see that it is timely done and timely ended and that it has benefitted and will benefit many people.
    For your own personal life, I wish you all the best, blessings and abundance. With gratitude Lola

  9. Thanks Thalia for this blog, it helped me a lot in digesting the problem.
    I hope that Rigpa will become more democratic and that the practice of guru yoga get rid of its feudal misuse.

  10. Heartfelt thanks Tahlia for this intelligent, insightful and thought provoking blog.
    It has been incredibly helpful to so many I’m sure and provided a great space for connecting with others.
    Best wishes to yourself and everyone going forward…
    Onward and Upward 🙂

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