Eighteen months after the revelations that Sogyal Lakar/Rinpoche was abusing students rocked Rigpa student’s world, I once again ask, What now? Where do we go from here?
What now is a great question, and one I think we should ask often because it has an openness to the unknown to it, and the future is unknown. Anything we plan or expect is just a projection.
When I see on the news stories of people killed in car accidents, by a falling tree, or being caught in a rip and washed out to sea, it reminds me that I could be dead this time tomorrow, and that reminds me that I have no time to waste in my life if I’m to die without regrets, to die having lived a worthwhile life. And so I must live that worthwhile life now in this very moment.
What makes your life worthwhile?
For me it is a life focused on meditation and contemplation undertaken in a quiet household. In meditation I can help heal the world with light, sound and visualisation. In contemplation I listen to teachings and read books that remind me of the important things in life: love, compassion and wisdom. And I try to live my life in peace and clarity using the wisdom and compassion I foster on my cushion.
During the last 6 months of 2017, my spiritual practice was moderating the What Now Facebook group and writing blogs posts for this blog, I had no time for sitting on a cushion, and no time for earning a living during that time, but supporting others is one of those things that makes a worthwhile life. This last year I have managed to earn a small income, and I’ve returned to a formal meditation practice with an enthusiasm I haven’t had for years.
A spiritual path after Rigpa
I have to thank Mingyur Rinpoche and Tergar for my renewed enthusiasm for meditation. Their Mahamudra course came at just the right time, a month or so after the letter by the eight revealing the abuses came out. And Tergar opened their hearts to any Rigpa student who had studied ngondro. Many of us ex Rigpa students ended up there, but I doubt that any of us have taken Mingyur Rinpoche as their teacher in the same way we took Sogyal; we won’t give up our discernment in the way we did for Sogyal, and that’s a very healthy thing. But the course was excellent and introduced us to Clarifying the Natural State by Dakpo Tashi Namgyal, a Mahamudra meditation manual with clear instructions on detailed enquires into the mind that we never got in Rigpa. My present practice is following those vipashyana instructions. The commentary on that text, Crystal Clear by Khenchen Thrangu Rinpoche is also excellent.
So there is a spiritual path after Rigpa and other sanghas where abuse has occurred. For some it will be no path, for some it will be a different kind of path, for others a different form of Buddhism, and for some it will still be Tibetan Buddhism, probably because they have a deep appreciation for the teachings, likely especially Dzogchen and Mahamudra, even if they no longer trust the religion or the teachers.
I don’t consider myself a Tibetan Buddhist anymore, and that leaves me free of the entanglement of the cultural and feudalistic baggage carried by the religion, but not being part of the religion doesn’t stop me listening to teachers and practicing according to their instructions.
I mean, here’s a quote from the book I mentioned above:
“With the various types of thoughts, from the very moment they appear, they are mothing other than the aware emptiness of unidentifiable mind.” P33 Clarifying the Natural State by Dakpo Tashi Namgyal
Isn’t that beautiful, profound, and incredibly helpful for developing a healthy relationship to our thoughts and emotions? I think so, and it’s in Tibetan Buddhism where we find such teachings. Because of that, many of us will still want to take teachings from Tibetan Buddhist teachers and that is a risky business, because we’ve learned over the last eighteen months that it’s not just Sogyal who behaves badly; there are many other Buddhist teachers and spiritual teachers from all religions who abuse students.
Choosing a teacher
So what do we do if we want these teachings? We have to choose our teachers wisely and cautiously. No matter what style of spiritual path we choose, a teacher of some kind will probably be involved, and the same requirements are necessary whether it’s a Tibetan Buddhist lama or some new age guru.
There is plenty of guidance on this in The words of My Perfect Teacher by Patrul Rinpoche, but as he says “nowadays it is difficult to find a teacher who has every one of the qualities described in the precious tantras,” so I suggest that we choose only those teachers who have made a clear public statement against abuse, one that does not blame the students in any way, who honour the role of discernment in the Tibetan Buddhist path, who show respect for their students, and who have otherwise shown that they are worthy of their role as a spiritual teacher. We have to check their behaviour and not be fooled by fancy hats and titles, prestigious lineages and charisma, or by many devoted students—blind and emotional devotion is a cult warning sign; intelligent appreciation is not. The high level lamas are the aristocrats of Tibetan culture, the most entitled, with the kind of power held by a feudal lord, and they’re brought up with the expectation that they will live just as the masters before them lived, and so they are the very ones of which we need to be most suspicious.
“Sexual misconduct is very common within the circles of high level lamas.” (Dr Nida Chenagtsang from Karmamudra: The Yoga of Bliss)
But there are some teachers in Tibetan Buddhism that don’t abuse their students. Our task as students is to find the reliable teachers and expose those who do abuse their power. The What the Lamas Say page will help you with that.
We also need to check anything a lama says about politics or society and see whether he or she is indicating an attitude that is in accord with the dharma. Are they showing love and compassion for all, or are they seeing with an us-against-them attitude? Arrogance is a huge red flag—it’s the opposite of humble. And if a lama’s disciples are not seeing that that lama is not speaking in accord with the dharma, then stay far away from that sangha, because if they’re not using their discernment, it’s a cult, not a healthy spiritual community.
Watch carefully how they treat their students during a teaching, and at any hint of unkindness or arrogance, leave. The only way the corruption will leave, or at least lessen, in Tibetan Buddhism—apart from legal action against the abusers—is if we give our money only to teachers who teach, practice and embody a healthy interpretation of the teachings. Organisations cannot survive without student’s money, so the corrupt will die out, or at least diminish. So be careful where you spend your money.
Of course, we don’t need to have just one teacher. We can have many. You Tube is full of free teachings from many teachers, and in vajrayana practice we use a symbol representing all the great teachers, not just one. If Guru Rinpoche has bad connotations for you, then try the ah symbol used by Namkhai Norbu.
I ask “What now” again now because this blog is winding down. I’m done with Rigpa. They’re a lost cause. This blog’s focus on Sogyal’s abuse and Rigpa management’s cultish manipulations of students limits the scope of it, and my interest is moving towards the wider issues of following a spiritual path—or forging our own—and back to my own spiritual practice and writing. I shall be in retreat from Dec 26th to Jan 21st.
There might be a different blog to take over from this one in the new year, but I’ll let you know. If we get another reply to our letter to the lamas, we’ll post it, of course, but other than that, we’ll wait and see what arises from my retreat.
Thanks to all of you who have engaged in conversations here over the last eighteen months; I hope you all have a happy holiday season.
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