Abuse is abuse: we live in the world of conventional reality

I find it very troubling to realize the general quietism about and surrounding the issue of Sogyal Rinpoche and the responses to it, especially among Tibetan netizens and the community as a whole. This is major news in the international Buddhist community yet our media outlets (Phayul, Radio Free Asia or Voice of America Tibetan service) have considered it insignificant or taboo, and very few individuals seem to be following the controversy and the responses on social media. This absence of coverage, comment or criticism connecting to this well-known Tibetan Buddhist figure tells us something about the general mindset of Tibetans, our unquestioned faith and uncritical judgment toward our religious figures, and ignorance of social justice issues outside of our ‘political’ cause. However, that is beside the point. Here, I intend to discuss and comment on Sogyal’s case in light of the strikingly different responses from the His Holiness Dalai Lama and Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche (DKR), respectively. 

Sogyal Rinpoche was recognized by Dzongsar Khyentse Chokyi Lodro as one of the incarnations of Terton Sogyal (another famous incarnation being Khenpo Jigme Phuntsok). Sogyal is best known for his bestseller The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying (1998), and with over hundred Rigpa centers around the world, he has become one of the most popular Tibetan Buddhist teachers in the West. Controversies surrounding his abusive behavior have been around for decades, however, Sogyal remained untarnished by those allegations until two weeks ago when he had to “take a step back” from teaching and “retire” as the director of Rigpa sangha. He was forced to do so after this 12-page long letter of allegations of abuse by current and ex-Rigpa members. The letter details the unfathomable hypocrisy and deeply unsettling misbehaviors of Sogyal towards sangha members close to him from emotional and psychological to physical and sexual abuse. It also remonstrates with Sogyal for his gluttonous and lavish lifestyle fixated on a “continual supply of sensual pleasures.” As expected, the letter sparked much debate and discussion on the character of Sogyal, the problem of patriarchy and conformism in Western Buddhist communities, and the need for critical vigilance and critique in the event of such circumstances.

The Dalai Lama denounced the ethical misconduct of such Buddhist teachers, and specifically with regard to Sogyal’s case by saying, “Sogyal Rinpoche, my very good friend, but now he’s disgraced. Some of his own students have now made public their criticism.” The Dalai Lama urges everyone to critically examine the teachings by any teacher as encouraged by the Buddha to investigate his words. He counsels people to protest and publicize in the event of such cases by suggesting, “These people do not follow Buddhist advice, Buddhist teachings. Only thing you can do is make public —through the newspaper, through the radio. Make public.” The Dalai Lama understands how such ethical misconduct of Lamas could deface and damage the reputation of Tibetan Buddhist institutions and clergy in general, but that is not his main concern, what really disconcerts him seems to be the grave ethical transgressions of Sogyal. Protesting vehemently that such actions are “totally wrong,” he then quotes the Tibetan philosopher Tsongkhapa who stated, “If the teachings are in accord with the Dharma, then it should be followed, and if the teachings are in discord with the Dharma, then it must be opposed.” The Dalai Lama’s call for scrutiny and critical engagement in Buddhism is neither new nor surprising, but it is fair to say that it was his critique that finally struck Sogyal to the point of retiring and entering into a “period of retreat and reflection.” The Dalai Lama’s statement comes at the rescue of Buddhist ethical and moral system in a degenerate age where Buddhism has become a commodity and its market is rife with self-aggrandizing and ostentatious Lamas and Rinpoches of all kind and color.

As I shall elaborate in the following, DKR’s response to Sogyal’s issue is disturbing for a number of reasons. Ever since he shared his views on same-sex marriage or ‘feminism’, which became widespread in social media, DKR began to personify a rather liberal and progressive teacher with his distinctively free-spirited teaching style. Therefore, it is even more shocking to see this ‘uncharacteristically’ conservative stance on Sogyal’s controversy which, intentionally or unintentionally, defends Sogyal Lakar by victim-blaming and by taking a flight from conventional reality of existence and moral framework into the non-dual vajra world –into pure perception or non-conceptual and pre-morals realm. While he questions Sogyal’s qualifications as a Vajrayāna teacher, DKR blames the students for their credulity and for their lack of resoluteness to enter into Vajrayāna practice “voluntarily” with the knowledge of what the Samaya entails and then to fall back to judge and criticize one’s guru. There are a lot of unpacked presumptions in this statement, as revealed by the victims in the documentary In the Name of Enlightenment, many of the victims were young and emotionally vulnerable women who for various reasons had come to Dharma for refuge, and Sogyal preyed on such individuals without proper training or providing necessary conditions for such a commitment. So the premise of “voluntariness” is indefensible and unforgivable.

Now, in contrast to the Dalai Lama’s call for the critical examination of teachers and their teachings, DKR unequivocally states that one cannot judge or criticize the guru once the student received his or her initiation and stresses that it is a fundamental view of the Vajrayāna tradition, unalterable and immutable. DKR is patently adamant and “puritanical” here as he refuses to entertain even the possibility of a slight modification to this antiquated student-guru relationship in order to adapt to our current socio-moral world.

DKR can, of course, defend Vajrayāna Buddhism and particularly the fundamentals of Samaya and its implications for the student-guru relationship, but by defending it in the context of Sogyal’s controversies, DKR provides a ground for justifying Sogyal’s grave abuses. With all these victim-blaming and the excuses of procedural mistakes and incompetence with regard to admission to the Vajrayāna sangha, DKR tries to unload guilt, moral responsibility and accountability from Sogyal’s shoulders. It shifts the centrality of the issue from Sogyal’s abuse of his students to this age-old student-guru relationship and the strictures on Vajrayāna practitioners.

No one should be troubled by DKR defending Vajrayana Buddhism, but his avoidance to name Sogyal’s evidence-based abuses as abuse is deeply unsettling. His frequent philosophical flights into the all-transcending primordial state of pure perception is all good if he doesn’t return back to the world of conventional reality with statements like the following: “On balance, I would argue that Sogyal Rinpoche has contributed far more benefit to this world and Buddhadharma than harm.” This kind of unfounded utilitarian judgment is seriously problematic and detrimental to the future of Dharma and particularly of Vajrayāna Buddhism in the West. It not only deflects the issue at hand but also comes to Sogyal’s aid. This kind of statement only complicates and confounds the simple matter of abuse and violence. Moreover, DKR’s arguments by analogy in defense of violence and abuse with the quasi-mythical tales of Tilopa and Naropa or Marpa and Milarepa relationship have little merit with regard to today’s world. Such relationships are “outdated” practices and attitudes of the past that need to be disavowed and discarded.

DKR claims that Sogyal is/was following in the footsteps of Chogyam Trungpa, who was hugely successful in the West as a Vajrayāna master, without sufficient training in Buddhist philosophy or Vajrayāna tradition. But DKR’s own judgment of Trungpa seems a little too overplayed when he claims that Trungpa was “the only” Lama who really understood Western culture and “acted on it appropriately.” While we cannot discount Trungpa’s success in disseminating Tibetan Buddhism in the West, we should also remember that he was not free from controversy. Perhaps Trungpa was a more learned and skillful teacher than Sogyal, but such anachronistic comparisons ignore how times have changed even in the last few decades. The technological revolutions such as the Internet have brought and are bringing speedy and significant changes to our political and socio-moral world, and our Dharma teachers, especially Vajrayāna teachers, must be cognizant of such changes and carry out Dharma activities accordingly. Doesn’t the concept of skillfulness or expedient means (upāya) apply to this brand of Buddhist teachers? Or, again, are their teachings above and beyond all ethical considerations? Or, is this whole controversy a crisis of upāya on the part of Sogyal Lakar? As spiritual leaders and teachers continue to teach Buddhism and in particular the Vajrayāna teachings and practices around the world, one must reexamine and refine one’s upāya (Tib. thabs) in communicating and promoting the Dharma. Historically, the prevalence of practicing Vajrayāna Buddhism without proper training and qualification was one of the main causes of degeneration and disappearance of Buddhism in India, and if we don’t safeguard the Dharma from such grave transgressions Vajrayāna practices could be the seed of Buddhism’s destruction or self-destruction in the West or anywhere in the world.

21 thoughts on “Abuse is abuse: we live in the world of conventional reality

  1. Thank you very much for this well thought out article! I am especially happy to see a Tibetan taking a stance on this issue and on DKR’s and Tibetans’ response (or non-responses) to it.

    So far, IMO, only HH the Dalai Lama and Mingyur Rinpoche have shown true leadership and both gave clarifications much needed on these issues. (Also Matthieu Ricard’s statement, »A point of view«, on his website is very helpful … among others he says, »I have also no reason to doubt the truth of these facts and testimonies, which describe the abuse that various people have suffered at his hands. I know two of the authors of the letter and I consider them honest and trustworthy«, Ricard also calls the actions by Sogyal Lakar »unacceptable behaviour« and he clarifies the role of the Dalai Lama in Tibetan Buddhism.)

    I don’t know if you read Mingyur Rinpoche’s article which could be read as a reply to the letter of the 8 signatories to Sogyal Lakar. Its far more clarifying and compassionate than DKR’s piece: https://www.lionsroar.com/treat-everyone-as-the-buddha/

    The silence of Tibetans and Tibetan lamas might be basically a cultural issue. It seems Tibetans and especially Tibetan lamas are extremely restrained with criticism (far more in the public) and often might not be able to take criticism either. This attitude of being extremely restrained with open criticism towards Tibetan lamas or in general to human beings might be further sustained by a Lojong Mind Training attitude. However, the Buddha and the procedures described in the Vinaya are very clear about criticism as an important part of a healthy spiritual development and of a healthy Sangha (community).

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      • Today advice is for romantic love mistake. Fall in love someone today the result will be going to court. Love can make you blind and tell each other all the secret things when you will go to court tell your secret things to the public that time feel each other like stressful. Love can make you momentarily enjoy but result can create future lover of your enemy. Love can make you invitation for going to hell because if something not working creates lots of negative. Why people are not making positive love? need to do practice mediation whatever come up will make positive love. Non attachment love like shits coming from our dear body when come out no tension.

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  2. Your article is correct ( in my opinión) in one side, the relative. GR abused bis disciples because there is a dominant position, like doctor/patient, therapist/patient. Saying that this is using violence, is a bit excessif. But anyway, you are right. He must be dennounced. Where you are wrong is in how you understand DKR ‘ s statement.
    DKR talks about how difficult is to critize another Lama, he says that the disciples do not want to hear any comment. He has bad expériences. All this points out the reality.
    But the main issue concerning DKR lettre is how Vajrayana fonctions. It all depends on disciple’ s view. Naropa saw Dordje Chang where others would see a freak! And this is the way Vajrayana is. You can not change that dur to social, económics or even INTERNET factors. How can you explain then that a westerner abandons all his belifs to follow this exotic and strange ideology? Dealing wuth the vajra master is a very intimate thing. One Lama can be seen by others as a compassionate sweet man or woman. But you can see him/her as a butcher, as someone that comes to stab you in your stomach and then stears the knife arounf…. that’ s the Vajara master. It is ok if you di not want this relationship or if you do not trust this. But this is Vajrayana, you like it or not. And this is what DKR is talking about. I also belive that there is. Sensible issue that must be clarify, the samaya.
    If you see à Lama that gave you initiation misbehaving you can of course abandon this Lama. If you consider that the initiation was given by the Deity himself, directly to you, nothing wrong. We see great lamas that suddenly they go into negative deeds. This possibility exists. Also a tulku means there is a potentiel in that person, but if not well developed becomes ordinary or even dangerous.
    If you have a pure vision, the main Vajrayana vow, nothing will affect to you. But you have to deal with doubts, mistrust, weakness. Not all the disciples are the same. Some have excepcional capacities. They can support situations others can not. It is faulse that old time masters examples are demodé, out of Time.
    Dalai Lama and Mathieu Ricard are valid persons to say their opinion. First of all as friends and as Gelougpa head and geloug monk. But their voices are considered in their domain. Each school has it’ s peculiar and original way of understanding and practising the Dharma. There is a continous attempt to put all the schools under the Dalai Lama authority. But this will not occur.
    So Vajrayana will always be Vajrayana, with or without technology. I haven’ t met DKR . Y respect him because of his words. He is one of the few ones that speaks about what nobody wants to talk about.
    Trungpa was à great scholar, the brightest in transmitting in a new era, comino to the West.
    But hé misbehaved seriously and there were very negative results and suffering for many persons . The Guru has engagement and comittments as very well explained by DKR.
    Those who want to practise sutrayana is ok, but Vajrayana is ok aswell.

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    • Well the whole point of this retort was to stress the point that the main issue concerning DKR’s response should have been about calling out abuse for what it is. If he was to defend Vajrayana he should have addressed it accordingly. But after calling out SR for what he has done and the concrete harm he has caused the group of students who were both “vulnerable” and “uninitiated” to be taken on as a Vajrayana students, period. That’s what the article should have done, rather than going on and on defending a system of Buddhist teaching he does nothing but expose how conducive it is to abuse and violence, partially victim-blaming with his unfounded and overly simplified analysis of voluntary human behavior, and above all, daring to point out that may be, overall SR has done more good than harm. Nothing could be more insulting to the victims of his abuse and characteristic of moral ambiguity in calling out this clear case of abuse. Perception is not the issue here, the facts are quite clear and doesn’t take much to recognize who has been abused by whom. Stop trying to sweep it under the transcendental rug of no absolutes and perceptions. The last thing you want to tell a victim is that it is perhaps their perception that they were abused, only if they could choose to see it in another way.

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  3. Thank you so much for this article, thanks for contributing to this crisis with what appears to me the most clear and direct explanation of the issues at stakes. I wish more Tibetans to speak their mind and maybe together we could use this crisis to adopt new resolutions that will impact Buddhism for good everywhere, starting by our own backyards in the west !

    I wish other Nyigma-Pa teachers would have the courage to frontally speak about this issue in the way you did it, acknowledging and not drifting the debate on side issues is key for survivors to find ways to rebuild trust and understanding about themselves and Buddhism in general, thanks for speaking up !

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    • Kungyal la, thank you for sharing your views. Please share and spread the word on social media. As Tibetans in the West, we have to realize that we have a role and responsibility in the future of Buddhism and of Tibetan Buddhism in the West. More importantly, this is not just about Buddhism, it is an issue of social justice!

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      • Totally agree about being an issue of social justice, do you have an email so I contact you ? by the way, any comment approved here will go directly to twitter, same for other blogs enabling discussions on these matters. if you publish other posts about whatever issues you think need to be addressed, these posts too, will land on twitter.

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  4. I respectfully disagree with a couple points you made, namely that Vajrayana Buddhism can be “modified” even in a slight way. As I have spoken with Vajrayana teachers about this and they are also clear about the fact that it can’t be modified in any way, in the slightest. I do agree about the using skillful means though, I think that is very true especially when addressing a Western audience in today’s world. I am definitely in support of Dzongsar Khyentse defending Vajrayana Buddhism and am very thankful for it. The part where Dzongsar Khyentse praised Sogyal’s work in the west, although I can understand how it might put off people, I believe that was to maintain that no matter how low Sogyal may fall, his book and the benefit it has brought to people need to continue. So although the victims of Sogyal’s reckless and harmful actions may be in need of sympathy and deserve compassion, I believe we also need teachers who won’t give them that. I don’t think every teacher should have the same exact words and reactions to everything, partly because all of us aren’t the same. So I don’t really know much, I just have to defend a teacher that I agree with. I appreciate that you have given your opinion, so I offer one that will hopefully make some people think about it.

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  5. I wish the people who have had to suffer from this be able to find the freedom, which has no need for judgement as that in itself gives so much suffering. Any lama who has been so kind to give a reflection on the issue and to give us some way or clue how to deal with this is just so kind! Be it HH Dalai Lama, Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche, Mingyur Rinpoche or Matthieu Ricard. Still it is upto us what we hear, understand or rather want or be able to hear or understand. It doesn’t change the precious dharma one single bit.

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  6. Having read DKR’s statement fully, I don’t agree with your assessment which seems to imply that he didn’t find fault with Sogyal Rinpoche or that he was somehow not supportive of the students involved. I came away from reading the full statement feeling that he is drawing direct attention to Sogyal Rinpoche’s shortcomings and even states that from his own experiences at the centers and his own knowledge of Sogyal Rinpoche, Sogyal Rinpoche’s students cannot be held to the level of scrutiny one may hold a Vajrayana practioner to.

    I appreciated that DKR took the time to lay out a truly long and laborious look at the whole system and explain the ins and outs of difference in culture and tradition. It seems clear that the degenerate age is upon us regardless, and part and parcel is this over-looking by all of us of the misdeeds of those in power (in all walks of life).

    I also agree with DKR’s sentiment that there is and has been positive fruit from Sogyal Rinpoche’s work. I am fully aware of Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche’s at times unconventional and unethical behavior, and was made aware very early on in my own search for a teacher of Sogyal Rinpoche’s unethical behavior. That said, I have nothing but great respect for the kind role that they have played in bringing dharma to the west and for the role that they played in guiding me to my teachers -and influencing some my teachers (two who studied directly with CTR in CO) whose behavior is beyond reproach. One cannot deny that the fruit of both Rinpoche’s overall behavior is actually quite positive. But that doesn’t mean that individuals who interacted personally with them were not abused. Individually, we all see situations through the lens of our own karma and karma will play out between individuals in unique ways. I have a lot of empathy for the students who have been abused by their teacher. It’s a terrible thing and there’s no justification for the teachers bad behavior towards the individuals who allege they were abused, however I think it’s important to be careful and hold in the light the myriad of actions that emanate from the entirety of the teachers’ behavior and not just focus on that which we personally find disgusting or wrong.

    Perhaps, it’s a difficult concept for individuals to understand that their experience of one person may be quite the opposite of another person’s experience. Or that from horrible experiences, great good can arise.

    Thankfully, finally, Sogyal Rinpoche’s abuses were brought to light by the courage of the students who decided to speak out and I’m inspired by their courage and love for others in preventing the abuse from continuing. This is how it works and it’s the only way it works – now Sogyal Rinpoche is no longer in a position of power. If it looks like a snake but to you it turns out it’s a rope, then all well and good, but if it looks like a snake and is a snake to you then don’t engage with it.

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  7. Excellent commentary, thank you. I agree with your comments with the exception that I have yet to learn of any actual evidence that JKCL recognized SL as anyone at all. SL was a nephew of JKCL’s consort. SL spent time with JKCL when he was a child up to about 11 years as a result of being his consort’s nephew. But if anyone can prove that JKCL wrote a recognition letter and did a formal enthronement ceremony, please send along the proof. I believe to this day he was self appointed and opportunistic. And regarding the book, he did not actually write it per my understanding. 2 of his disciples wrote it (not SL) and based it off of some of his teachings, though his name was on it and he got a lot of money from it as a result.

    But I applaud all else that you wrote! I feel DKR missed the point entirely… failing to properly and directly address how wrong SL’s behavior has been for decades on moral grounds alone. This is not a vajrayana issue and lamas like DKR need to better clarify that this is a moral and ethical issue first and foremost. Unlike HHDL who is very very clear and direct.

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  8. If Yarlungpa Warriors commented during 6th Dalai Lama’s conduct, who will be who? All those homosexuals in the Gelukpa monasteries is still the biggest disgrace of Tibetan Buddhism.

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  9. Venerable Thubten Chodron the abbess of Sravasti Abbey in the USA, has given a series of talks in response to the attestations of abuse in Rigpa that many students have found really helpful in processing the revelations.

    The What Now? team highly recommended watching the following teachings and stated, »It is clear from her talks that she understands exactly what students are going through and the misunderstandings Westerners tend to have on certain aspects of the teachings.«

    What it means to see the teacher as a Buddha:

    When things fall apart:

    How could it happen:

    Confusion in Tantra:

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  10. Many people have beautiful body but always ugly mind. Some people have ugly body with ugly mind. Ugly mind are more danger than anything. If you would like to have beautiful mind, need to connect to Buddhist teaching and you will increasing your mind like waxing moon. Always beautiful inside and outside like lotus flower. In the world many intelligent people try to make peaceful by spending lots of money by doing meeting but meeting together is mostly useless. Still many killing and cheating in different countries. Some people realize Buddhist teaching is valuable but cannot practice. Because they are scared of losing their own ego.

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    • Barbarian definition is how many receiving precious Buddha teaching from lineage teachers to students. Students becoming very knowledgeable of Buddhist teaching life is more happy and positive. But never appreciation to lineage and teachers instead try to make obstacles for guru that means barbarian habits. If you make obstacles for guru but guru never lost his true happiness and positive attitude. Only looser is the students becoming like blind and barbarian again. It is many aeons unlimited suffer.

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  11. Except the truth, Guru is guilty, so are students who followed their guru. We have a saying in Nepali, “nachna jandaina agannai teindo”, which means those who can’t dance complain that the ground on which they dance is not levelled.
    This is not new, we are all like this, we don’t like the person who says it in our face, when we are wrong. These things will never end, my advice to all the rigpa brothers, go in retreat,period!, now is the time, don’t you see.

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