Who needs facts when we have the Internet?

Guest Post by Sandy Clarke

Hatred is never appeased by hatred in this world. By non-hatred alone is hatred appeased. This is a law eternal. There are those who do not realise that one day we all must die. But those who do realise this settle their quarrels. – The Dhammapada

So bizarre do I find the notion that I’m behind the ‘Indy Hack’ persona that I struggle to know where to begin in presenting this guest blog. I’m grateful to Tenzin Peljor for providing me the opportunity to offer some of my thoughts on the issue, and to give insights into my brief experiences with Tsem Rinpoche and his Kechara organisation.

From the outset, I wish to say that I’m reluctant to write about either issue: as some on both sides of the argument will know all too well, there are always enough people to fuel the fire. Progress towards an amiable conclusion is a rare gem to be found as controversial discussions evolve and heels are dug deeper into the ground. I’m also keen to avoid dishing out unnecessary criticism. My thoughts here reflect my experiences, and in no way attempt to define any organisation or person in their entirety. I don’t say this out of any fear of retribution or criticism; rather, I say it simply because I don’t know enough to make such judgements or assessments.

Recently, I was mentioned in a (now deleted) tweet by someone who asserted that I was Indy Hack. Prior to this tweet, I had never heard of the Indy Hack persona. According to the Indy Hack Twitter account, the person(s) is apparently from the UK and a journalist, but that’s where the similarities end with regard to the tenuous linking of us both by people who seem eager to jump to wayward conclusions.

Needless to say I don’t know of any affiliations Indy Hack may or may not have to Buddhist organisations or individuals, but some have offered up the idea that I work for Tsem Rinpoche and am attempting to smear the Dalai Lama and his supporters in relation to the Shugden controversy. As someone who tries his best to practice Buddhist principles, it seems to me rather un-Buddhist to smear or be aggressive towards anyone – I can’t imagine any circumstance which would lead me to be a part of – let alone run – such a campaign.

Further, I have very little idea of what the Shugden controversy is, and have even less interest in finding out more beyond what I do know. From my experience as a political journalist, I’m all too aware that debates, in which views and feelings are deep-rooted, rarely come to a conclusion in a short while: an extra voice is often a hindrance more than a help. Suffice it to say, my knowledge of the Shugden issue is negligible. I can no more explain the basics of the matter than I can Quantum Theory.

It’s true that I was, for between two-to-three years, assisting Kechara with some writing and editing work on a freelance basis. I randomly discovered Tsem Rinpoche around seven years ago while watching some videos on Tibetan Buddhism on YouTube and I was, as many others have been, intrigued by his character and charisma, and so I got in touch to see if I could offer my services in any way.

It’s also true that I became captivated by Tsem Rinpoche and his organisation, despite thinking at the time that I was too clever to be caught up in such nonsense. I even wrote embarrassingly gushing and saccharine tributes to Tsem Rinpoche (to save you the hassle of looking, one letter can be found here and a verse can be viewed here). These are examples of how easy it is to get caught up in a romanticised ideal, rather than producing anything of worth based on rational thought and reason. I don’t make any comment on Tsem Rinpoche’s character here – I merely admit a foolishness that can arise from being enthralled by a rose-tinted interpretation of personality.

I disassociated myself from Kechara after a few concerns became one too many. To a degree, I remained sceptical throughout, finding the ritualistic, superstitious aspects of the organisation a bit too fantastical for my tastes. I also disagreed with the “one lama one centre” policy that discouraged associates to seek teachings elsewhere.

There were two occasions that bolstered my decision to disassociate myself from Kechara. On the first occasion, I was told a story by an e-Division member that a disciple of Tsem Rinpoche’s was told to sell 108 Tsongkhapa statues in order to get rid of some heavy karma. She apparently failed to meet this target and died of cancer some months later.

On the second occasion, a personal assistant to Tsem Rinpoche at the time advised me that I could have my karma cleansed by monks during a special ceremony at Ganden monastery … for the small sum of £1500. Even as someone who was captivated by the teachings of Tsem Rinpoche, this leapt out along with the story about the student as being, quite frankly, bonkers. It was at this point that I realised Kechara was definitely not the place for me.

There are other incidents that gave rise to concern, but I trust these examples give a flavour of why I came to have my reservations. The organisation certainly seemed to be keen on welcoming new people into the fold. I was sent a box of gifts to my home in Scotland (including a statue of Tsongkhapa, with whom I apparently (paraphrase) “shared a strong affinity”), and a number of the Kechara members were extremely friendly and welcoming. There was lots of talk of “bringing people into the Dharma” which, although I found strange considering the Buddha seems to have discouraged evangelism, I dismissed at the time as being par for the course at Kechara. I was quite happy to help with the transcription, editing, and writing of publication material (for which I was paid), but I wouldn’t say I ever felt part of the Kechara organisation to the extent others clearly were.

The last correspondence I had with Tsem Rinpoche was via Facebook. We had what I thought to be an engaging debate on vegetarianism in relation to animal suffering. As in the famous Kalama sutra, Buddha strongly encouraged free inquiry and the questioning of scriptures, assumptions and even teachers. As Kechara members leapt to the defence of Tsem Rinpoche (as though he needed it), I was asked who I was to question his views, or comment on the Buddha’s teachings when I am nowhere near the same level of attainment. It’s perhaps at this point the last of my naivety in relation to Kechara fell away.

This last communication was around five years ago. I haven’t been in touch with Tsem Rinpoche since then, nor have I had any dealings with Kechara except for one email I received out the blue recently, offering me freelance work. I politely declined. It would appear that some people have been keeping tabs on what I’ve been up to (which feels weird), and so perhaps my work with a management consultancy firm in KL, Malaysia inspired the idea that I’d be keen to make a reconnection. Needless to say, I have no desire to do so.

I’ve been told – though I’ve been unable to verify as yet – that there may have been posts published recently relating to Tsem Rinpoche, written in my name. If such posts exist, critical or otherwise, for the record, I haven’t written anything for or about Tsem Rinpoche or Kechara since my last communication with him five years ago, nor do I intend to write anything along those lines in future.

I also noticed that a commentator on Tenzin Peljor’s blog appears to have suggested that a member of Kechara’s e-Division has offered rumours implying that I am behind the Indy Hack persona (though I appreciate I may have misinterpreted the comment). However, if it is the case, I have no idea why anyone would spread such a rumour, and would be disappointed to think it started from a Buddhist organisation. Again, it could easily be that I’ve completely misinterpreted the comment.

That I found myself to be involved in a weak conspiracy theory left me bemused; that the person(s) behind Indy Hack has caused some people some grief is upsetting, though I suppose he or she would argue that the people they’re “exposing” are the ones causing the grief. I have contacted one other person besides Tenzin Peljor with regard to this issue, namely Carol McQuire – both of whom I found after reading through a couple of blog posts, and tweets from the Indy Hack account. The reason I point this out is to, hopefully, avoid any assertions that I am, in fact, in the Dalai Lama’s employ, or that of MI5 or Mossad or whoever – my life is much too mundane to be part of some spiritual vigilantism, misguided or otherwise. I’ve perhaps inadvertently written a controversial line on politics, HR or business, but that’s as far as it goes.

For the past five years, I have been inspired by and attempting to follow Theravada Buddhism, discovering that the teachings of Ajahn Mun and Ajahn Chah resonate most with my understanding and appreciation of Buddhism. After my dealings with Kechara, I decided to take the revolutionary step of actually reading the teachings of the Buddha, to take my lead from the source. It can be, in my experience, easy to forget that even the most charismatic modern-day spiritual teachers are flawed beings. To accept any idea without question is silly – to accept everything without question is to actively engage in serfdom.

On a person note, I find it sad that there is so much politics within what is supposed to be a religion of peaceful spiritual practice. It seems easy enough to read verses of, say, The Dhammapada, but much more difficult to heed its advice and warnings. Online aggression and bullying – regardless of where it comes from – is entirely disheartening, and doubly so when much of it is carried out anonymously. It’s sad to see that we’ve reached the point where we forget there are people on the other side, with stories, thoughts, feelings and emotions just like ourselves. Were it not for his equanimity and wisdom, I suspect the Buddha would feel like banging his head against the wall, given that we so often we miss the point of his teachings.

I’d like to thank Tenzin Peljor once again for providing me with a platform to express these thoughts. I don’t intend to write any further on the subject, and I apologise to anyone who may have been offended by anything I have written. As I mentioned earlier, my thoughts are based on the limited experience I have had with Kechara, and I stress again that I don’t know nearly enough about the organisation, Tsem Rinpoche, or the Indy Hack persona to make a bona fide judgement. I’m able only to share some of the experiences I’ve had, and why I disassociated myself from the organisation.

On a final note, perhaps an idea for us all to consider is to check the facts before reaching what we feel to be substantial conclusions. There have been, again on both sides, some ugly, needless criticisms levied at individuals – this isn’t the ideal way to behave, though I should thank the person who said all I brought to the table was an NUJ membership, bad poetry and banalities – a good lesson on ego was provided! A slight correction is in order though: I no longer bring an NUJ membership to the table.