Conversations with people who have spent time in Tibetan society and been close to lamas have made me realise that, in general, Tibetan people accept unethical and even abusive conduct in their reincarnated masters (tulkus) without question or censure. But ‘tulku privilege‘, which essentially places tulkus above the law, conflicts with modern Western values where equality is the very basis of our democratic and legal system. Also the Tibetan injunctions against criticism and requirements for subjugation to one’s teacher are in direct opposition to Western values of freedom of speech and choice.
‘Human rights recognise the inherent value of each person, regardless of background, where we live, what we look like, what we think or what we believe. They are based on principles of dignity, equality and mutual respect, which are shared across cultures, religions and philosophies. They are about being treated fairly, treating others fairly and having the ability to make genuine choices in our daily lives.’ https://www.humanrights.gov.au/about/what-are-human-rights
Tulku privilege in action
In the West, sex between a student and teacher is considered unethical due to the power imbalance, and coercion into sex is considered sexual harassment at the least and sexual abuse at the worst. But Tulkus see nothing wrong with coercing women into sex through such things as threats of hell and promises of a fast path to enlightenment for the woman and/or her family members.
‘Sexual misconduct is very common amongst high level lamas,’ Dr Nida Chenagtsang Karmamudra: The Yoga of Bliss, Sexuality in Tibetan Medicine and Buddhism.
Tulkus are brought up believing that they are ‘holy’ and by right of that designation are not subject to the same ethical restrictions as normal beings. They grow up in a religious culture where coercing women into sex is the acceptable norm and under the tutelage of role models who take full advantage of tulku privilege. I expect this is why so few of them have made statements denouncing abuse perpetrated by other lamas.
‘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.’ Dzongsar Khyents, page 19, The Guru Drinks Bourbon?
In other words, after you’ve taken a vajrayana initiation with a teacher, that teacher can do what he wants to you and you can’t complain. In Tibetan Buddhist thinking, Tulkus have a free pass to treat people any way they wish because it’s all seen as ‘enlightened action.’
This attitude can be clearly seen in Lama Zopa’s response to Dagri Rinpoche’s inappropriate behaviour. He uses a lot of words to basically say that since Dagri Rinpoche is a ‘holy being’ anything he does is a ‘holy action’ and therefore not ordinary action which shouldn’t be held to the same standards as the actions of those who aren’t ‘holy.’
Lama Zopa is so completely ignorant of how ridiculous his kind of thinking appears to the majority of Westerners—excluding those who swallow such beliefs without examination—that he doesn’t hide his views. This is a good thing, because it’s certainly time for some transparency on this.
Clearly Dagri Rinpoche didn’t take the FPMT code of conduct as having any relevance to him, and due to tulku privilege, I expect all tulkus will think the same way—Rigpa’s special category for Vajrayana and Dzogchen in their code of conduct certainly upholds that idea.
In the West, all are equal before the law. A crime is a crime, no matter who commits it. Cardinal George Pell, the Catholic equivalent of a very high lama was convicted for sexual abuse in Australia. Western law sees abuse by spiritual figures as crimes, not ‘holy actions.’ In fact, the very fact that the abuse was perpetrated by a spiritual figure makes it all the more abhorrent.
Not only is the idea of spiritual leaders being above the law not accepted in the West, as James R. Lewis explains in his book Cults in America, probably the most important characteristic of a dangerous cult is that ‘The organization is willing to place itself above the law.’ (See http://abuse.wikia.com/wiki/Cult_checklist )
If Tibetan Buddhism wants to be seen as a reputable religion in the West, instead of a religion comprised of dangerous cults, the lamas have to give up their tulku privileges. I’m not holding my breath waiting for that, though, but we could at least get some transparency around the issue. Westerners should be under no illusions about their Tibetan Buddhist teachers.
Celibacy? Nah. Even the monks do it.
One of the things that really shocked me on my journey of discovery of tulku privilege is that even the tulkus who are monks have sex, and they have it with multiple partners. One Western woman teacher of Tibetan Buddhism with decades of experience around lamas and their communities told me that sometimes tulku monks have sex with many women while looking for a wife, and once they’ve found their wife, they give up their robes. Why, I wonder, don’t they give up their robes before looking for a wife?
She also told me that having a wife does not necessarily stop them from continuing their multiple partners, and some do not give up their robes, even if they do have a wife. So they appear to be a monk, but they aren’t.
Another woman told me that she heard HHDL on two separate occasions saying that a monk could penetrate a woman without breaking his vow of celibacy so long as he didn’t ejaculate! I couldn’t find any scriptural authority on this, but the woman assures me that he shared this fact in Kalachakra teachings she attended.
The fact that ample numbers of Western women have appeared all too keen to have sex with a tulku, robed or not, hasn’t helped the lamas to recognise the reality of the situation—that in the West, as a spiritual teacher, they are expected to behave ethically in all areas. And having sex with a student is considered highly unethical for any teacher no matter whether the student wants it or not.
Teachings or a way to cover their asses?
‘Capitulation to the teacher’s wishes is [seen as] virtuous and defiance has dire consequences as does breaching the secrecy that typically surrounds such encounters.’ Holly Gayley (Department of Religious Studies, University of Colorado) ‘Revisiting the “Secret Consort” (gsang yum) in Tibetan Buddhism.’
The biography of Lingza Chökyi, Travels in the Nether-worlds, includes the story in of a 16th Century women who refused to be the ‘secret consort’ of ‘a master of esoteric teachings’ and complained about his inappropriate conduct. In the story, ‘Yama declares, “It is a greater sin to denigrate and slander lamas and teachers than it is to murder a thousand living beings,” and condemns her to suffer the torments of the hell realms.’ Lama Zopa’s response mentioned above is really just a more subtle way of saying the same thing.
Teachings that do nothing more than maintain the power of the lamas should be thoroughly questioned, not simply accepted as an integral part of the Buddhist teachings. Some lama some time made up the teachings on how to follow a teacher, but did they do it for the sake of the students or to provide themselves with slaves for their own gratification? Given the abuse enabled by these teachings, the latter purpose seems most likely.
And yet these teachings are now seen as integral to the religion. But are they? Really? Isn’t some openness and respect towards a lama enough? Why accept behaviour from our Tibetan Buddhist teachers that we would not accept in any other area of our life?
A huge cultural clash
Western culture has taken a very long time to develop the idea of equal rights for all human beings. Are we going to throw all that away because Tibetan Buddhist teachers expect us to play the serfs in a system that places them in the role of a feudal lord? Didn’t we get rid of that way of thinking back in the time of the French Revolution? Wouldn’t accepting Tulku privilege be a huge step backward for is both individually and collectively? And how does giving up our right to recognise abuse as abuse contribute to our spiritual development, anyway?
Tibetan Buddhism has a lot of offer, but tulku privilege is not something we should import along with the teachings.
A call for transparency
On the issue of unethical conduct, I’ve seen no willingness in tulkus to move an inch from their exalted position where they feel they can ignore ethical guidelines with impunity. Since they appear unwilling to even consider that their beliefs in this area may be needing some revision, then they should at least do us the decency of being transparent about their behaviour.
Isn’t it high time that a lama sat down with a panel of Western students and answered a few core questions such as:
- Is there any behaviour that would be considered unethical for a tulku?
- Are tulkus who wear monks’ robes celibate? If so, what does celibacy actually mean for a tulku? Does it mean no sexual contact as it does in the West?
- The teachings on How to Follow a Teacher in The Words of my Perfect Teacher benefit lamas by providing them with compliant slaves, how do such teachings benefit the students?
- Do tulkus think that having sex with a woman is beneficial for the woman regardless of whether the woman wanted it or not?
- Do tulkus see anything wrong with threatening a woman or promising her something in order to get her to have sex with them?
- Tibetan Buddhist values and Western ethical values clash where tulkus are not held to the same standards as the rest of society, why shouldn’t tulkus behave in accord with Western ethics if they want to teach in the West?
What questions would you like to ask to bring some transparency to the issue of tulku privilege?
For further perspectives on this see the article Why I Quit Guru Yoga by Stephen Batchelor.